Luke Eric Lassiter, Brian A. Hoey, and Elizabeth Campbell
Trish Hatfield, Jim Hatfield, Cat Pleska, and Angie Rosser
Interview by Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth
On January 9, 2014, a tank at the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River spilled up to 10,000 gallons of the coal washing chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (also known as MCHM) upriver of a West Virginia American Water intake. The release polluted the water of 300,000 residents in the Kanawha River Valley around the State’s capital City of Charleston, impacting residents in a variety of ways as the disaster unfolded over years.
JANA Book Review Co-Editor Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth zoomed in for a conversation with the co-editors and contributors of I’m Afraid of that Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis (West Virginia University Press 2020) to talk about the practice of collaborative ethnography and working as a team in the face of this disaster. Jasper sat down with the book’s co-editors, Luke Eric Lassiter, Brian A. Hoey, and Elizabeth Campbell, as well as collaborative co-authors Trish Hatfield, Jim Hatfield, Cat Pleska, and Angie Rosser. A review of the book will be featured in the Spring 2021 Journal for the Anthropology of North America. The authors chatted warmly with one another: reminiscing over past experiences, shared homemade baked goods at project meetings, and the attributes that they valued in one another in the process. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
One of the real strengths of the book is the attention to describing the collaborative process, providing rich examples and narratives of the collaboration itself. What does the process look like building a collaborative project? How do you translate ideas and experiences across the diverse group of professional and disciplinary experiences in the book?
There are so many different kinds of points of collaboration that affect what the final book looks like. And each of these different places or sites or times or areas of collaboration brings different members of the group, or perhaps the whole group, into conversation, reflecting on both the process and the text as it evolves. Both the project and the eventual book head off in different directions. This book could have turned out a thousand ways but for the particular conversations that happened at particular times. Then when we got into the book itself, the feedback from the press, the reviewers, and all those other participants become collaborators as well. It ends up kind of taking all of these different sorts of trails, if you will.
To add to that, in the past, collaborative ethnography was organized around, as we point out elsewhere, metaphors of agreement and pulling together projects around agreement. But now I think most people think about doing collaborative ethnography in terms of difference. How do you work across important differences and agendas in outcomes and the things that you want to accomplish in a book project like this? Everybody brings to the table different backgrounds – academic or community-based personal backgrounds or disciplinary backgrounds – and they all bring different ideas, different perspectives, and things they want to accomplish. I think in these kinds of collaborative projects, those differences have to be foregrounded rather than subsumed under agreement. They have to be a critical part of how we come together. That’s something we try to foreground, both in the process and the research itself. In the past, when we did collaborative ethnography we thought a lot about how the book flows, very carefully working in such a way that all things agree with each other, to make a nice, seamless narrative. But we actually purposefully resisted creating a very clear narrative in this project, so that there was a little bit of jolting between chapters, such that it represented the actual collaborative process and the actual event itself as we explicitly illustrate.
It also is very important for me that we were all variously affected in different ways by the subject, insofar as it was a disaster or chemical release, as I came to call it. I think it was important as a common point of reference, even with our differences, in how we might want to speak about our experience, or dispute our experience. But we all had, at least in some sense, that shared experience, and that might not be true of other projects where people come together on a topic and talk somewhat more abstractly. We all experienced and spoke to an experience that was an essential part of helping the collaborative process get to a certain shape. But it could have taken quite a different path had there not been a common experience, albeit with different dimensions and different qualities.
What comes out again and again for me in thinking about the project is the support and respect provided by Eric and Beth and Brian. Every time we got together, it felt like everyone felt comfortable to speak to what was foremost on their minds and what the experience was like for them. Each time Eric called a meeting, it was just the right time to call a meeting. He was really sensitive, I think, to what needed to happen next in the process, which would prompt us to move farther along with what we were individually working on.
I think for me, as the resident hothead [laughs], this just exacerbated the frustration that we West Virginians, our families, and ancestors, have lived through, in 150 plus years of environmental damage and very little change. They allowed me in these meetings to express that frustration. I think I was kind of the resident frustrated person like those we ultimately interviewed in our oral history collection, who expressed that frustration on a number of levels. What amazed me about this whole process was the evolution. We began with just an oral history project, but then it would evolve. From just the collection of the oral histories and maybe a paper written on them, it evolved into a radio program. [Eric] involved the students and that enabled the collaboration with students for me as a faculty member and public scholar. Then we decided to do a book, and I just thought that was fantastic. It just was the most wonderful evolution, and a wonderful point to reach was where we could reach the most people who really need to know, to know about the reactions of the people on the ground level who had been affected the most. And by the way, I was not affected by this spill. I was on a different water system.
