Helen Lewis at an underground coal mine in the mid-1960s. (Appalachian State University)

Editor’s Note: Helen Lewis, a towering figure in the fields of Appalachian studies and scholar activism, died Sunday at the age of 97. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while on the faculty of Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise), she pioneered new courses that opened mountain students’ eyes to their history, culture, and pressing social issues like the environmental cost of strip mining. She later joined the Highlander Research and Education Center, where she developed techniques for communities to conduct their own solutions-oriented research on local social and civic issues. Her areas of scholarship and activism included environmental justice, community development, empowerment of women, and community health. Throughout her career, she served as an official and unofficial adviser to countless individuals and organizations, including the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

In 2012 the University Press of Kentucky published Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, a collection of writings by and about Lewis edited by Patricia D. Beaver and Judith Jennings. Below are two of Lewis’ essays from the book in which she argues that rural community development must begin with a moral economy. Thanks to Judi Jennings, Pat Beaver, Steve Fisher and the University Press of Kentucky.


While grassroots community groups have succeeded in developing many creative, innovative programs, they cannot become completely self-sufficient within the present system. It is almost as if they find a steel ceiling which limits how far they can develop. For some the ceiling seems higher, depending upon their resources and ability to manipulate the larger system, but for some of the poorest communities with the fewest resources, the ceiling is very low. The more capacity and social capital they have developed, the more resources they can access, and the higher their ceiling.

Rural communities find that they can develop community services, rebuild community spirit, and develop educational programs, but they still lack access to capital and other resources needed for substantial economic development. They are still outside the mainstream economy. Major changes in development policies, distribution of development money and resources must occur before rural communities can really develop economic security and substantially improve their income and economic well-being. . . .

Rural communities are still part of national and international economies, the agendas of which do not include preserving or reviving small rural communities. Until the needs and agendas of these communities are included in national and international development plans, community efforts will be stalled and short-circuited. Rural communities will continue to be disposable, and the creativity and participation, which these grassroots movements encourage and develop, will be ignored. That is why communities must also enter the policy arena, change development policies so that this vigor, energy, and social capital can be used to develop socially responsible, democratic, and sustainable communities throughout the world…

— from “Rebuilding Communities: A Twelve-Step Recovery Program” (2007)


I began going to Highlander for workshops in 1969, and was on staff off and on from 1977 to 1997. First, I worked with communities in the coalfields of West Virginia, developing community health clinics. The newly elected reform president of the United Mine Workers asked us to help miners and their families develop the clinics and run the clinics. We recruited progressive health providers, trained local community boards and developed health rather than medical clinics—clinics which dealt with occupational and community health problems.

We realized that so many of the problems communities were dealing with were related to the economic system, and if we could not reform the economy—develop a moral economy, one which serves all the people—we could not solve health, education, environmental problems. We began more specific workshops studying the economy. We developed classes through local community colleges on popular economics and organized workshops with communities trying to develop local economic development. . . .

We used the pedagogy of Highlander, which is using the experiences and knowledge of the people to plan and develop alternatives to the exploitive, outside industries they were seeking to replace.

 . . . It is a pedagogy that insists that for institutional change to be effective solutions must come from the people experiencing the problem and those who will be directly affected by the action taken. Grassroots leadership is developed through an educational process that allows people to analyze their problems, test their ideas, and learn from the experience of others. The uses of culture for vision, hope and spiritual renewal when combined with the critical analysis of people’s experiences produce a transformative pedagogy. The song “We Shall Overcome,” which developed at Highlander, evolved into the Civil Rights Anthem and is sung in social movements all over the world.

We need more Highlanders today—grassroots organizing of those who are being marginalized, underserved by mainstream programs. We need Democracy Schools or more civic education: discussions about the democratic process, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, voting, economic democracy, political democracy, proportional representation, environmental democracy, human rights. We need to come together to discuss common ground, positive visions, and participation that affirms and learns from diversity not divisiveness. . . .

We also need a new ideological base. The social gospel as a basis of discourse has largely disappeared from the seminaries and churches. Christian socialism is not a respectable field. Liberalism and populist politics have become dangerous words. The right wing conservative elements in all the denominations have struck fear into many a liberal theologian. . . .

Critiques of capitalism are hard to find. The story is that “Capitalism Won.” The alternatives — socialism, communism, cooperatives — scarcely exist. The right wing built a social movement using traditional values of “family,” rugged individualism, “hard work and self reliance” and distrust of big outside federal government. It has destroyed caring for your neighbor, community concern, social responsibility for those in need, thus leaving a divisive, punitive agenda which favors large corporations and the rich at a time when we have the greatest inequality, the greatest gap between rich and poor in our history. Free enterprise and market economy becomes equated with democracy and freedom. The reality is that the profit motive is the governing force in the global economy.

In this new phase of capitalist expansion, we find that Appalachia and rural America become like third world economies and share their problems, high unemployment, lower wages, environmental degradation, community destruction, increasing poverty. Structural adjustment policies imposed on third world countries took the form in this country of welfare reform, lowering wages and cutting social services in order to compete in the world economy. There has been a decline in democracy, growing distrust in and alienation from government and less participation in civic affairs. In the 1930s when the social contract of the New Deal was being formed, people looked to the government to provide some protection and security from the failures of the economic system. This is now questioned. Public schools and social security are in danger of being privatized. For some, the government is an enemy to be destroyed.

I am seeing the beginnings of a new social movement of students and young people questioning the status quo and asking for a new social order. There are many community grassroots groups trying to rebuild their communities, deal with environmental problems, develop coalitions. Many women have emerged as leaders trying to rebuild communities. But people seem less confident of what to do about the many problems. The inaccessibility of economic decisions leaves people feeling both frustrated and very vulnerable.

We need something today to bring people together to deal with the destruction of our communities, degradation of the environment, growing poverty, economic distress and alienation and not just in our country but worldwide. We cannot hide from the fact that we are part of a global economy, but we can work to be cooperative, helpful and not exploitive. We live on a fragile planet—we are all spinning around together and need to come together to save us all.

— from “The Highlander Center: Working for Justice and a Moral Economy,” (2008)

Excerpts from Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, published in March 2012 by the University Press of Kentucky. This article is adapted from a Daily Yonder post that originally ran in 2012.

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