Why We Fight: Stories of Activism, Advocacy, and Change in America

Dorothy Rader knotted her quivering hands together.

Four black-barrel holding tanks loomed three yards behind her, a reminder of the oil and gas industry’s claims for better jobs, better resources, better lives for the people of Appalachia.

A red cylinder injection truck roared up the gravel driveway and deposited its contents – all unregulated by the State of Ohio – into one of the tanks. Nobody seemed to notice the woman and the pocket of college students circling her, or nobody seemed to care.

“We know the tactics they use,” she said, shaking her finger to a cluster of hovering microphones. “We know, to some degree, how to oppose it, but this” – she waved to the injection well site behind her – “is a horse of a different color.”

Dorothy, now 68, has been an environmental activist, fighting various initiatives in the name of human health, for almost 25 years. In return for her well-voiced opposition, she’s endured neighborhood mockery and received mysterious telephone calls to her southeast Ohio home in Coolville, roughly 90 miles southeast from Columbus. But a lingering threat remains: Her property well could be the next resting place for the frack-fluid waste no one in the industry wants to keep.

“On the advertisements on television right now, they say, ‘The oil and gas industry is booming! There are jobs!’ ” Dorothy gestured with her many-ringed fingers towards the barrels again. “ ‘This will make your community absolutely profit! Yes, this is the way to go!’ And I told Jim the other day, ‘Yep, heard that before.’ ”

Jim, her husband, just stood there, arms crossed comfortably over his chest. He let Dorothy do most of the talking – this was her battle, after all.

On that bitter morning in October 2014, Dorothy told the story of her resistance to fracking and injection well exploration in Athens County. A group of exchange students, visiting Ohio University from Germany, surrounded Dorothy with cameras and questions. They seemed confused at the American phenomenon that has become our energy infrastructure: How could a nation as prosperous as our own be profiting off of back-handed energy transactions, like the ones in Coolville?

Back then, Dorothy’s story made her a front-runner for environmental activism. She was an active participant in the Concerned Citizens of the Coolville Area (CCCA) group, who had fought – and won – to prevent a medical waste incinerator from terrorizing the town. She was a woman who continued to oppose injection well sites, despite the oil and gas industry’s persistence.

Nothing – not even a 3,000-foot injection well – could stand in her way.

We’re all entitled to our own opinion.

Standing your ground, speaking out for what you believe is right — that’s what makes us different as human beings. But to advocates, this unique voice isn’t merely an opinion. It’s a calling. It’s a lifelong battle. It’s an almost always an obsession.

“People who learn that they have a unique opinion relative to others – who are in the minority – subsequently feel a more clear and coherent sense of self,” said Kimberly Rios, an assistant professor in Ohio University’s Psychology department.

Focusing much of her research on the minority voice, Dr. Rios has found that many advocates for the minority opinion tend to operate under three main motives: to maintain the self; to express strongly held attitudes; and to better the group as a whole.

This three-tiered pattern of motivation, followed by defining a stronger sense of the self, may have helped contribute – over decades and decades of social and political opposition – to the individualistic society America is known for today.

“In this society, we tend to define ourselves in really individualistic ways,” Rios continued. “When we find that we have a unique opinion, or we feel more strongly about something than other people do, then this helps to define who we are.”

Founded by a group of revolutionaries, the United States of America has a history ripe with activism, starting with the early colonists and continuing up until the modern era. Free to deviate from the norm in this New World, the colonists and their actions subsequently shaped the success of the Revolutionary War – and the nation’s legacy of opposition. Many of these initial political activist techniques, including campaigns, boycotts, and nonviolent resistance, are still in use today.

John Adams, one of the founders of this country, warned in 1815 that “[a] history of military operations … is not a history of the American Revolution. The revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people, and in the union of the colonies.” Likewise, Patrick Henry resorted to speeches – “Give me liberty, or give me death!” – before the colonies mobilized for war, while Susan B. Anthony, in the mid-1800s, petitioned for the right of women suffrage.

As the country industrialized and expanded both in territory and in global influence, other social movements emerged from the intersections of race, class, and America’s newfound military power.

Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most famous Civil Rights activists of the 1960s, united thousands of African-Americans under an umbrella of nonviolent resistance. William Thomas Hallenback, Jr., an anti-nuclear activist, sat 27 years in front of the White House – one of the longest peace vigils ever recorded in the U.S. Rachel Carson, author of the acclaimed Silent Spring, initiated the contemporary environmental movement during the 1950s through her writings and research.

