CSWS Grant Winner Uses Photovoice in the Appalachian Coalfields

Shannon Bell, front center, with the Harts Photovoice Group at their exhibit in West Virginia, April 2009.

Shannon Bell, front center, with the Harts Photovoice Group at their exhibit in West Virginia, April 2009.

Shannon Elizabeth Bell is a sociology graduate student with an activist’s heart. In her first grant application to CSWS, Bell noted that women are at the fore of the anti-coal movement in central Appalachia, stepping out of their traditional Appalachian gender roles to take an active leadership position in fighting the coal industry. Her scholarship has a mission—to help these women in low income coal-mining areas of West Virginia find more effective ways to use their voices through grassroots action.

“Mobilizing for Environmental Justice in the West Virginia Coalfields: Uncovering the Process of Cognitive Liberation through the Feminist Methodology of Photovoice” is a hefty title for a weighty project. Bell’s doctoral work caught the attention of the Center for the Study of Women in Society grant committee, earning Bell CSWS graduate student research grants totaling more than $4600.

Her doctoral dissertation drew her back to a land of scarred beauty. Bell had lived in southern West Virginia from 2000-2005 and returned again in 2008 to recruit women in five communities, giving them digital cameras and asking them to take pictures that “tell the story” of where they live. The photographs that these women captured included the majesty of seasonal changes and local plants and animals as well as the ugliness of strip-mining and trash dumps. For eight months, Bell met with the women in her five groups every three weeks to discuss the photographs, identify common community concerns, and communicate those concerns.

Bell encouraged the women she worked with to take action, and a few of them accompanied a Washington Post reporter to mountaintop removal mining sites. Some lobbied legislators about coal-related water contamination. Others, with Bell’s assistance, successfully lobbied to have long-neglected roads repaved. Still others are using their photostories about litter to work toward supporting a beverage container law.

Many of these photovoice projects can be viewed on Bell’s website. Additionally, a story about Bell’s work appeared this September on the UO College of Arts and Sciences website. Bell was one of two people awarded a 2009-2010 UO Doctoral Research Fellowship.  See story.