But we came to your house to wash clothes.
Yeah, I wouldn’t say you were unaffected.
Yeah, people would show up, you know, kind of disheveled with their towel or soap. It was surreal for them, and for me, and I was happy to help. But it was a really strange time period, only exceeded by the pandemic.
Angie, do you want to say anything about it?
This book needed to happen. It needed to happen on a very personal level for those of us who were affected, to be heard, and to be seen, and be documented in this way. It needed to happen to bring together the intersection of cultural values and lived experiences, and the political aspect as well. That’s the world I work in, and what I realized is that stories and lived experiences of people are essential to identifying injustices and calling them out. It provides a platform for individual and collective action that leads to change. It becomes this collective identification and action in defining the world we want to create together, and that that is one of the most powerful things about this project.
That was a really nice summary statement.
Yeah, she’s always good for those. [Laughing] That’s why she wrote the afterword.
One thing I was struck by in a couple of the passages that you wrote was that you talked about not necessarily wanting to do an ethnographic project. You talk about having this experience and then actually quoting Trish at one point saying to you, “now you’re talking like an ethnographer.” There is this commonality that came across and sort of egging each other on to build towards this kind of collective.
I really do feel like that Trish and Jim, for me, were the impetus behind the project because they were pushing us, pushing me, and then pushing more people to think about what we could do. This is Trish and Jim; that’s the Hatfield magic that I mention in the book. And I very much appreciated that. When writing the book, I wanted to be honest and upfront about that because it was an important impetus for pulling us together and thinking about what we could do. I think this is the way how a lot of collaborative projects work. They don’t begin with the idea, “let’s write a book together.” They evolve out of relationships, and out of common experience and, perhaps, common projects. As Cat pointed out, it wasn’t until very late in the process that we decided to do a collaborative ethnography. I knew what was involved with that. I knew the kind of work it would take, and so I was, to be honest, a little reticent all along, and sort of thinking about, okay, we can do the oral history. And maybe we could publish the oral histories. But I think the way the relationship evolved produced the collaborative ethnography. It wasn’t the other way around. It didn’t begin with collaborative ethnography. The relationship led to the ethnography. For me, that’s a critical difference between what collaborative ethnography is in relation to other kinds of research methods. Collaborative ethnography is very attentive, first and foremost, to relationships and how those relationships push in particular directions to create the projects that we do. From the very beginning, things like research agendas and what we wanted to accomplish were negotiated in the context of those relationships, not in the context of disciplinary needs to answer certain questions.
To follow up on that, Brian talked earlier about the shared experience that brought us all together. But I think something that’s critical to all collaborative projects is a shared commitment to the project itself, even if you don’t share the experience of what’s being documented. We’ve done work, for example, in African-American communities and with pioneer farmers, and although we may not all have direct connections to the experience, we all share commitment to the project. So that’s a really critical part of it to me as well.
I just want to add on to Beth, in terms of thinking about Kenneth Mize, the veteran [that was interviewed] and what courage it took for him to come and meet with me. He did it out of love for the executive director of Covenant House, and his love and appreciation for her was the only reason he was in that room. And he does say that at the end [of the interview] that he was sweating bullets, and that he just hopes he contributed something. I think as we go along, it seems to me, we all have an innate commitment to doing good stuff. When I found out what it took for Kenneth to meet with me and that he really hopes to add something. Well, I was already committed to the project but he deepened it for me that’s for sure.
Can you consider studying up in a collaborative ethnography? Some of the voices that are not present in in this text are those of the administrators and political figures who are more represented by other media representations. Do you invite people to be part of the conversations or not invite them knowing that they could potentially dominate conversations or intimidate people?
