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Dear PBHAers… [Michael Tierney '80]

Dear PBHAers,

I write from a 120-year-old farm house, built to board timber workers, on Big Ugly Creek in the heart of the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Beyond the ridge above my house lies the biggest strip mine/mountaintop removal site in the state (that we blocked from coming significantly into our creek watershed). “Home,” as a student in the first writing group I developed with kids during my year off in WV 32 years ago, is “where you can look out the door and not see any other houses.”

This will be choppy as I take breaks for breakfast, tending our dog (one of a dozen strays who’ve come to stay over the years) recuperating from being hit by a car and talking a baby off the roof of a doll house (all these activities with my three-year-old great niece, who lived with us from six months to 2 1/2 and who is visiting for the weekend).

The volunteer paths I took while an undergraduate – spring breaks and a summer stay at Catholic Worker houses, working in and helping others find placements in rural America, intensive leadership work with at-risk teens, and working with people to tell their stories, are the threads I have woven into my life’s work, largely in West Virginia, but with a signifcant stretch in the Boston schools and sojourns to Nicaragua, with street children in Colombia, and connecting with kindred spirits in South African, Brazil, Zimbabwe, and Ireland.

When I returned from a year off in WV as a volunteer through the Robert Kennedy Memorial, working on a grassroots newspaper and helping parents to organize services for their children with disabilities, I found I could not sit still in the classroom. With Michael Grey and Josephine Lok, I started the Rural Action Commitee, and negotiated being the first student intern allowed into South Boston High School since they had been burned by people who “volunteered” in order to write exposes on desegregation. A chance conversation with a student and an administrator about students needs to “show the way they really are to our communities and ourselves” led to my writing a grant for the South Boston Foxfire Project, later Mosaic, a community studies program that I developed then codirected with fellow alum Dan Terris, for much of my twenties. My senior year I ate with the dining hall staff at 6 a.m., took the subway to Southie each morning and taught a “cultural journalism” class before returning to classes and work on my thesis. We worked with the students to collect oral histories, do their own writing, photography and poetry which were edited into anthologies that were used to bridge the divides between communities in the last throes of the violence that accompanied deseg. (I was there for the last big riot – and had a student who was seven months pregnant ask me what I’d do if the mob that we heard overturning furniture in rooms above us came into our classroom. “Stand in front of you and pray” was all I could answer). After a year traveling as a Sheldon Fellow (developing a history of a housing project in Aberdeen Scotland with the “Powis Mods” [The Who's Quadrophenia was released as a movie and resurrected the mods vs. rockers rivalries], and developing a photography self portrait of a community of street children in Cali, Colombia), Dan and I expanded the program at Southie into an after-school jobs program, then a classroom initiative that lasted until 1987.

The work in Boston was rewarding, but my heart remained in West Virginia, where I returned in the late fall of 1987. An intended stint as a journalist evolved into staring the nonprofit, Step by Step, that I run to this day. I was interviewing teens in foster care when I soon found myself drawn to working with them to tell their own stories. A writing group led to a publication group, led to a theater group, led to a regional youth leadership and arts program. In the first seven years we produced story anthologies, plays and testified at the legislature on topics ranging from sexual abuse (the story that the teens chose for their first publication because no one ever asked them about their experiences), to foster care, growing up with a disability, and the challenges of “holding on to home” in some of the most economically challenged communities in one of the poorest states in the union.

In 1994, the question of how to help communities support families and kids so they don’t end up in foster care, or in lousy special education programs due to the created disabilities that result from educational neglect emerged as the central question of the organization (and I guess my life). In rapid succession, we incorporated as a 501(c)(3), took charge of the abandoned and badly vandalized Big Ugly Elementary School (closed in ’93) and turned it into the Big Ugly Community Center, and hosted the first of over 100 VISTAs and Americorps (fellow alum Scott Finn, who slept on my floor as a PBHA Alternative Spring Break visitor for three years and lived in the office I built off my garage for two years as a VISTA). The program we developed, West Virginia Dreamers, was recognized as a national model for community development by the Pew Partnerships’ Wanted: Solutions for America Initiative in 1992.

Our premise is simple: in each community that Step by Step partners with (sometimes with another grassroots non profit, sometimes under our auspices) we work with a core group of adult and youth leaders to figure out how to provide opportunities for children from early childhood (even prenatally, through programs like Maternal Infant Health Outreach Worker (MIHOW) or Parents as Teachers), through collaboration with day care, preschools and Headstart (or playgroups in places like Big Ugly that are literally too isolated to even have Headstart outreach), through establishing K-6 after school and summer programs, to working with middle and high school students to develop their own service learning initatives, to drop out prevention and jobs training -our goal is to navigate the often thicketed paths to independent adulthood. In 2003 we became a regional program having noticed that isolated Big Ugly Creek often had more in common with inner city and other isolated rural communities than in our own county seat. We currently staff after school and teen initiatives in four counties, collaborate with other groups in another four through the placement of 20-25 VISTAs per year, and countless volunteers.

I think of PBHA in particular every spring, when my floor is again covered with sleeping bags and mats, for a series of college service groups (unfortunately, not from Harvard since the late ’90s, but including Brandeis, Berea, Washington and Lee, John Carroll, and most recently Earlham, where my son is a Bonner scholar through the national program coordinated by fellow alum Bobby Hackett, whom I placed in his first summer volunteer internship through the Rural Action Committee back in the early ’80s). The students also sleep in a “volunteer house” that we built with no interest loans from friends (including some PBHA alums) and family while my wife and I were part of a community in the Catholic Worker tradition, Family Worker Farm, for 10 years. That community ran its course but the five bedroom house remains and supports two to four full year volunteers each year and as many as seven each summer. The spring break volunteers have probably topped 500 over the last 20 years.

Along the way there have also been short term (one month to three month) stints in international work – the above mentioned work with street kids in Colombia, teens in a Scotland housing project, travel to groups in southern Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and India as a Kellogg International Fellow, and ongoing solidarity work with Nicaraga (1986 with Witness for Peace, 1988, Habitat for Humanity) and a return visit this June with my son to identify programs that we can connect kindred spirit groups with here in WV. We had one day that summed up many of the loves and passions of my life in the north central mountains of Nicaragua: we began by walking with and doing yoga exercises with 31 women in the last weeks of their high-risk pregnancies connected with Casa Materna (an incredible group with whom I want to link our MIHOW moms), visited and planted flowers on the grave of Ben Lindner (the unicycle riding engineer assassinated by the U.S. backed contra soliders while he worked on a hydroelectric plant), and got caught in a downpour in a rain forest nature reserve.

So many threads of what I do and will continue to do as I live out my life on the Creek, grow out of those first college “apprenticeships” (and many are rooted with paths introduced to me by Bob Coles including the Catholic Worker connection, my first contacts with WV, and the thread of teaching service learning – fellow Coles TA and I Larry Ronan organized the first community service sections of Bob’s lecture course almost 30 years ago and I have hosted college interns and taught similar courses at a half dozen colleges through the years).

But the central “lesson” is the belief that if you find compelling work and surround yourself with people you love and believe in, the “career” will follow. It is telling that I have never gone on a job interview since I joined PBHA and have instead used my project planning skills to create work through founding programs and nonprofits the past 32 years.

Take care,
Michael Tierney ’80

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