The people at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), a longstanding Joint Plan of Work partner of Virginia Organizing, have stood up to commonplace negative portrayals of Appalachia with the powerful insistence that the land and the people there are beautiful, diverse, and not only worth saving, but their fate is tied to the rest of ours. Popular stereotypes notwithstanding, Appalachia is at the center of the fight against extraction-fueled climate change, and our future depends on standing together shoulder to shoulder in the struggle.
SAMS is an organization of concerned people working to build just and equitable communities while addressing current and legacy costs of extraction in Appalachia. The genesis of the group was in 2005 when a 3-year-old child was killed when a boulder fell off an access road into his house. The road had been constructed illegally by a coal company. Outrage in the community catalyzed citizens to organize and hold companies accountable for their destructive practices and their impact on residents. The conversations grew as people called attention to the inherent problems with mining and its disproportionate impact on Appalachia specifically.
Adam Malle and Jess Mullins Fullen are SAMS’s Administrator and Lead Organizer respectively, and their backgrounds encapsulate the inherent diversity of the region. Adam might fit the stereotypical profile of an Appalachian man: he is white, and he grew up in a coal mining family and has family members who are still employed in the industry. Jess, on the other hand, is Black, and for many of her younger years wondered if she really had a place in the community. But she was raised by her grandparents in coal camp housing, and so shares the same history of mining and its impacts with her neighbors. She proudly calls herself Appalachian in defiance of the images the world has of the place.
And the land itself is beautiful and vibrant, and SAMS is fighting tooth and nail to make sure it stays that way. Their latest struggle is to stop the resurrection of the Ison Rock Ridge surface mine, but SAMS also puts considerable energy into monitoring decommissioned mines to make sure companies follow through on mitigation projects, and they played a significant role in mutual aid efforts in the wake of the flooding in Eastern Kentucky in the fall of 2022.
“The coalfields cross the arbitrary state lines,” Jess points out, so SAMS’s mission extends beyond Virginia, and they work in coalition with several groups who each carry a piece of the struggle. They helped to purchase and renovate a building in Big Stone Gap in Wise County called the Mountain Movement Hub, a cooperative venture where organizations can share office and meeting space.
“The purpose is to be a shared resource space to lift burdens off movement work, to expand beyond what individuals or organizations can do on their own,” Adam explains.
SAMS has had a joint plan of work with Virginia Organizing for several years, but is now in the process of spinning off to be its own freestanding nonprofit and an anchor for the Hub. It has grown in leaps and bounds in the last two years, and the key to its growth is people, the Appalachian community. From the very beginning their organizing has brought forth the voices and agency of people who have been stereotyped and dismissed in mainstream American culture for generations. SAMS gives the community a channel through which they can fight for themselves.
When asked for examples of energizing or encouraging moments, both Jess and Adam have exciting stories to tell: Jess tells of a miner named Buddy who cracked jokes about “tree huggers” at first, but then became an outspoken critic of the mining industry and its destructive effects on his community. Adam tells of people deciding not to move away from the area because of the community support they receive through SAMS. For both of them, and for everyone who has been touched by their work, SAMS is about finding community and using it as a space to make things better for everyone.