Thursday, May 12, 2016

Environmentalist from coal country finds conflicts there and in college, wants to go back w/degree

"Heat of the Moment," an ongoing climate change project by WBEZ 91.5 in Chicago, focuses its latest story on a young environmentalist who left coal country for college, only to discover that what she really wanted was to return home with an education and a purpose. Ashley Funk grew up in Mount Pleasant, Pa., in the southwestern part of the state, Rebecca Hersher and Shannon Heffernan report for WBEZ. "When Ashley was a young girl the family lived in a house that had huge piles of dark dust behind it. The piles were a really fun place to play. Funk and her twin sister would go out there and build things kind of like sand castles. They would come inside with the dust in their hair, on their hands and around their eyes. They didn’t know how dangerous it was." (WBEZ photo by Stephanie Strasburg: Ashley Funk)

As a teenager Funk became interested in climate change when she "found out the black dust she and her siblings played in as children wasn’t safe," Hersher and Heffernan write. Funk, who started talking more and more about sustainability, carbon emissions and the problems with energy companies, was contacted by Our Children's Trust, a national group "that works with young people to participate in lawsuits over climate change. They help young people sue the government on the grounds that children have a human right to a healthy environment when they grow up. Funk became a plaintiff in an Our Children’s Trust lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania over its carbon emissions. If they won, Pennsylvania would be forced to limit those carbon emissions." Funk lost the case and said she was treated poorly in her hometown for opposing the industry that supported many residents.

Funk, who said she didn't feel like she belonged in Mount Pleasant anymore, left in the fall of 2012 to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she declared a major in environmental studies. There, she discovered the false impressions people had of her home, Hersher and Heffernan write. Her peers didn't understand how food stamps—something Funk's family relied on—worked, and they had limited knowledge of hydraulic fracturing; Funk's mom leased her family’s land to Chevron for fracking. Funk told told WBEZ, “I remember getting so frustrated. Either the professor or someone in class would say something completely wrong."

Hersher and Heffernan write, "After leaving Mount Pleasant, for what she thought was for good, Funk wants to go home. And it’s the issues that drove her away to begin with that are making her want to return to Mount Pleasant. Because she feels like that’s where there’s work to be done, where there’s a reckoning to be had over climate change, not in a place like Wellesley where everyone is removed, and for the most part agrees with each other. But instead, in a town where hills are made of coal debris and people need fracking dollars just to get by. Where the conversations about this are messy, and that’s the point. And so, nothing certain, but Funk’s plan is to double back. She’ll be able to pick up a lot of things where she left off, including her lawsuit. After the first one was tossed—there’s been some revisions. They’ve filed it again. Ashley Funk’s a plaintiff this time too."

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