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Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, by Helen Matthews Lewis

September 2, 2018

The Lost Queen
Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, by Helen Matthews Lewis and edited by Pat Beaver and Judith Jennings.  University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

5 stars

The biography and writings of an outstanding activist and scholar in Appalachia and some of her colleagues.

Helen Matthews Lewis (1924-    ) was born and educated in the hills of northern Georgia.  In grad school at Duke University, she met and married Judd Lewis and the two of them went to Clinch Valley Community College to teach.  She began her lifelong project of working with the residents of the small, rural communities of Appalachia.  She finished her Ph.D. in sociology, writing her dissertation on the families in such coal towns.  Instead of focusing her energies on academic advancement, however, she used what she had learned to help local rural people understand the economic and historical contexts of their situations and come up with their own solutions. She came to exemplify what it means to be an activist scholar.

For Lewis, organizing was never a matter of giving people what you think they need. She was a warm, outgoing person, able to make friends quickly with a wide variety of people pushing them to decide what they needed and what could be done.  For years she worked with Miles Horton at Highlander and adapted his basic organizing philosophy of organizing which centered on community involvement.  Her work often focused on women organizers, in part, because they were the ones angry and available when the men were missing from the community, long-term or down in the mines.  She was also sensitive to religious commitment, living for a time with a community of ex-nuns.

As this book makes clear, Lewis was successful because she was articulate.  She could make her academic concepts clear to ordinary people, in the Appalachian communities and to readers today. She used the model that identified the region as an internal colony from which natural resources like timber and coal were exploited. Such practices benefited absentee owners at the expense of local people.  Visiting coal mining towns in southern Wales, she pointed out their similarities with communities in Tennessee, Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia.  In addition, some people credit Lewis with the creation of Appalachian Studies programs in colleges in this region. Such programs have become the source of scholarship about the area. These programs were also a way for people to know and evaluate their history and to support growing programs of participatory research.

Reading the words of Lewis and those who worked with her over the years is an inspiration.  In addition, she gives us a new conceptual framework for working with communities instead of working for them.  That framework is especially needed in our polarized country today.  Especially for those living and working in Appalachia.

I hope that many people will read this book and others by Lewis.  Unfortunately her books are not widely available even in the Tennessee mountains.  I have a copy of Helen Matthews Lewis, and would be glad to share it and any others by her that I can locate. Especially to those young and energetic enough to follow her example today.

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