A conversation with Amy Melnyk
By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
Amy Melnyk has worked with an exhaustive list of local nonprofit organizations, community and campus activist groups since she moved to Athens in 2000. Prior to then, Melnyk spent four years living in South Africa, where she served as Media and Outreach Director for Wola Nani, an advocacy group for South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Melnyk’s involvement in social justice work stretches back to her high school days and has encompassed a wide variety of womens’, environmental, labor, health and human rights issues. Currently finishing her Masters degree in social work and serving on the board of directors of Community Food Initiatives, Melnyk is among those who describe the struggle for social justice as “my life’s work” – and therefore an obvious choice for this month’s Activist Spotlight.
Melnyk sat down with me on August 20 for a wide-ranging interview that touched on such subjects as the roots Appalachian poverty, her work in South Africa, the moral imperative to work for social change, and what enables activists to persevere over the long haul.
Could you begin by describing the work you do now?
Right now I’m involved with community food security issues, which have to do with local economic development and environmental justice in Appalachia. I’m working locally with Community Food Initiatives, Rural Action, ACEnet, Athens Farmers Market and the Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action Program. So a lot of grassroots organizations working together with local communities.
In Appalachian, like in rest of the country, we have a lot of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and severe health-related issues like obesity and diabetes. Among other things, this affects the physical and mental development of children. Being “food insecure” means basically not knowing where your next meal is coming from – and local Appalachian families are at about four times greater risk of experiencing hunger and food insecurity here than in the rest of the country. So things are pretty critical.
When you think about promoting community self-determination, access to a stable food supply is really one of the most basic needs. If you can work towards better securing that, people are more able to make decisions in their own interest. So part of my work is about community self-reliance – helping people to grow and sell their own food, connecting consumers and local farmers through direct sales, and minimizing dependence on factory farming. Local food security is really a social justice issue: the right of people to live in an economy that permits them to be able to feed themselves. We don’t really have that in Appalachia so much because of the region’s internal colonial history.
What exactly do you mean by the “colonial history” of Appalachia?
It’s very similar to the neocolonialism what going on now in the Developing World, or the Third World – whatever you want to call it. Transnational corporations coming in, stripping an area of its natural resources without putting anything back into the local economy, taking advantage of the fact that local folks are at the mercy of whatever revolving industry is coming in – whether coal mining or timber or, as in Africa, rubber, copper, gold, diamonds. . . anything that has to do with extraction of natural resources that doesn’t include adding value to products before they leave the region. It has to do with larger absentee corporations controlling people’s livelihoods from a distance and simply not having to invest long-term in the local economy.
Kind of the “race to the bottom” that’s going on at a global level has been going on in Appalachia for the last couple hundred years. Its legacy is in villages around Athens County as well as many of the other “Little Cities of the Black Diamonds” in the larger region: former coal towns that haven’t recovered from the collapse of the coal industry.
Because the money left with the raw materials that were extracted?
Yeah, it left with the companies that were in New York and Pittsburgh and Chicago – the coal barons – just like it’s happening now country by country in the Developing World at the hands of transnational corporations, and has been happening for a long time. It’s really interesting to be in such a wealthy country as the US that has within it the same issues that are going on at a global level.
How did you get involved with social iustice work? You mentioned that you worked with Teach for America after getting out of college. What did you do after that?
Lots of different things, mostly related to communications and advocacy work with organizations like Clean Water Action and Greenpeace, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, refugee and immigrant rights organizations, human rights organizations, and for a number of years doing HIV AIDS advocacy work in New York and South Africa.
I’ve always had a strong sense of injustice since I was little, but it’s really my older sister who’s been the most influential in how my work has evolved. She’s been a great mentor. She was working for the consumer rights organization Citizen Action the whole time I was a teenager and got me involved into in all sorts of rights campaigns – the first one was the grape boycott in support of the United Farm Workers in California. It was a pretty easy thing to get involved in, really, just stop buying grapes – activism lite, but still important. You have to start somewhere – everyone has to start where they are.
Can you elaborate on your work in South Africa?
I was working for Amnesty International in New York in 1995, on a press freedom campaign in Zimbabwe, and I became very fascinated by Africa and all that had happened there during the Cold War. Growing up in the US, I naively thought the Cold War was really just between two superpowers; I didn’t have any idea how all of that was playing out globally. They really don’t teach you much about that in school, about the havoc wreaked in just about every other country because of it. Anyway, it was right after the end of apartheid, and I was working with some South Africans who got me interested in working to rebuild civil society after apartheid. So I just went to South Africa in 1996 with the idea I would volunteer for a few months and then ended up staying for four years. I was really lucky to find a job with an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization called Wola Nani, one that was involved in fighting stigmatization of people living with HIV, which was very rare for community-based organizations at the time.
