Helping Communities Find Their Voice

30 12 2010

In 1999, the Peace Development Fund went on the road to work with the citizens of Waverly, Tennessee, a small stop along the stage coach road between Nashville and Memphis in the early 19th century. PDF grantee, Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), and PDF’s Community Media Organizing Program helped to organize the community to press for deforestation legislation and stop the clearcutting of Tennessee’s forests. Forestry legislation was eventually passed by the Tennessee State Legislature.

As important to PDF as this victory, was elevating the voices of community members by supporting SOCM in this media campaign. PDF believes it is the community members who can best speak for themselves, compellingly and with conviction. After all, they know it is their lives–and livelihoods–which are at stake.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1999

“Clearcutting Tennessee: A Save Our Cumberland Mountains Media Campaign” by Jane Wholey

WAVERLY, TENN – It is April 29, 1999 and our little band from the Peace Development Fund is sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of Gene Smith’s log cabin. Lauren Weidelman and Peter Siegel, media interns with the PDF Community Media Organizing Program, and I are exhausted – but jubilant. We have just helped Save Our Cumberland Mountains stage a major media event right here on Gene Smith’s land. All around us SOCM members and staff are reliving the day’s events – the reporters who flew in from all over the state, the power of straight-talking, everyday Tennesseans speaking out in front of the television cameras. As we relish every last detail, Gene and Judy Smith are refilling our beer glasses.

That morning, about 50 of us – SOCM supporters, media county officials, and curious neighbors – had trudged up a steep path to watch a unique news conference. The event had a specific goal: to build support for SOCM’s forestry legislation, slated for a vote in the state House of Representatives next week. The message SOCM intended to convey to the media – and thus to the people of Tennessee and its legislators – was this: Our forests are heading toward a major crisis. Forest industries must be regulated by law in order to solve the problem. Tennessee needs forest legislation this year.

The news conference took place in a shady grotto just big enough to hold our little throng. Behind the six speakers – sitting in folding chairs along a precipice that marked the edge of the Smith property – was a vista of shocking devastation. A bald spot spread before us that was bigger than 1,000 football fields: tree stumps, eroding hillsides, and dirt-clogged streams as far as the eye could see. It took less than a year for a juggernaut of high-tech logging machines to pulverize this patch of Tennessee’s ancient forest and feed it into a chip mill. By the time the wood chips were made into paper, the logging company had disappeared from the site, without repairing the damaged land.

The speakers that day were predominantly SOCM members from rural locations around the state. Each drove home in passionate, firsthand accounts how this particular vista was not at isolated example. Tennessee’s forests, they said, are disappearing at an alarming rate at the hands of new high-tech forest industries that are not accountable for their actions. The mission of these giant corporations? To supply the world with ever-increasing amounts of paper and paper products.

Plenty of reporters showed up that day, many of them flown in on private planes from around the state. (The fleet was organized by a SOCM member with an environmental flying service called Southwings.) The Associated Press and every major daily in the state wrote news articles. The Memphis, Chattanooga, and Nashville dailies published supportive editorials as well. The Knoxville Daily even published a hard-hitting cartoon. Ten Tennessee weeklies and several alternative papers published stories. Television coverage was strong; five network stations covered our event. Two of them presented a series of stories on the forestry crisis. In addition to the television coverage, nearly 300 radio news stories were aired around the state. On the national front, Sojourners magazine commissioned SOCM member Charles ‘Boomer’ Winfrey to report a story and syndicated columnist Alexander Cockburn wrote about us. The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” are both compiling feature stories as this newsletter goes to press.

Okay, we got media coverage – but did it help SOCM pass forestry legislation? Yes, according to Brian Paddock, chair of SOCM’s Forestry Committee. Says Paddock, “The media was really helpful. First of all, it made forestry a very public issue all around the state. The timing of the coverage had a lot to do with our success. Just as the legislation was coming up for a vote, our event was all over the news in Nashville. The legislators saw the coverage from their hotel rooms. They realized that the media was watching them. One particular legislator told me he saw the coverage in Memphis, his home city. He changed his position from lukewarm supporter to a strong advocate.”

The media campaign helped SOCM achieve its legislative goals. But if the truth be told – and SOCM would be the first to tell it – a one-shot deal like passing a law isn’t enough to justify the time and effort of a major media campaign. An organization keeps other goals as well – building a bigger and better reputation, empowering members, garnering new skills. Paddock says, “One legislator stood up at a committee meeting and talked about the bill ‘brought to me by the very well-respected organization SOCM.’ I felt that was very significant. The media coverage brought us new stature and visibility, too. It used to be that people called the state Department of Forestry when they wanted information about forestry issues. Now they call SOCM.”

SOCM is a member-run organization that encourages civic involvement and collective action so that the people of Tennessee have a greater voice in determining their future. The mission of SOCM is to empower Tennesseans to protect, defend, and improve the quality of life in their communities across the state. SOCM is working for social, economic, and environmental justice for all. We are committed to the journey of becoming an anti-racist organization. Recognizing our interdependence, SOCM is committed to overcoming social and institutional racism and embracing our diverse cultures. www.socm.org

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