Community Networking for Healing and Power in Central Appalachia

Published on November 11th, 2019

Written By Greta Byrum and Ever Bussey

Kopper Glo, the coal mining company that has ruled the economy of the Clear Fork Valley of Eastern Tennessee for the last sixty years, claims a legacy of environmental stewardship and community involvement. Yet its stock in trade is surface mining. Instead of tunneling into a mountain, the company uses explosives to remove ridgetops, scrape out low-quality coal reserves, and wash them with chemicals, dumping dirt and toxic coal ash into nearby valleys and streams. 

Kopper Glo coal ash filling a mountain valley, Clairfield, Tennessee, September 2019 (Photo: April Jarocki)

Residents of the Clear Fork Valley’s Eagan and Clairfield communities experience high rates of environmental illnesses, chronic high unemployment, and poverty levels 2.5 times higher than the national level and 2.2 times higher than the state level, according to the 2015 census. The community has no ambulance service, and on the Campbell County side of the Valley, the highest death rate in Tennessee due to the opioid crisis.

Surface mining and coal sludge in the Clear Fork Valley, Tennessee. (Photos: April Jarocki)
Surface mining and coal sludge in the Clear Fork Valley, Tennessee. (Photos: April Jarocki)

In fact, multi-million dollar company Kopper Glo pays no local taxes; it pays only a “coal severance” tax to the state of Tennessee—$393,664 in 2016—little of which makes it back to the Valley. Residents say that the community, located 45 miles from the nearest county seat, has little political power or resources to organize for reform. Increasing automation in the mining industry has created high rates of surplus labor, so workers are unable to unionize. As of the 2015 census, 29.8% of Clearfork residents were unemployed and 51.8% were outside of the labor force, with many residents on disability benefits due to injuries and illnesses such as black lung disease. Transportation is also a major challenge – the nearest grocery store and hostpital are 30 minutes away – but gas prices are high, and many people do not own cars.

Despite all of this, Eagan and Clairfield, two population centers in the Clear Fork Valley, model a legacy of local environmental stewardship and resilient and innovative leadership in land reclamation and collective community development. Residents have developed a community land trust and built houses with reclaimed materials using cooperative labor and tools. They have also reclaimed a surface-mined mountaintop for eventual community use. And in the absence of government support for a municipal water system, the local community development corporation, Model Valley, simply built one.

Organizers at the Clear Fork Community Institute (CCI) building community wireless (Photo: Greta Byrum)

The valley is lush and green, with great stands of trees and babbling brooks, shadowy hollers and trails inviting visitors to climb up the mountains and rises. Residents hold a lineage of Appalachian wisdom about the Valley’s plants and animals, foraging roots and berries for tinctures and canning. They express weariness with outsiders who assume their community is helpless. Marie Webster, director of the Clearfork Community Institute and lifelong organizer and environmental advocate, says that outsiders shouldn’t assume that the reason Appalachians go around barefoot sometimes is that they can’t afford shoes: “We can go to the Goodwill and get a pair of shoes. We walk around barefoot because we like it. We like the way the Earth feels between our toes.”

Digital Health in the Clear Fork Valley

The Clear Fork Valley also sits on the wrong side of the digital divide. Almost half of residents have no internet at all at home (about 42%, based on 2017 5-year ACS estimates). Those who are connected mostly have slow, expensive satellite service that barely works in the summer when foliage is dense or when the weather is bad. Cell phone service is spotty and intermittent. A low-income rural community like the Clear Fork Valley does not present a rosy business case for investment by internet service providers; in fact, major internet service providers with a footprint in the area have refused to provide service, even though they have fiber lines running through the community on their way to the next valley over.

Residents have been fighting for better connectivity in the Clear Fork Valley for years with the Rural Broadband Campaign. In 2017, working in coalition with a network of Appalachian organizers, they established the Southern Connected Communities Project. Residents hope that better internet access might offer a chance for a post-coal economy. “I hope to see people being connected, using that connection to become part of society,” says Clear Fork Valley organizer DJ Coker. “When you live without a connection you don’t feel like part of society. My concerns I will approach as they happen. I’m willing to do anything physically possible to make it happen.” 

