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What do human “bees” do to save the rest of us from self-immolation?  They “cross-pollinate the grassroots.”

Two members of the Beehive Collective of Machias, Maine, explained their mission to an audience of their peers at Wash U while a few of us old folks watched in amazement.

The topic for the day was “The True Cost of Coal,” but Tyler Bee and Erin Bee explained the history of the collective and why they don’t use their real last names. Read more about their restoration of a 100-yr old Grange Hall and how their hard work earned them a new home.

These young, talented activists collaboratively decide which topics to research and then spend literally years visiting the sites, interviewing the people directly impacted, designing artistic representations of what they learn and producing curriculum materials for use by schools, environmental and social justice groups, or anyone who wants their copyright-free designs.

Their current work-in-progress is a mural depicting the history, destruction and current conditions in the coal mining region of Appalachia

The reason they use animals to depict human characters is to allow a universal appreciation of the message.  The artists painstakingly depict the actual living creatures and plants of each region studied right down to the 60+ varieties of ants found in one of their previous projects.  Frogs are main characters in the coal mining mural because frogs are an “indicator species.”  

Erin and Tyler explained the hostile environment that economic justice and nature lovers confront in coal country.  Despite a long history of union activism and solidarity with the miners, the local people are deathly afraid to be seen talking to “activists.”  Many of the local people have been propagandized to believe that environmentalists are inherently evil.  Despite being physically assaulted and terrorized, members of Mountain Justice continue to work toward saving what is left of the land these people love.

With mechanization of underground mining in the 1950’s, fewer miners were needed.  Now with mountain removal methods, one-tenth as many miners are needed as in the old days.  Consequently, over three million West Virginians have left the state looking for work.  When asked what their dream would be for the future of their state, the residents who remain said they want their families back together and to be able to raise their children in a healthy environment.

The recent disaster in Raleigh County had to be mentioned. Members of the Wash U audience were keenly aware of Massey’s record of safety violations and the comments made by the company president, Don Blankenship.  I looked up the median household income in Raleigh County.  The most recent date from 2007 showed that families are surviving (barely) on $25,000 a year.  Compare that to Blankenship’s salary of tens of millions.  It makes me sick to think we ever allowed our country to get this out of balance. President Obama has appointed a new head of the Mine Safety Board, so maybe we’ll see positive changes.  The good people of Appalachian coal country have been put in the cruel position of having to support themselves by destroying the land they love.

I, personally, am extremely thankful that there are young people like the Bees and the students at Wash U who will demand a rebalancing of the scales of economic justice in our country.  They are in it for the long haul.  As Erin Bee said, their group can educate and connect people to make significant changes here and now.  But they can also “Yell NO! at big scary things that won’t change in our lifetime.”  I hope their youthful idealism and hard work pay off for all of us.