Now, it seems that anyone can become an activist; just pick your battle. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, the students of nearby University of Missouri began protesting racial discrimination and bias within their campus administration. Feminists across the country have confronted sexual assault on college campuses, while the young people at Earth Guardians see climate change as a personal, moral issue regarding their futures.

It’s often these everyday, no-name activists, fighting for victims of environmental displacement, world peace, and racial justice reform, who supply the groundwork for a national movement. And in Ohio, a state that has secured every Republican president’s victory in U.S. history, that everyday activism influences the hearts and minds – and votes – of such an important swing state.

The stories of these activists, testimonies of advocacy at the grassroots level, are the unsung battlecries of social change around the globe. These people continue to fight, suffering emotional strain, family sacrifice, and sometimes even death threats, though they know they may not win. These Americans, from various geographical regions and socioeconomic backgrounds, continue to speak for change, so as long as their freedom of speech remains.

She told me she was worried.

She told me she felt defeated. She told me there was no other way but out.

“For me, personally, I just could not see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dorothy said. “You feel like, if they won’t even let us vote, what can we do?”

The woman on the other end of the telephone sure sounded like Dorothy, told the same story as Dorothy, but this voice – this seemingly shattered confidence – is not the Dorothy I met last year. This year, Dorothy tells a different story.

“I was on my knees one night because I was in a really bad state,” she said one evening in late October 2015. “And I said, ‘Lord, I can’t, I can’t get well. You’re going to have to help me get well.’ ”

Emotionally, Dorothy has had her ups and downs. Still undergoing therapy from the stress and fatigue of her stint as an environmental activist, Dorothy said I caught her “on a good night” – she doesn’t often talk about her activism anymore.

Since opposing the construction of a medical waste incinerator in the late 1990s, Dorothy has been in and out of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder – just one of the various, complicated psychological and emotional effects from being an outspoken environmental advocate.

“The active part of the battle, I just could not do it,” Dorothy said. “I didn’t like getting out of it, but I really had no choice. My nerves could not take it. This is a side effect of when you are involved in environmental struggles.”

Originally from “Bible belt” Jacksonville, Florida, Dorothy seems like an unlikely voice for Appalachian resistance. A proud southerner, Dorothy relocated with her husband Jim, a Vietnam Navy veteran, to Coolville, Ohio, just down the road from her in-laws’ farm.

“I still don’t feel I belong here,” she said with a chuckle, despite the decades she’s spent “up in Yankee territory.”

At first, it was the medical waste incinerator, starting in 1993, that got Dorothy up and fighting against the oil and gas industry here in Ohio. Worried about the possible widespread health effects – kidney failure, cancer, reproductive complications – of dioxin and other toxic chemicals floating around in the air from such an infectious medical waste incinerator, she started to raise her voice.

“It split the town of Coolville,” Dorothy said. “You could not even pray about it in church.”

When the pushback from oil and gas industry lobbyists started turning hostile, she almost fled – almost. If it wasn’t for Jim, Dorothy would have flown anywhere – back home to Florida, to live with other relatives down south, anywhere. But her husband was reluctant to abandon his family’s land.

“He, even in the height of the gas injection well battle that I was involved in last year at this time, said he would never leave here,” Dorothy said. “This was his home…he would not do it.”

Eventually, after much political pushback and mud-slinging between community members (“Brother against brother,” Dorothy said solemnly), the request for the incinerator dissolved. Dorothy was “cautiously optimistic” after the permit was denied by the State of Ohio in 1997; she thought her environmental woes were over.

Then the brine trucks showed up 20 years later.

“They will pick a place that they feel has no political clout,” Dorothy said. “They target us – we’re the throwaway part of the county.”

Athens County is currently one of the top destinations for the leftovers of hydraulic fracturing, the national energy extraction industry otherwise known as fracking. Unregulated, this fracking flowback fluid, a concoction of brine, wastewater, and other unknown chemical substances, is being injected into the ground by the barrel-load – over 2 million barrels of brine were injected into the ground across six different well sites in 2014 alone, according to reports from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).

Dorothy and several other environmental organizers didn’t exactly like the idea of unregulated chemical wastewater hidden underground, right below their backyards, in ever-expanding sites across the county. She was “called back into action” by Roxanne Groff, at the time one of the leaders of the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN), whom she worked with during the ‘Incinerator Battle.’ Dorothy began writing letters to her local paper, and was slowly pulled back into providing financial support for ACFAN’s lawsuit against the injection well company K&H Partners.

