In 1972, a group of activists in the isolated coalfield communities of northern Tennessee started Save Our Cumberland Mountains. SOCM was formed from a legislative win. A year earlier, fed up residents won an appeal to require absentee corporations to pay taxes on their mineral-rich land. Emboldened, the nonprofit began to take on other problems: unregulated strip mining of coal that blasted the sides of steep mountains onto homes, roads, and streams; and insufficient revenue for schools, roads, and other services. Among its early victories was the first federal strip mining law, which SOCM—proudly pronounced “sock ’em”—worked to pass with other coalfield groups.
Fast-forward 40 years. SOCM has gone through leadership, identity, and mission changes. It has grown from a small, white member-run group into a diverse, statewide multi-issue nonprofit that has tackled oil and gas development, hazardous waste issues, and the rights of temporary workers.
When photojournalist Karen Kasmauski started documenting the group in 2009 as part of a Getty Grant for Good, SOCM was in the midst of a major transition. It had just changed its name to Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (still SOCM by acronym), to underscore its wider geographical and issue reach. And the director was stepping down after 30 years of service. But it continued to build alliances. The couple Kasmauski photographed above, Emory and Chris Rose of Jackson, Tenn., are typical members. In 2009, both lost their jobs and struggled to afford health insurance. They became involved in the Tennessee Health Care Campaign, a SOCM partner, to get out the word about the Affordable Care Act health care reform bill.
“We got a lot of people listening at the town hall meetings,” says Chris Rose, who like her husband is still unemployed and without health insurance. “I can’t stress enough the need for a single payer and public health care options. The Obama health care bill has helped 50 million people, but it hasn’t helped us very much. We continue to fight for this.”