Council Director Receives 2012 Brennan Haly Award From Department of Political Science at U of L. Posted: April 25, 2012
REMARKS OF TOM FITZGERALD ON THE OCCASION OF THE 2012 SPRING FETE
University of Louisville Political Science Department
April 24, 2012
Good evening graduates, parents, faculty and guests. I am honored to be the 2012 recipient of the Brennan Haly Award, an award established through a bequest from the estate of Mayor Neville Miller. One of the great things about receiving the recognition is that it gives me the opportunity to impart unsolicited and unwanted advice on this captive audience of graduates.
The 1937 Ohio River flood, which took place in late January and February 1937, during the tenure of Mayor Miller, caused damage stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, with more than one million persons left homeless, 385 dead and property losses reaching $500 million. Louisville was among those communities that suffered greatly from the flood, and both men worked on relief efforts in the flood’s aftermath, rebuilding a physical infrastructure that was severely damaged. Pneumonia contracted by General Haly during his relief work, claimed his life in mid-February, 1937.
I’ve been asked to tell you a little about my path and the work of the Kentucky Resources Council, which I have directed now for 28 years, and to share some thoughts with you, as you graduate and move on to the next chapter of your lives.
I always like to begin with full disclosure of my background so that you may appropriately discount all that will follow. I direct the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and technical assistance without charge to low-income individuals, to community organizations, and to local governments on air, waste, water, land use and resource extraction issues. My perspective has been forged by thirty-two years of representing those who live downhill, downwind and downstream.
My path to my work began in New York City, and a book entitled
“Night Comes to The Cumberlands,” written by a courageous mountain lawyer named Harry Caudill, chronicling the history of the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky and the exploitation of the land and people by absentee coal and other mineral interests. I came to Kentucky first at age 17, following the footsteps of my brother Rick, and worked with a non-profit organization called the Council of Southern Mountains. I went to law school in 1977 in order to develop skills that I perceived would be helpful in trying to help defend against that exploitation. I had the privilege of working with the legal services grantee for eastern Kentucky, the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund or APPALRED, with two individuals whose courage and tenacity inspired me then and now – John Rosenberg, who fled with his family from Nazi Germany after Krystalnacht, to become a civil rights lawyer and ultimately the founder and Director of APPALRED, and J.T. Begley, who headed the Lexington APPALRED Office and whose father, Joe Begley, helped organize local opposition to strip mining in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Letcher County. When the Reagan Administration began to adopt policies that interfered with my ability to be an effective legal aid lawyer in the early 1980’s, I took my $400 in retirement and opened an office in Frankfort for the Kentucky Resources Council, which was the successor to the Kentucky Rivers Coalition, a group of farmers and urban conservationists that successfully fought a number of Corps of Engineers projects, including the Red River Dam that would have inundated the now federally-designated wild and scenic river gorge. I wrote over 50 grant applications, and one responded favorably, allowing me to purchase a typewriter and begin my work for the Council.
In the intervening 28 years, I have worked on a wide range of issues, both in individual representation of folks who cannot otherwise find or afford representation on air, waste, water, mining, utility, and energy policy issues, and also in helping to craft legislation to better protect communities and the health and safety of the public. It was my honor to write the brief for the case in which the notorious 1956 court decision of Buchanan v. Watson that sanctioned strip mining and dispossession of landowners without payment of damages under the broad form deeds that were signed in the early 1900’s, decades before strip mining was heard of. I have never charged a client, yet have been rewarded a thousand times over by sharing the lives of my clients and learning from their strength and courage, in the face of overwhelming adversity. It is their grace and their tenacity that has been my tonic. And once in a great while, we have actually shared a victory!
Just as Colonel Brennan faced a daunting challenge in reforming a corrupt political party during the 1930’s, and General Haly faced the difficult task of coordinating the 1937 flood relief in a community that had already endured the hardships of the Great Depression for almost a decade, you too face a time of great challenges – economic, environmental, social, and political.
The challenges are many. Kentucky is “ground zero” for climate change. We are the 3rd poorest state in the nation, 93% dependent on coal and 98% dependent on fossil fuels for our electricity, and a major coal-producing state. Kentucky‘s economic and political fortunes as a state have been largely linked to cheap energy powered by coal combustion. It has been cheap for the consumer, but it has cost those whom I represent dearly. One of Kentucky's major challenges is how to prepare for the inevitable transition from an economy that has been powered by extractive industries and artificially low-cost electricity, to an economy that can better sustain and meet the needs of all of our state's residents, and remain competitive in a regional and global economy while more fully accounting for the ecological costs of resource extraction, energy generation, and industrial production.
Perhaps the greatest single challenge, though, is how to reengage a public that has grown increasingly cynical, disaffected, polarized, and disengaged from the political process and from positive civil discourse and civic engagement. We have lost the sense of common sacrifice and common purpose, of the responsibility of each individual towards our brothers and sisters less fortunate than we, of one generation to the next to shepherd and safeguard the quality of our environment and to assure that the next generation will have the options and choices that our parents lifelong efforts provided for us. My generation of boomers are perhaps the most inflated sense of entitlement of any generation, and have done precious little in society-building to deserve it.
So there is my challenge to you – a challenge to civic engagement, to rebuilding a political and civic infrastructure that is inclusive and more just. To use your power - as a consumer, as a voter, as a citizen, as a participant in electoral politics, taking the knowledge and insight you’ve gained during your years here, and helping to craft communities linked by values, by passion and by compassion, and by principle. And here are some paths you may explore:
* Work for reform in governance. When elective offices go to the highest bidder, when artificial business entities such as corporations are granted the legal status of persons and unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns is sanctioned as a form of “protected speech”, decisions reflecting the broader public interest over the insular interests of those investing in the candidates are rare. When we aspire to mediocrity in governance, when democracy isn't working, we get what we deserve, and the poor, children, the environment, and the public's interest suffer.
* Get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office. I remember listening to businessman and philanthropist W.T. Young speak to a group of rising college students, and hearing him remark that the one regret he had in a lifetime full of civic engagement, was that he had never “stood for office.”
* Hold elected officials accountable, during and after their campaigns.
* Bear witness against injustice in all its forms, and risk being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity.
Reflecting on a life of advocacy for children, Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer:
God did not call us to succeed, but to serve.
Not to win, but to work.
Not to be happy, but to be hopeful.
Not to fame, but to faith.
Not to seek power, but to seek peace.
God did not call us to loot the earth and each other,
God called us to love our earth and each other.
* Mentor. Margaret Mead was right when she said “Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.”
Think about the behaviors you pattern, and sit at the feet and learn from those who came before you, just as you mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future. Elders, teach your children. Children, teach your elders.
How do we build a more sustaining, a more just political, social, and economic environment?
As Mother Teresa told the interviewer who wondered how she persevered in the face of overwhelming need – "one soul at a time" beginning with our own. Never despair that your efforts are too small; too little to make a difference. Margaret Mead was right, when she said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does!”
* Be creatively intolerant of mediocrity.
* Approach problem solving with an open mind and with humility, since it is in dialogue, in engagement, that we arrive at solutions.
My wish for you is that you find work and a vocation that is fulfilling, and that you find challenges that are worthy of your time and effort. Graduates, congratulations on your academic achievements, and my best to you as you find your paths.