But this time, her efforts weren’t as successful.

K&H nevertheless acquired the particular injection well site Dorothy and her organizers opposed “by deceit,” she said. The injection well company purchased the site from local land-owners, promising to build a new hunting lodge on-site. That promise was never fulfilled.

“Obviously, that was not their true intention,” Dorothy commented in a recent email correspondence.

Then there’s the concern of private well sites being turned into fracking-fluid havens that’s still on the table.

For years, Athens County residents have sold mineral rights to various profit-seeking companies, in the hopes that their personal property wells could provide the naturally occurring gas found in this region of Ohio – and compensation. Dorothy and her husband Jim have two tapped wells on their property, both previously utilized for natural gas extraction.

“Back when Mr. Atha [Dorothy’s mineral rights owner] drilled our first gas well, we were thrilled!” Dorothy wrote in late January 2016. “It meant free gas for us and a small check each month.”

But now, one of those wells has run dry, and it’s possibly on the market for another purpose. Dorothy is concerned about “the possibility of the dry well being turned into another gas injection well” after a similarly dry well up the road from hers was turned into an injection site “to make money.” Any time soon, she says, her dry well could become the next resting place for fracking fluids.

“They still could decide to do it, we don’t know,” she said.

That constant worry of injection wells on her property and the unmarked telephone calls – Dorothy assumes they’re from oil and gas industry representatives – left her no choice but to back out of the fight. It was either her well or her sanity.

“It has many personal effects when you’re involved in an environmental battle,” Dorothy said of her 46-year marriage. “Your family suffers, your marriage suffers…that disturbance literally almost cost us our marriage.”

Now, on the other side of environmental activism, Dorothy reflected on her decades-long opposition to the oil and gas industry – and her eventual retreat from the environmental battlefield.

“This is not a light battle you go into with these companies, it is a deadly business,” she said. “Anytime you deal with the waste industry, you’re on the edge of the abyss. And that’s all I’ll say about it because it’s dangerous to say more.”

But instead of abandoning the battleground of activism for good, Dorothy has shifted her focus from an environmental agenda to a religious one. The Battle for Christ, Dorothy says, is one that she will never give up.

“I don’t feel the emotional stress from this battle, it’s just a battle that has to be fought…If it comes to what it’s come to overseas, where people are killed for it, I will stand up for Jesus Christ to the death,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. “I would never not fight for the Lord.”

He emerged, a little flustered, from the Washington Street coffee shop.

Neon-yellow flyers and lawn-destined signs were sandwiched between his two arms for an upcoming community rights event. With misty blue eyes, the kind that reminded me of my late grandfather, and a blue-green knitted sweater to match his thoughtful gaze, 75-year-old Richard “Dick” McGinn isn’t your typical peace activist.

Since 2005, he’s attended weekly peace vigil meetings in the City of Athens, but his dedication to the anti-war movement began nearly five decades ago.

“I’ve always been a peace advocate,” Dick said. “I wouldn’t say I’m against all wars – I think that’s too general – but I haven’t seen one yet that I liked,” he added with a hearty laugh.

Instead of going off to fight the war in Vietnam, like so many young men his age, Dick decided to join the Peace Corps in 1963. “That was my response,” he quipped. “My alternative was to go to Vietnam and fight – but for what?”

Originally from the state of Washington, Dick became interested in Southeast Asia studies early on in his college career, and even spent time in Indonesia for his dissertation at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He later became a professor at the Center for International Studies at Ohio University, where he taught Southeast Asian linguistics and language for 35 years.

More recently, he’s held an active voice against the war in Iraq. “I lived under dictatorships,” he said of his various travels across the South Pacific. “So I was pretty shocked at how [our] government was lying and manipulating people. It seemed very much like we weren’t living in a true democracy when the government could do something like that without being in any basis in fact.”

Dick is currently the spokesman for the Athens Bill of Rights Committee, where his passions for democratic voting principles and more recently the environmental movement in Athens County have taken him beyond peace activism.

“We’re basing it on rights – the right of the people to live in a clean, safe environment,” Dick said adamantly. “It’s a fight that we have to have! Otherwise, we’ve given up on democracy…We will win because enough people will wake up.”

Another quality that struck me about Dick, despite his lifelong dedication to social change, is his optimism. For someone who’s faced the threat of war, of unequal rights, and now of injection well companies, Dick is nevertheless faithful to the cause of citizen activism.