Eagan resident April Jarocki is leading the Southern Connected Communities Project (SCCP) to build an Equitable Internet Initiative network based at the Clearfork Community Institute. The Institute already offers weekly Cybercafe days, providing free internet access and instruction on a variety of digital tools. They provide laptops and computer support, print documents, and offer tea, coffee, and company to the many local residents without internet at home.

DJ Coker helps a Clear Fork Valley resident at the Cybercafe (Photo: April Jarocki)

Since July 2019, SCCP has also partnered with Community Tech NY (CTNY) to build community network infrastructure in the Clear Fork Valley. The project looks beyond the goal of simply connecting people to the internet to ask how purpose-built and community-defined technology can contribute to wellbeing and resiliency.1 How might residents use better connectivity to organize and address issues like chronic unemployment, opioid addiction, and the lack of health infrastructure and services in the Valley? Together, the partnership is developing a direction and a set of goals for the new wireless network based on the community’s concerns and vision.

In July 2019, CTNY held a Portable Network Kit (PNK) workshop at the Clearfork Community Institute. Workshop participants built a solar-ready AC/DC-powered mini-network together to demystify and learn the basics of networking. In August, SCCP built a second PNK on its own. The two kits together, which pull a mobile signal from a tower to an antenna on the roof of CCI, light up the Institute building and grounds with speeds much faster than the slow, expensive satellite connection residents are used to.

Antennas pulling a signal from a mobile tower to the roof of the Clear Fork Community Institute to distribute using Portable Network Kits (Photo: Greta Byrum)
Antennas pulling a signal from a mobile tower to the roof of the Clear Fork Community Institute to distribute using Portable Network Kits (Photo: Greta Byrum)
CTNY + SCCP + CCI Portable Network Kit building workshop, July 2019 (Photo: Greta Byrum)

This coming winter, CTNY and partners will train April Jarocki to become a wireless networking technology trainer. She will in turn train other Clear Fork Valley residents to become Digital Stewards so they can build, maintain, and expand the Clear Fork community network. 

Digital Stewardship is a model of teaching and learning about technology with the goal of strengthening relationships and healing communities. Developed from 2012 onward by the Detroit Community Technology Project in partnership with the Open Technology Institute and Community Tech New York, the Digital Stewardship training program uses a popular education approach grounded in the history of the Civil Rights-era Citizenship Schools and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The curriculum is designed to bring tech education to communities that have been harmed and oppressed by technology, such as those in Detroit, where factory automation has killed so many vital middle-class jobs, or the Clear Fork Valley, where the mining industry’s increasing use of automation has progressively shrunk the workforce. The Digital Stewardship curriculum focuses on the basics of how to organize, plan, build, and maintain wireless networks, transferring the skills for long-term sustainability to community residents.

The intention of this partnership and this work is to place communications and health tools and knowledge into the hands of local residents who are already experts at mutual aid in a resource-constrained environment.

CTNY + SCCP + CCI Portable Network Kit building workshop, July 2019 (Photo: Greta Byrum)
Portable Network Kit in action (CTNY)

Community digital health and collective self-determination

In the summer and fall of 2019, following the PNK workshop, participatory researchers from the New School’s Digital Equity Laboratory joined SCCP and CTNY on-site at the Clearfork Community Institute to share technology knowledge through a radio frequency survey of the Valley. The goal was to develop an understanding of the community and co-develop intentions for the project. We hope that by aligning goals and intentions for the project, and by grounding it in the context and history of the community, we will help inform success indicators and milestones as the partnership progresses.

We found a common sentiment present in almost every interview we conducted. One after another, respondents continued to affirm the idea that the people of this Appalachian region are kinder, wiser, and more nuanced than outsiders are led to believe. This sentiment was not just expressed with words, but through the actions of some residents. It was in the way the team would break bread with local community partners after the end of each long day of installing antennas and testing radio frequencies in the unforgiving embrace of the Tennessee sun. It was in the surprising forthcoming responses and vulnerability that most subjects brought to their interviews. 

