Helen Matthews Lewis: “Living Social Justice in Appalachia”

In honor of International Women’s Day, coming up this Wednesday, I want to pay tribute to one of the great teachers of my life, Helen Matthews Lewis. Known fondly as the mother or grandmother of Appalachian studies by the many people whose personal and professional lives she has touched, Helen – as always – modestly denies this title, saying instead that other leaders gave birth to and shaped the interdisciplinary movement. But as her colleague Stephen L. Fisher points out, “there is little question that her program at Clinch Valley College [in Virginia] served as the major catalyst for the current Appalachian studies movement and that no one has done more over the years to shape its direction than Helen.”

For me, as for so many others, Helen set the standard for engaged scholarship, activist teaching, and pure regional enjoyment – whether that region is Appalachia or Wales or southern Africa. Helen weaves it all together: she revels in learning, delights in talking with and listening to everyone she meets, energetically taps her foot at bluegrass and sings gospel songs with unbridled glee.

It’s perfect, then, that her 2012 book, Living Social Justice in Appalachia, is a quilt of her writings (essays, articles, and poems), her reflections given through numerous interviews, pieces others wrote about her influence on them, photographs of Helen at key times in her life, and even her famous recipes (including instructions for making chowchow, one of my grandmother’s favorite foods). Longtime friends and colleagues Patricia D. Beaver and Judith Jennings edited the volume, working with Helen to bring to life the many facets of her career and her personal journey. How do you separate the lived self from the professional self? In Helen’s mind, you don’t – and Living Social Justice in Appalachia in its form and in its very title makes clear that the personal, professional, and political are tightly fused.

I’ve written before of the special and powerful way I met Helen – in a series of visits to the Highlander Research and Education Center, founded by Myles Horton and located in New Market, Tennessee. In Appalachian studies circles, it is not at all uncommon to hear of the way Helen has touched someone’s life.

In my case, she actively encouraged me to embrace participatory, liberatory teaching and offered a much-needed critical and supportive eye to my memoir, Power in the Blood, when it was just starting to form in my mind. I thought I was writing a novel. Helen gently disagreed, telling me she thought I was writing “cultural and family history told in a narrative form.” We had that conversation one afternoon at her home in Highlander. Her comment crystallized the entire project for me and remains one of the most important discussions of my life.

The time I spent with Helen at Highlander was always special, whether we were tending to her garden, watching videotapes of Bill Moyers interviewing Myles Horton on the back porch of what was now Helen’s home, or chatting with friend after friend and colleague after colleague who stopped by to say hello. Helen can whip up a mean cocktail, and she was always at the ready to welcome her frequent visitors.

One of my favorite stories about Helen involves a leadership award she won in the 1990s. The organization giving her the award commissioned an artist to create a small sculpture in Helen’s honor. Rather than giving her a standard trophy, the organization wanted to capture the spirit of Helen’s example. The sculpture depicted a figure leading a line of figures behind her. Looking back over her shoulder at those following her, the figure’s face is a mirror: she understands that real leadership is about reflecting back to each “follower” her own image, her own potential. This small sculpture – which Helen displayed proudly in her home at Highlander – perfectly summed up Helen’s way of leading.

Helen has lived a lot of life in her ninety-plus years. She was born in rural Georgia and raised in Cumming (notorious for its extremely racist views and brutal treatment of African Americans), attended the Georgia State College for Women (along with her classmate and fellow yearbook editor, Mary Flannery O’Connor, who drew the illustrations to accompany Helen’s text), and became radicalized through the church and through state political activities.

Attending graduate school at Duke University, she met her future husband, Judd Lewis, and then moved with him to Virginia. After a teaching stint at East Tennessee State University and a PhD in sociology from the University of Kentucky, Helen was divorced from Judd.

From there, she traveled the world, exploring the connection between working people and participatory education in Appalachia, Wales, Nicaragua, Cuba, Holland, Belgium, France, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa.

She’s been let go from more than one teaching position, no doubt due to the empowering, engaged pedagogy she practiced.

She’s directed Highlander and the Appalachian Center at Berea College. She’s worked at AppalShop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and co-led community-based, participatory research in Ivanhoe, Virginia.

She’s received a commendation from the Kentucky state legislature and been the recipient of honorary degrees. She’s had awards, study experiences, and lecture series named in her honor.

And along the way, more than anything else, she has lifted up those she has met, provided that empowering mirror so that everyone in her field of vision sees all the potential they have inside.

If you know Helen or her work, reading Living Social Justice in Appalachia will be a real treat. It brings our colleague and friend to life in such vivid ways. If you don’t know Helen or her work, reading Living Social Justice in Appalachia will give you the chance to “meet” one of the great thinkers, teachers, and leaders of our time. The book is a fantastic read from beginning to end, whether you’re jotting down her notes for growing a great garden or mixing up an old fashioned from her recipe (which specifies that you should make just one glass at a time!), whether you’re learning about how she developed anti-racist consciousness or reading first-hand accounts of those whose lives she’s touched.

In the end, Helen understands that it all comes back to story. She believes strongly in telling the story of Appalachia, her region, and she believes in hearing and celebrating the stories of other folks in other regions. With StoryWeb, I celebrate stories of all kinds – and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Helen Matthews Lewis for helping me see the value of stories.

“Why am I here?” she asks near the end of the book.

What is my story? Which story do I tell? Everybody and every community, place, and region needs stories, narratives, tales, and theories to serve as moral and intellectual frameworks. Without a “story,” we don’t know what things mean…. We are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts. A story gives us a direction, a kind of theory of how the world works and how it needs to work if we are to survive. . . . We need to take back our stories.

Helen Matthews Lewis’s Living Social Justice in Appalachia is one good story. I highly recommend it.

Watch:Watch “Keep Your Eye Upon the Scale,” a short documentary film about Helen’s exploration of the connections between coal miners in Appalachia and those in Wales. A recent interview with Helen is woven throughout the film, and you’ll also see her collaborators on the project, John Gaventa (an American political sociologist) and Richard Greatex (a British filmmaker). Those who follow old-time and bluegrass music will be especially interested to see the appearance of the Strange Creek Singers: Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwarz. They came from Appalachia to Wales to share American coal mining music with the Welsh miners. Look for them at nine minutes into the film.