“There’s a certain point when you fight and you don’t expect to win…You have a duty to continue,” he said. “There’s no hope if there’s no activism.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t swayed by feelings of frustration, anger, and stress sometimes – quite the contrary. An activist’s life is not an easy life. But he continues to fight for the sake of his rights, and for the next generation.

“We’re going to have hope in this rights-based approach until we lose.”

Being an advocate not only impacts an individual but the person’s entire network of family and friends. The time and energy demands of opposition can cause tension between familiar relations, creating an extra burden on activists at home. Take Judy, for example: Dick’s wife. He admitted offhandedly that she sometimes refers to herself as a “fracking widow.”

I pressed him to explain. Dick replied that he’s gotten so caught up in his recent activist interest with the fracking industry – meetings, rallies, more meetings – that he’s often not at home anymore.

But, he added with a weary laugh, “I swear I don’t neglect her!”

Sounds a little like John Adams, I muse. John, being absent from home for much of his political lifetime, sent a total of 1,160 letters to his bound-to-be-lonely wife Abigail back on the family farm. She kept in touch, even vouched for women’s suffrage in early 1776, but his absence from home became just another side effect from early American activism.

The more recent environmental justice movement has become a blend of peace activism, the Civil Rights movement, and the traditional environmental movement, just like Dick’s interconnected causes. It’s a direct intersection of all these seemingly sporadic social movements and activist causes from over the past six decades, merging under one name.

And according to Stephen J. Scanlan, associate professor of Sociology at Ohio University, the environmental justice movement has become much more mainstream.

“The networks are the same,” Scanlan said. “Social movement diffusion – sort of a global phenomenon now – happens not just with tactics…but with the spread of ideas.”

Yet despite improving the lives of citizens through social change, activists themselves experience a variety of sacrifices – jobs, livelihood, health, and, often the most important, family – when it comes to changing the status quo.

She sat on the sofa, arms tucked in the folds of her sweater.

Muffled, mellow Pandora radio tunes echoed from the kitchen stereo system. Here, on a cool November evening – her only son, 11-year-old Jono, bounds down the staircase with Bear-the-dog in tow; her youngest daughter, 9-year-old Cori, reads a chapter book in the other living room – Michelle Alexander revisits her past.

“Once I began to see more clearly what was really happening in these communities I became, I would say, more than passionate,” the 48-year-old recalled of her early activist days, “I became nearly obsessed.”

I’ve tromped around in Michelle’s backyard with her three kids for nearly eight years now, yet I never would have known the extent of her racial justice work had I not asked her on this blustery afternoon. She helps her kids with their homework and shuttles her two daughters back-and-forth between soccer practices and dance lessons. Yet her overflowing passion for criminal justice reform hints at a much larger narrative of grassroots advocacy. It’s a cause she continues to fight for, even to this day.

Aside from being an Ohio State University associate law professor, Michelle is the New York Times bestselling author of The New Jim Crow, a text from 2010 that re-examines mass incarceration in America and its inherent racial bias.

“I’ve wanted to do justice work for almost as long as I can remember,” Michelle said with a hint of nostalgia, the fading sun casting shadows across her ever-youthful face. “I had this bug of caring about justice and being upset by the gap between what our stated, celebrated ideas are as a nation and what was actually happening.”

As a sophomore in high school, she remembers watching a documentary about an American woman’s execution, despite evidence presented at trial to suggest the woman’s innocence. Though Michelle couldn’t recall the title of the documentary, the impression of injustice left her scarred and a little flabbergasted.

“It just blew my mind,” she said. “I remember just having that sense of ‘How could this be?’ ”

Michelle grew up in a mixed-racial household: her mother was white, and her father was black during a time when it was still illegal in some states to marry outside of one’s own race. Together, her parents defied the norms of a generation fraught with racial tension.

“I grew up knowing that they had chosen their own love, and what they believed in, despite the disapproval of many people they cared about and loved deeply,” Michelle said. “And throughout my life, I was always aware of their sense of having to be true to what you believe.”

Michelle and her sister Leslie matured into adulthood with this sense of right overcoming wrong, regardless of whatever the law said about it. But, she admits her parents’ early optimism for racial equality was perhaps a little too rosy, a little too blind to the reality of race relations in the real world.

“In my youth, I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but it was like I wanted to finish the job,” Michelle said. “It really never dawned on me that we were actually in the business of re-creating systems that were nearly as bad as those we had walked away from.”