Our program, the graduate program I direct, is involved in another project along these lines, that is very much about studying up, which we’ve been doing a long time, The Glenwood Project. But in this project (I’m Afraid of That Water) we very purposefully wanted to focus on the voices that were not being heard. In early conversations as the group developed and got larger, the one group that was consistently being misunderstood was the general population, those who were not drinking the water because they were, as some media outlets characterized it, just “afraid of the water” for psychological reasons. One study, that we reference in the book, essentially concluded that the reason people were afraid to drink the water, even a year after the crisis, was because they didn’t understand how science works. The study didn’t say that directly, but that was the implication – that these West Virginians understood how science works, how it is debated and negotiated, they would start drinking the water. I think so much of the focus of the media and on the crisis itself revolved around the centers of power, and everyday people were being regularly disregarded outside of very surface-level sentiments. So we felt like, even with the problems of studying up, that we really wanted to focus on this group, and the reasons why they were not drinking the water from their perspective, instead of these other voices that had been covered a lot in other outlets. Early on, Brian and I gave a presentation at the Oral History Association, and that was the first question, “why aren’t you interviewing politicians?” And my answer was: Because they’re already being interviewed! There’s lots of stuff out there with their interviews, and I doubt their interviews are going to be much different with us because they’re going to be very protective about what they say. That’s not to say that we didn’t interview a wide range of people, though. We interviewed doctors, we interviewed lawyers, hotel workers, the young, the elderly, we interviewed homeless people, we interviewed representatives from different positions in the city and tried to be attentive to a diversity of experiences.
You have the official and expert narratives you try to represent in the book, but then there’s also these other sort of narratives that creep out in the political space tying symbolic ideas of how resilient West Virginians are that isn’t necessarily an official expert narrative, but it’s certainly one that’s tied into power.
Yeah, there was always this will to overcome, and I noticed that in a number of
the responses of people that I talked to. You know, people say things like, the whole area got together and they share, everybody had water, knocking on doors and this sort of thing. But then on the other hand, that sort of frustrated me because, “oh yes, we cope and we fix.” We kind of fix everything for one another through our strength and we shall overcome and this sort of thing. But then it seems to directly lead to no permanent change so that this doesn’t happen again. […] And I also said that one of the reasons this particular chemical spill got a lot of attention is because it hit the rich people in in the urban areas, whereas it’s been going on for 150 years in southern West Virginia where water quality has been exceedingly poor if not dangerous and cancer-causing for a lot of communities for decades and decades and decades. From my perspective, the frustration was centered in the fact that nothing’s going to happen here either.
In your earlier questions Jasper, you used the words “slow motion disaster.” I’ve been really thinking about that phrase, and how it plays into what I’ve noticed about West Virginia being what’s known as a sacrifice zone in terms of extractive industries and chemical manufacturing. I wonder how that gets internalized with us, that we just have to come to accept that living here means accepting pollution or lower health. Someone pointed out that there are major employers here and it’s just a tradeoff, and even now, currently, we’re in a policy debate over limiting the amount of toxins in our water supplies. What’s now entered into this debate is the idea that because West Virginians weigh more than average, drink less water than average, eat less fish than average, it should be acceptable to allow more pollution in our drinking water supplies. So, wow, what does that mean to me? Am I less worthy? Am I less deserving? It’s like we hear a lot of investment in talk about disaster response and faster mitigation. What if we put that much attention into reducing the risk in the first place? Why not risk avoidance versus risk response and risk reduction? What is it that holds us back as West Virginians to answer that? I think that’s a very complex question.
I think that it connects to the point made across the text that these disasters become naturalized. How did you avoid naturalizing the disaster in these same ways as you wrote?
I started off picking up the same language that everyone else was using then. I don’t have a problem with the use of the term spill, for example, as it appears throughout the book. Yet in my own writing I ultimately challenged myself on that usage. I didn’t attempt to make anyone change how they described it in that regard. Given that I was taking a more analytic view, I problematized it and came to describe what happened on the Elk River as a “release.” Some of that comes from the notion of the slow motion disaster that helps us to think about these things as something that unfolds over time. We tend to think of a disaster, in this case, as a “spill,” like you’re sitting at a table and knock a glass off the table. It’s an immediate thing that happens in time and space, but you don’t tend to think about things that led up to you knocking that glass off the table, for instance gesticulating and enjoying a conversation. For something like what happened on the Elk River, there are many things that happened, and didn’t happen, that led to that release long before it happened. We’re not yet entirely sure if that happened in a singular spill or, indeed was released over time. It seems as if it were leaking for some time prior to the recognition that it was happening by any sort of official. Certainly people smelled it over the course of hours and days before there was any notification that such a spill had happened. I use the term “released” to bring to mind this idea that something was happening over time. Nobody needed to stand there to open a valve. People not doing certain things allowed it to happen, which made it more, in my mind, a release. I mean it’s kind of like where we are right now with COVID-19. We knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. It was the same there with this Freedom Industries site on the Elk River a mere mile and change above the intake valve – the only one at that – of West Virginia American Water. There was not a question of if, only when, something would happen. Similarly, there’s plenty of epidemiologists saying this is coming, really the only question is when. And here we are. It’s the inactions as much as the actions that are important.
