In late March 2012, Amber organized a screening of the PBS version of "Burning the Future: Coal in America." The following is an excerpt of an interview conducted with her at that time, and a few months prior to her graduation from Pratt Insitute in Brooklyn, New York.
Paul Ciavarri, April 30 2012
NYLM: Where are you from?
Amber: I grew up just a little outside of Charleston, West Virginia. Lived there until I was eighteen, then went off to college.
When you say “outside of Charleston,” was it urban or rural?
It was more rural. Developed communities, but it’s different there. It’s not like suburbs. Things aren’t planned in the same fashion, because of the mountains and the valleys. About 10, 15 miles north of the city itself.
Actually, until I was seven, we lived on a big plot of shared property with a lot of my family. So my great-grandmother had a house there, my mom and dad and sister and I had a house there and my uncle and two of my cousins had a house there. That was really awesome growing up.
And they had that land forever. They used to farm it and house chickens - my mom told me once that she thinks my great grandfather also used to have a little mine that he would just go to, as one guy, and get some coal out of to use in their home, in my great grandparents’ home.
So he would just hatchet it out?
How big was the plot of land?
It was big. A whole hillside plateau…and we had a lot of space - houses were far apart.
Tell us about Charleston, West Virginia. What did you grow up with, what marks you as a Charlestonian?
The river is really important. They have a regatta every year. As a child, at least, I can remember that event being a really exciting thing, to go down to the river downtown. There would be boats, just a big boat festival. It’s a street fair as well.
So you grew up around water....
But I never swam in the river, because of the pollution. Because the river is lined with chemical industry plants and coal fired power plants.
Is that something you picked up or something your parents warned you about?
I just knew as a kid that the water wasn’t good, that it wasn’t safe to swim in. People do swim in it….It just was ingrained in me, at least from when I was a little girl, that the water was yucky.
How long have you been in New York City?
About five years. With a brief hiatus when I went back to West Virginia for the first time in almost ten years, to my hometown. That was almost three years ago.
As a grad student, what motivates you to be environmentally concerned?
After [my hiatus] in West Virginia...I immediately started to apply to grad school. I wanted to do something environmentally focused. [F]eeling the weight of the economic…climate in West Virginia and [the] environmental issues there, I wanted to do something more.
The program I'm doing is environmental systems management. I wasn’t exactly even sure what that meant [laughs] when I came to the program, especially since it’s in a school of architecture. Students are designers and engineers. I was a writer, I don’t have any design background, but [Pratt's] really interdisciplinary….
My program is systems – energy systems, water systems, waste systems, things like that. So, we can tap into that any way we that see fit, which is great with the student group that I lead. We can mold it into what we want or relate it to relevant issues…. That’s how I’m pulling it into mountaintop removal specifically, and New York Loves Mountains.
We all know that we need renewable energy, and clean energy and we need to change this system of energy. We know that coal’s bad…but…I don’t think that most people ever really think about where it’s coming from, or the extraction itself...how that [is] equally as damaging to the people who live in [the] communities where those resources are coming from.
[I want to] bring in that people perspective.
You’re part of Leaders for Environmental Advocacy at Pratt (LEAP). Did you create LEAP?
This is the third year of LEAP (Leaders for Environmental Advocacy at Pratt). I did not create LEAP. My co-chair Julia and I were elected to be the leaders from our classmates at the end of last year.
Why did you decide to put your extra time and energy into something like LEAP and not something else?
(pauses) It’s what I care about. I’m also a musician, I play in a band, but being an advocate is something that’s really important and that I feel is rewarding as well....
Your bio for us (NYLM) says you are interested in taking urban design and applying it to rural areas. What exactly do you see as the purpose in … applying urban design principles to a rural or Appalachian environment?
Something that’s missing in rural areas is community-based planning, on any level. That’s a major part of my program [for us] as planners – the importance of having the community... involved in the decisions that will affect those people. I feel like that doesn’t happen in rural communities as much.
[In Appalachia] I don’t recall there ever being a visioning session for which mountain’s going to get blown up or not blown up. I know those things happen in a different way, but not in the way that community based planning is supposed to work, where you have not people coming in with their ideas of development, or industry, and putting it there and then dealing with the effects later. But, instead, having a session where the community comes and says what their needs and wants and hopes are...and then building your development plan from that.
So, just more community engagement....
I’ve been reading the Appalachian land study from 1980. And a huge concentration in certain counties, much of central Appalachia, is federal forest lands, or tourist lands, or industry absentee ownership. They don’t want to have these meetings. They have no interest in planning. So that would be an almost revolutionary idea in that region.
There are many people who are experts on rural planning, but...a lot of those [planning strategies] are happening more in agricultural areas. [I]t needs to be pushed.
As an advocate, what’s your message to other students as to their ability to make a difference?
Throughout my entire grad school career, [I've found] it can be really daunting, especially when you’re studying these environmental issues and the systems that exist and trying to figure out how we [can] change these systems that are not working, and are wrong. What do we do?
It seems like [the answer is] “throw in the towel, how are we ever going to change this?” but there are so many people who care about this stuff and the decision-makers - there’s going to be a rotation at some point.
Whether it’s the policymakers or the heads of companies, or in whatever capacity, we’re going to be those people some day, not too far off. At least we have the opportunity to be. It seems unattainable right now, but we are going to be those people some day.
We can push our ideas, and I think as long as we keep encouraging one another and know that we are actually the future leaders …[then we’re] going to be able to make positive changes, to make better decisions for our children. [W]e can all do it together.
If you have experienced the beauty of New York State's lands, where have you gone?
I have been in both the Catskills and the Adirondacks. Camping, hiking, stuff like that.
Do you see any similarities between that and being in Appalachia?
Well, just … [living] in New York City any time you’re around nature it’s “Oh! This is amazing!” I feel like that anywhere that I’m around trees and wildlife.
I always feel at home when I’m around mountains. Any time that I’m missing home, and know that I can’t make the trip to West Virginia, it’s easy to pop upstate and get that “mountain fix,” if you like.