Recognizing that gap of racial inequality – her “awakening” is how she described it to me – is what drove her to work in racial justice reform.

Graduating in 1992 from Stanford University Law School, Michelle then went on to direct the Civil Rights Clinic at her alma mater, starting in 2002. It was around the same time that, after subsequently directing the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Michelle began seeking advice from her colleagues at Stanford on a “radical” book idea. The book would examine mass incarceration in African-American communities across America and hint at the underlying, ever-present institutions of racial profiling still in existence today.

Instead of encouragement for this rather bold endeavor early in her career, Michelle said she received unanticipated pushback from her peers and previous professors – people she thought would support her and her work.

“A number of them told me that if I wrote this book – wrote this book early in my career arguing that our criminal justice system functioned more like a system of racial and social control – that I’d be ruining my career,” she remembered hearing from her trusted advisors. “If I wanted to say something crazy like that, I should wait till I had tenure!”

Frustrated by the indifference she faced at Stanford, Michelle found a more receptive audience for her book project with John Powell at The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

But even after the book was initially published, it took an additional, somewhat agonizing two years before Michelle would be speaking to more than just a half-empty basement of supporters.

“When I was writing it, I didn’t expect that anybody was going to read it,” she said, laughing at the thought. “I had been told by a lot of people that it was the wrong message at wrong time, that I was making a mistake.”

Then she paused, smiled a little wistfully, and whispered, “But I really hoped and dreamed that it would be successful; I was almost embarrassed to admit it.”

Her motivation for writing the book stems from her experiences in California as a civil rights lawyer and advocate. “The people who I had met who are suffering, needlessly, and who are rising to the challenge in their own lives and ways that are just so awe-inspiring,” Michelle said as her motivation for the book project, remembering one woman’s transformational journey from crack-cocaine addict to women’s safe-home hero. “It was hard for me to give up knowing what others had faced and were not giving up in their own lives.”

Now, New Jim Crow has reached required reading status at several college campuses, including Brown University’s First Readings program in the fall of 2015, and has catapulted Michelle to speaking engagements and civil rights round-tables across the country. She’s even appeared as a commentator on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR and has written book reviews for The New York Times.

All along, despite the book’s success, Michelle has felt like she was torn between her work and her family, especially her young children. While the book had a message she thought needed to be heard, Michelle admitted she would “do it very differently” given the chance to relive her role as an a justice-system activist in the 21st century.

“Everyone has to figure out what that kind of balance looks like. Also there’s a temptation to want to imagine that you’re more important than you are to the work in the world,” Michelle said with a laugh.

Don’t get her wrong. At first, she was overjoyed with the amount of speaking requests she received to promote the book and her work.

“It was easy for me to tell myself that this was the most important thing that I could be doing – going out there and spreading the message,” she said. “Yet I see now, in retrospect, that I probably could have done half of those speaking engagements, or less, and still made a meaningful contribution and created a much better environment and situation at home than I did.”

Now, five years later, Michelle is working on a new book project, but this time, it’s not an academic text, critically examining the United States legal system. Instead, she’s focusing on the emotional, spiritual intersections of the racial injustice conversation through a collection of personal essays. And, she’s keeping her family a priority.

“It’s sort of a ‘be the change you want to create’ principle,” Michelle said. “If what we want to create a world where people and families are thriving, and peaceful and joyful, and where everyone is able to live healthy lives, fulfilling their potential, then we’ve got to find a way to be able to do this work and create that kind of experience in our own families and our own lives.”

These issues of justice, freedom, and equality and these abstract ideas about the implementation of such realities continue to circulate in Michelle’s mind; she’s nowhere near finished with this conversation. But she’s taking it all in stride, while inspiring the next generation of American thinkers, political leaders, social activists – or NBA basketball stars – along the way.

Ever so suddenly, Michelle’s youngest daughter Cori peers around the kitchen corner. Her frizzy hair and frantic eyes tell us something’s amiss.

“Mom, I can’t find my paper for reading.”

“Did you look in your green folder?” Michelle immediately responds.

“Yes, and it’s not in there.”

Michelle looks back to me, her eyes betray the want to continue this discussion but the need to ease her daughter’s worry.

I hold up my hands, the recorder, paper, and pen all but forgotten on the couch beside us. Do what you have to do, I nod knowingly. And just like that, Michelle is up off the couch and guiding her daughter to a peace of mind. The memories of her past still linger quietly in the fading darkness.