Is collaborative ethnography something that is well suited to study slow motion disaster?
Well, I should point out that several ethnographers talk about collaborative ethnography being a slow method. Any methodology that can take the time to understand something like this, as partial, as incomplete, as it is in any sense, is
very appropriate for this kind of thing. Because I think, as Brian points out in his chapters, that this is something that people are still dealing with. And as Angie recently pointed out in one of our talks, 80% of the legislative bill that was originally put forward to solve this problem has been dismantled. It’s still ongoing. This will be ongoing for a long time. When the next disaster happens, that dismantling will lead to the next disaster.
I feel like I also need to acknowledge that I’m not there anymore. I left. I still remember when I went out to get the newspaper that morning. It was January. I remember that I must have had shorts on, because in my memory, my knees are cold. I went to pick up the newspaper, and that smell was so heavy in the air. And I think what’s most remarkable to me is not that the smell was so heavy in the air, but that I stood there for a few minutes trying to identify it. And then I figured out, well, it’s new, and turned around and went back in the house. For me, I guess I’m experiencing some guilt, but that was the beginning of the end for me and West Virginia. So I keep talking about commitments, and I think that both this project and that incident was the beginning of my own unraveling. I remember being so enraged that day. I was doing some work that required me to be at the legislature fairly frequently back then, too. And there were these moments of hope when I thought something might happen. There were actual moments. I remember a bunch of people walking around a rooftop kind of passageway [at the capitol building]. And I remember a bunch of people there talking and feeling really hopeful. And as it became clear that nothing was going to change, I made the decision to leave. There’s a part of me that feels really guilty about that.
So this was the beginning of something that really altered the course of your life. How did you work on translating these really deep powerful emotional sensory experiences into black and white words on a page?
Well, I am a creative nonfiction writer, so I kind of live in the words of sensory information all the time. So my first go-to is what did it feel like, what were the textures? What was the smell? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you taste? What perked my ears up when I was interviewing people was this: what was that first sense that made you alert about this whole situation? And it wasn’t just the smell. It was also the physicality of it for the people who got sick. One person’s cats got sick a week before she realized anything was wrong. Her cats were throwing up; they refused to drink water. My thinking is that from the top of the legislature and down to the humblest person, the first thing we notice is in the body at the sensory level. For me it was to ground everything that we wrote in that sensory information that was coming through, because that’s where we all live. We all live here. We don’t live in words. We live in what sensory information as it comes to us and sets off alarms, and then we go from there.
This was really essential for my understanding of disaster experience and, in particular, the contamination experience as I describe it in the context of a disaster involving chemical releases. We see how people use their sensory experience to attempt to assess things such as risk. People reasonably look to their sense perception as a way of assessing what their degree of risk is. We return to our senses as the way to go, is this is right? Is this good? Should we be worried? Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. In a situation with something like radiation, for example, you can’t perceive it. So your senses are not useful to you, and where does that place you? In the case of MCHM, it’s kind of unusual in that it was so sensorially distinctive and pervasive. In fact, if anything, that heightened the sense of unease and danger for people, as an additional uncertainty. But if you don’t smell it, does that mean it’s okay? People would say, well, my water no longer stinks. Can I drink it? You have something like the flushing, the so-called attempt to mitigate the presence of the chemical in the water supply lines, at least. That only made it worse for people if they were visited by this intense odor and the symptoms that people experienced. It’s an essential part as it is with so many of these disasters.
I’m thinking about when Eric and I were in graduate school in the 90s, way back then. We were coming up against a way of writing that was extraordinarily dry and just not terribly interesting and rationalized and all of that. And there were so many really interesting projects that focused on the sensory, and I still remember reading Paul Stoller (The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology, 1989, University of Pennsylvania Press) and just like waking up. […] It was really encouraging to read all of these different ways of experimenting, with trying ethnopoetics, trying to represent experience on the written page. I don’t know if any of that stuff gave me a particularly effective way to do it, but they gave me license to try. I think that finding some way to represent experience so that it resonates with the reader is just so critically important.
I think what was so important to their work, like that of Paul Stoller and the many others who were working on this, was that the experimentation called attention to the fact that you can never completely describe these kinds of things in their totality. By playing on the the written page with that stuff, it was always foregrounded that these are sentences and paragraphs, and this – experience – is something else. All that we can do is to do the best that we can, and if we begin to think that we are truly capturing it, we’ve missed the whole point.