Testing 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 900 MHz radios at Clear Fork Valley home, September 2019 (Photo: Greta Byrum)

At times, we also found residents hesitant to engage with outsiders. As we traveled around the counties to test the effectiveness of our frequency equipment, we found many residents unwilling to talk – unless April (who knows everybody in the Valley) was able to engage them. Those who did interact mostly withheld excitement about the potential of the project (though some offered kind words and a cold drink). With a history of “parachute” projects in the region, people are understandably unwilling to put faith in the promises made by outsiders.

Meanwhile, our radio frequency survey found that a wireless network for the Clear Fork Valley will have to be built differently from typical urban wireless networks. High-frequency, high-bandwidth signals on the 5GHz band and up bounce around the terrain, echoing off of metal rooftops, disappearing into rises and hollers, and scattering among the foliage. Signals on the 2.4 GHz band perform better. But for reliable connectivity where foliage is dense, low frequencies work best: we had good success with 900 MHz radios and even listen/talk radios on the 467 MHz GMRS band, which can reach some places wireless internet will likely never get to. We will explore the lower frequencies on the spectrum for Clear Fork Valley, testing the idea that networking here, like organizing, is a slow and intrepid process, and that social and interpersonal networks will be the strongest base for any wireless enterprise. The lowest and slowest—yet most reliable—wireless tools could save lives when the lack of health infrastructure cuts residents off from response and treatment. 

2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 900 MHz access points at the Clear Fork Community Institute, September 2019 (Photo: Greta Byrum)
GMRS radios will get a signal into hollers where higher frequencies can’t reach (Photo: Greta Byrum)

What becomes apparent upon getting to know the people of this region is an invisible chain of intergenerational trauma that spans the history of the valley, and the community’s determination to heal and build despite and because of this history. The interwoven challenges of environmental degradation, critical unemployment levels, and the ongoing opioid crisis are just the latest chapter in a long story steeped in corporate resource extraction dating back a century and a half: as the economy became chiefly reliant on the coal mining industry in the 19th century, so did the people. Remote mining towns emerged, housing workers in company-owned lodging and compensating them with scrip that could only be used at the company store. When the number of mining companies significantly diminished, workers were left without home- or land ownership, and only had black lung to show for their time in the mines. The wounds of the theft of self-determination still exist today. 

Yet SCCP’s partnership with CTNY to bring a citizen-owned internet to the valley is a small part of a much larger process of power reclamation. By establishing a reliable means of connectivity that is governed and maintained by residents, the people of the Clear Fork Valley are engaging in collective self-sufficiency. Moreover, this process of collectively restoring power invites opportunities to discuss the generational traumas that plague this region – and ways of healing. 

April Jarocki and team preparing to connect CCI’s rooftop antennas to the Portable Network Kit (Photo: Greta Byrum, 2019)


1 The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting this work as part of a larger effort to generate a social and community health impact framework and indicators related to community-owned digital network infrastructure. Additional partners across all project sites include the New School’s Digital Equity Laboratory and the Detroit Community Technology Project, as well as their partners in Detroit and the Hudson Valley of New York State. Altogether, this work represents a collective effort to demystify technology and bring digital equity to traditionally underserved areas facing overlapping social, digital, and health challenges.


Ever Bussey is a graduate researcher in Media Studies at The New School University. Their research practice began in Detroit, where they partnered with People in Education and Incite Focus to discover how digital fabrication and digital media can be used for humanizing education and creating self-sufficient communities. Ever’s interest and focus of scholarship is power and its impact on human relationships — specifically, how power lies at the intersection between people and technology, and how tech may be used to maintain or shift power dynamics. Their intention is to contribute a breadth of social research methodologies to groups interested in radical change and power reclamation.

Greta Byrum reimagines the way we design, build, control, and govern communications systems. As Co-Director of the Digital Equity Laboratory at the New School for Social Research and Director of the Community Tech New York project, she builds digital justice through applied research, community collaborations, and policy strategy. Previously Byrum founded and led the Resilient Communities program at New America, where she developed and led Resilient Networks NYC, an initiative bringing training, tools, and equipment for storm-hardened mesh WiFi to five neighborhoods in NYC’s flood zones. Current projects include community wireless network collaborations in rural Tennessee and the Hudson Valley and a curriculum manual for 2020 digital decennial census preparedness.