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Listening Project:

The Dayhoit Listening Project
by David Grant

"People around here are afraid to speak out. Harlan County is where the coal companies have held power, and people are used to being under under the thumb of the company store." These were some of the first words we heard in southeastern Kentucky as we began working with the Concerned Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCATW). In my article "Grassroots Growing In Toxic Earth" (March/April 1991) we reported on CCATW's response to the forced closing of fourteen chemically contaminated water wells in March, 1989. The group continues to uncover the results of thirty-eight years of unregulated dumping of volatile poisons on the land and in the water of the Dayhoit community. In the fall of last year, after attending the Save The Planet/Stop The Poisoning (STP) workshop at Highland Center, CCATW decided to conduct a survey to discover the full extent of damage to residents’ health.

"The group continues to uncover the results of thirty eight years of unregulated dumping of volatile poisons on the land and in the water ..."

We contacted CCATW and suggested that the survey they were considering might be expanded into a Listening Project. We suggested to them that, rather than simply documenting disease and disorder, the group could use a Listening Project to educate the community on the issue, to ask residents for their ideas and solutions, to overcome the reluctance of some to become involved, to identify new supporters and to promote CCATW's efforts.

Although it was a former worker from the factory responsible for the pollution who spoke the opening discouraging words, CCATW was nonetheless enthusiastic about expanding the scope of their project. As RSVP helped them to formulate the survey questions of the Dayhoit Listening Project, it became evident that CCATW were dedicated not only to a clean environment but also justice for residents who had been slowly poisoned for decades. If some people in Harlan County thought that it was still a company town, CCATW was an exception. These were people who were not going to be intimidated any longer.

After a couple of months of consultation and preparation, the day came for RSVP to give the training in "non-violent" listening to the two dozen volunteers assembled by CCATW. The people were all natives who knew each other and were connected to the pollution at Dayhoit either by association with workers or by having lived in the neighborhood. Some of them were so angry at having been treated poorly by government and company officials that it was all we could do, as trainers, to keep them focused on the task of listening. Some of them wanted to bang on doors and shout answers!

Because CCATW wanted to find out whether every well had been tested and because they wanted to thoroughly document the actual effects on residents’ health, the group decided to talk to every household in the community. We explained that, even though the area was not heavily populated, that goal might be too ambitious since the listening project technique requires more time and involvement with individuals than the standard checklist survey. We explained that as long as a geographically representative area was covered, there would be a ripple effect upon the households that were not contacted. We also talked about "statistically-relevant samples". But the group would not be deterred. They wanted to talk to everybody...and although it took them a couple of months, they almost did!

Instead of finding closed doors and hostility, CCATW found support and welcome. As leader Joan Robinett put it:

"We'd never had a chance before to touch base with all the people in Dayhoit. The Listening Project helped people bring out things that normally they won't talk about. It was a great chance to understand their feelings and find out what the confusion and fears were".

Listening Project trainer Herb Walters found that several of the people he helped interview hadn't made the connection between their own health problems and the chemical contamination of the community. "One woman sat and responded calmly to our questions," Herb reports. "Then about halfway through, as she began talking about her child's recurring stomach problems that the doctors couldn't explain, I could just see her spark with a new realization. ‘I think maybe this chemical poisoning could be causing all these problems’, she said."

CCATW co-leader Monetta Gross also found an important change in attitude:

"For years people never questioned government, but now people are beginning to realize that the people are supposed to control the government... not the other way around!"

After knocking on over one hundred doors, CCATW found itself with a different kind of problem ...a desirable one. As joan Robinett put it:

"We found out people are really willing to help. We had lots of new people offer to help us. Five new people came to the last meeting. We have to be creative now about finding ways to involve people!"

The project also met the original intention of the group — to document health disorders. Using a computer program donated by the community college, some of the findings were transformed into traditional pie charts:

# No/Yes Kidney Problems # No/Yes Dizzyness # No/Yes High Blood Pressure

The survey documented which wells had been tested and uncovered the fact that some wells had been tested only for bacteria — not for the chemicals responsible for the poisonings. Another unexpected finding was the presence of a high number of people with learning problems. In the group's just-completed "Pee for Justice" (a kidney study), attention is now also being directed toward the relationship between learning problems and lead contamination. CCATW reports that this medically-supervised study was made much easier because of the community contact initially made through the Listening Project.

CCATW was also gratified, and relieved, to learn that over ninety-five percent of the residents were concerned about the pollution problem. Almost all residents were fully in agreement with CCATW's demands: thorough testing of the ground and water; citizen oversight of the clean-up; and longterm monitoring of residents’ health and treatment for those affected by the poisoning.

"This has been such a great thing for us," Joan Robinett said. "Its what we needed all along."

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