Don Austin, assistant director of community service and leadership development, led an alternative spring break trip last week, where participants focused on environmental issues such as hydraulic fracturing and mountaintop strip mining.
Austin and a group of five Ithaca College students left March 9 and returned March 16. They visited West Union, W. Va., and made stops in southwestern Pennsylvania, where they visited sites of active fracking operations, interviewed community members about their experiences with these industries and rallied with locals against mountaintop removal.
Assistant News Editor Sabrina Knight sat down with Austin to discuss his spring break experience.
Sabrina Knight: What did you do on your trip?
Don Austin: We worked with an organization called Mountain Justice. Mountain Justice is a collective of concerned folks not only in central Appalachia but across the United States in general who are very much worried about the process of mountaintop strip mining as well as other extractive industries like fracking, who want to bring a diverse group of people together over the course of eight or nine days during spring break to educate folks, raise awareness on these processes and how they affect communities as well as the environment, how they affect local economies and hopefully empower folks about what they can do and how they can further educate people back in their homes in order to do that … We were able to examine a lot of different ways that the extractive industries impact communities.
SK: Why was the rally important to the community?
DA: Communities in West Virginia are trying to gain support from both political process as well as show their popular support, their popular desire to have their political representatives as well as people in their communities respond to the problem of coal being a dirty source of energy, coal being something that is becoming exhausted and not having enough diversification in the economy in West Virginia. So, as opposed to the conception that people were going to necessarily protest something in Charleston on Friday, people from Mountain Justice, people from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, people from mountain watch, people from small communities in southern West Virginia … came together to say what they want is political representation to pay attention to their … health-related concerns from the effects of gas and mountaintop removal on water sources, their economic concerns with job diversification as well as environmental concerns.
SK: Why do you think it is important for students to attend alternative spring break trips?
DA: Service immersion is something that gives us the time to really examine close enough to see the big picture. Whenever we do things that are under huge time constraints, only for about a few hours on a particular day, we get a minimized perspective on what is actually going on and why it’s important, but rather if you’re able to immerse yourself in a project and a place for a period of time, that allows you to stand back for a moment and open your eyes to the big picture of what’s going on.
SK: What did you learn from the trip?
DA: What came out of it for me personally is just a profound respect and adoration for the people who are standing up to these huge industries and doing what they can to make a difference of the lives of other folks in the communities where they live.