Even though it was the post-apartheid South Africa, the “New South Africa”, there was still a lot of censorship of the media and also of community-based organizations who didn’t always agree with African National Congress (ANC) policy. And admitting that 8 percent of South Africans were HIV positive, with the number doubling every year, was not something the ANC wanted to hear about. That was a real eye-opener for me, going to South Africa thinking I was done with America, that there was no hope here, but that everything was possible there. They’d been struggling against Apartheid for nearly fifty years, and now Nelson Mandela was President. But just because the revolution had finally succeeded, that didn’t mean the work was over by any means. It was one thing when there was a common enemy in the National Party, the apartheid government. But now people had to work together to build something instead of destroy it. And the ANC didn’t like a lot of dissent against their rebuilding efforts.
So I was lucky to work for an organization that refused to accept funding from the government, and so couldn’t be gagged and not criticize the government’s lack of response to the AIDS pandemic. The people I worked with there were amazing.
I’m very grateful that I got to be a part of their history, working with really brave people incredibly stigmatized and still willing to speak out, even though their lives were in danger. People were being murdered in their villages because of their HIV status; there was total panic and the government all but ignored the problem. The national government was much more concerned with keeping their economy going. They didn’t want foreign investors to pull out of South Africa because, you know, the labor force was dying or workers were going to cost a lot of money in terms of treatment and health insurance. So the ANC had to fall in like with the rest of the Developing World to be included as a source for cheap labor to the industrialized nations.
As an outsider, my work there was to support people to find their own way to fight the discrimination they were encountering on a daily basis – losing their fobs being denied housing, denied healthcare, you name it. Being told they couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as other patients in at a clinic. For Wola Nani this work entailed developing micro-enterprise businesses as well as helping people though providing basic support services: affinity groups, childcare, legal representation, HIV specific healthcare – though no drugs were available then – whatever they had trouble accessing because they were so stigmatized.
What we did as an NGO was small, it was the people we worked with who did all the work, we lust helped to get them on their feet financially and bring them together in a common space. They were the ones who fought for their dignity – they did an amazing amount of work in a very short period of time against unbelievable odds.
I’m so grateful I was able to see that in four short years. What a triumph it was to see people with HIV go from covering their faces whenever they went to the clinic to marching in the streets and changing national policy to make access to health care a human right. AIDS activists in South Africa sued the government and forced it to make anti-retroviral treatment available to everyone who needed them. Looking back, it was such a short period of time, but things were so dire everyday, you never thought you’d get anywhere. That was such an amazing gift to see people stand up and change their worlds. The long history of activism in South Africa was part of that, but these were very brave people, and they got it from being with each other, supporting each other. And from that, believing they could actually change institutions and doing it.
I think that the big difference between South Africa and the US is that in the US people don’t feel like they can change things. They’ve lost their faith in possibility.
So why did you leave South Africa and come back to the US?
Because they kicked me out. [laughs] I’d lived there for 4 years, and they told me I either had to become a permanent resident or go home. So I decided to go home for a while and see how I felt about being back here.
So how do you feel about being back?
I feel a lot more realistic about social change now. I think it’s pretty easy for people to gather around an issue like bringing down a regime that’s killing people. But making a commitment to rebuilding a society is a much longer process. When you’re building something rather than tearing something down, it takes a lot more faith to keep going. I knew a lot of people in South Africa were very disillusioned after the end of apartheid because things didn’t change overnight. Transforming society and transforming institutions is really, really hard work that takes a lifetime commitment. You can’t forget and you can’t give up. It’s easy to become complacent when things are going okay for you.
I was talking to a friend recently about how our parents lived through the Vietnam War era. We wondered how they just kept going each day as normal — you know, raising kids, going to work every day while we were involved in this horror. And you think about it and realize, How do I do it? People are farming and going to school and meanwhile there’s a war going on. It’s like when I lived in South Africa, I’d ask people what it was like living under apartheid, and they’d say something like: “Um… it was OK… You know, we were just kind of waiting for the revolution to come and just went about our business…” — well, that’s what the white people said, anyway. The black people had a very different take on life under apartheid.
Athens is an amazing place, but it’s sometimes too easy a place to live if you’re progressive, because people in the City of Athens are so like-minded. It’s easy to become isolated from the larger economic system around us in Appalachian that’s pretty unjust, just as so many Americans are isolated from the larger unjust global economic system.
I think that’s why we need mentors to keep us awake sometimes. I remember listening to Art Gish talk about activism, and he said something like, “My goal is to meet more old activists.” He meant that it’s really easy to be an activist when you’re young. It’s really easy to protest because you’re pretty disenfranchised when you’re young. You’re trying to fight the establishment that’s keeping you down because, really, you’re not part of it. So if you’re Art Gish and you’re in your 70s, and you’re still fighting to make things right…
That’s somebody who’s just remarkable, and is just an inspiration. Because any time I start to think “Oh, this is so difficult. I just want to hang out and enjoy life in Athens and think that everything is fine and forget that we’re at war,” I remember people like him who just keep going because they have perseverance and integrity. And they probably have had a lot of people around them, too, that help them to stay resilient.
I just saw an interview with Peggy Gish on the Soul of Athens website on her experience of being kidnapped in Iraq, and still remaining committed to continuing her work with Christian Peacemaker Teams. If you ever lose sight of why to keep going, watch that interview. Peggy is just so remarkably steadfast about her morality. I’m sure like everyone she wavers at times, but her life is very inspiring because she’s just a regular person. So you realize – wow, a regular person can do that if they just keep at it.
[Editor’s note, 2/3/13 – Sadly, Art Gish died in a tragic farming accident in July 2010. He is greatly missed.]
Of course, folks like Peggy and Art Gish, their activism is grounded in their religious faith. What about activists who aren’t religious?
Well, I don’t believe in God — let’s put it that way. But I do believe in people working together in fellowship, because it’s really hard to keep going on your own. One of the most positive things religion offers to people is that fellowship – support for each other in keeping faithful to their values. You can apply that to just about anything, so I guess the trick is the right fellowship and the right values. I’m sure the executives at Enron were pretty faithful to their cause, too. So it’s about the right actions, too.
But with this idea of fellowship in mind, my advice to activists is to be a lot gentler to each other and realize that we’re actually working towards the same ends, even if we’re going about it different ways or have personality conflicts. Activists tend to be very passionate people with very strong opinions, which is what makes them so committed. But our efforts also becomes so personal to us that we often lose sight of working on bigger fights instead of internal turf wars and which group is exclusively entitled to work on what issues.
But what about the person who says “My activism is being nice to people’?
Um… I’m not sure I know what vou mean. Was this me? (laughs)
No. I don’t know if we’d be friends if it was you, because to me… Well, this interview is supposed to be about you, not me.
Yeah, but you said this was going to be a conversation, not just about me…
OK… Well, to me that statement about activism just being about being nice to people expresses a very unfortunate misunderstanding about the way the world works. Because, like, if I’m friendly to poor people, that doesn’t address the institutional roots of poverty. The world doesn’t suck because people aren’t nice to each other. The world sucks because we have these really screwed up social institutions that mediate how people affect one another.
Right. So what does it really mean to be nice to people? Does it mean being just? If you’re just being kind and friendly, that’s not a very difficult thing to do because you’re really doing it for yourself. It’s a self-motivating act. If I just want to get through life and feel I’m a good person and living an ethical life by smiling as I buy all my groceries at Wal-Mart, then that’s just blissful ignorance. But, being nice is the minimum as far as what people should do.
Well, I guess being nice is more than a lot of activists can seem to manage.
Yeah, a lot of activists just end up attacking each other because they’re so frustrated. Social change takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of work. Any kind of relationship-building, which is what social change is, takes a lot of personal work. It forces you to figure out how to get along with people who aren’t like you. Whereas capitalism isn’t about that at all. That’s why it’s so much easier, I think. Capitalism isn’t relational, it’s transactional.
But isn’t that what’s so great about capitalism? Just like Milton Friedman said – people who hate each other don’t even have to know if the very people who made their food or their clothes are the people they hate. Of course, Friedman left out the part where you don’t have to know if a 7 year-old got paid a couple cents to make your shoes while the factory owner and the parent company are reaping all the profits…
Exactly. That’s why capitalism is so great. You don’t have to take any personal responsibility. You can just live in your own little bubble, not having to feel accountable for anything beyond your own needs. And that’s fine if you don’t have any ethics, but I think people actually want to do the right thing.
But getting back to being nice to people, you actually have to like other people to make social change work, and believe in them – I think that’s the most important thing. And not like, you know… stupid hippy love… I mean real commitment to care about people who might not be anything like you.
…and you can’t have me saying “stupid hippy love” in this interview. [laughs]
Oh come on, that’s going in there verbatim!
Alright… Stupid hippy love. That was a shout-out to you, Damon.
Why- because I exemplify it? [laughs]
No, I just knew you’d like that.
What I mean is that it takes a lot more than just wanting to work with people who are like you, or that thinking being nice is enough – neither takes very much courage or personal accountability. But the people I know who have exhibited longevity in working for social justice have accepted that everyone is in a different place as far as their understanding of an issue, and that needs to be understood and respected.
That’s something that frustrates me with activism and social change — forgetting that it’s actually about meeting people where they are and going from there. Everybody has to start somewhere. So the challenge is to do the work that’s hard even when you don’t want to, and to be understanding when you really don’t feel like it, and having in faith in people even when it seems impossible.