I think in some ways the licorice smell is emblematic of that, because if we were just to say, “I walked out and it smelled like licorice.” That’s one thing. But if you go out and you say, “I stopped and I felt the cold air on my knees and I took a sniff, and asked myself, ‘Is that licorice? Or is that rubber? Or what is that? Is it sweet?’” So you’re representing that sensory experience, but you’re also representing the grappling with it in the moment. And I think that’s important for the written part, for describing experience as it unfolds.
I’m just so glad that Brian raised the lack of presence here. Stuff that is even more difficult to capture, but yet is often not talked about, because these things that aren’t sensed, but are also part of our world, we can be completely unaware of. And I think sometimes that lack of attention is, in and of itself, a problem. I’m really glad you brought that up. I’ve been thinking about it ever since you said it.
I suppose that I think smell is a particularly unique sense that we have. Probably everyone here has the experience where when you smell something, it just takes you back instantly in time. It’s like a time warp. For me it’s smelling a black walnut. If I pick that up and smell it, I’m taken back instantly to when I was in grade school. We had a black walnut tree in the front yard, and I would climb that and smell it. I think that smell is a particularly powerful sense that we have. Probably folks who went through the water crisis, on a very personal basis, when they smell licorice again, they’ll be whisked back to the Kanawha Valley at that time.
If you were to say to anybody who was in that that nine county area at that time, “that licorice smell.” Just those three words, boom. You know that that was the thing that tied everybody’s experience together. Wouldn’t you say? It was a touchstone.
Through that attention, the work does a great job describing what collaborative ethnography looks and feels like, including students and their experiences. Could you speak a little more about how you would like people to use the book in teaching?
In terms of pedagogy, it’s something that Beth and I have been talking about for a long time. How do you move these kinds of things from collaborative ethnography, as research, to collaborate pedagogy, where collaborative pedagogy is the process of faculty, students, and community partners working together and learning and teaching each other. It’s not always happening in an academic, hierarchical way, in a traditional way. How does that then transform classrooms? How does it transform larger teaching strategies? How does it transform programs? Involving students in these kinds of projects involves getting them involved on the ground that then leads to other kinds of projects. Collaborative ethnographic projects lead into other relationships where students can, through their work, be a part of these collaborative relationships as they unfold. To me that’s ideal.
If I was going to use it in a class, I might take a look at three different projects that we’ve been involved in. I might take a look at The Other Side of Middletown (2004, AltaMira Press) where we were early on in this collaborative research process, and we were trying to produce something like a seamless narrative. Then I might take a look at another project that we were involved with a couple of years ago, 2015-2016, in the United Kingdom, called Reimagining Contested Communities (2018, Policy Press). Then I might take a look at this project and all of these different projects side by side. Even though some of the same people were involved, they’re so different. That’s because of the context of the project, the people who are involved, and the way in which it emerged. I think the Reimagining Contested Communities book gave us the courage to not do a seamless narrative, to kind of acknowledge all the things, the heterogeneity, the jumble of voices that make up these communities in which we live and work. But, if you’re going to be in the academy, then you also have to acknowledge that, or be willing to understand it if you’re going to embrace this kind of research, that this is not the research that is done at the centers of power.
I had an academic say to me that she was kind of amazed that I worked directly on one chapter with a student. I think the concern was – because I was a teacher and this was a student – that I would overpower and take control of the chapter. From the get-go, that never occurred to me. I never thought about it because when that student stepped out of the classroom and became my collaborator within the larger collaborative effort, that person was my equal. I listened to him. I would send my writing to him. He was in a writing class of mine, and I was very familiar with his level of writing. And that’s where things started, and I thought we wrote very similarly. I would send my work to him, and he would comment and send his work to me. I would comment, and together we drafted that chapter. Then the editors took it from there and checked with us and said, “is how we’ve looked at it okay?” It never occurred to me that if you’re going to invite a student in on a project like this that there should be some sort of hierarchy within the group.
Is there anything else I should add or you want to include?
I think Angie should have the last word [laughs].
I want to say something coming back to the value we place on collaborative ethnography and who places that value. I just want to bring in my perspective as a community partner, about the values that go well beyond academia, at the very individual level, the people who shared their stories, the impact on them, and the lasting empowerment of that experience that they will carry forward in their life, that value. What I mentioned earlier about this project putting things in a political context is so relevant and timely. This story has unique aspects but it’s part of a larger narrative of injustice and recovery and finding one’s voice and one’s place in affecting change that recognizes humanity. So those are the kinds of values I hope get expressed through this book and through this interview.
Thank you all so much for making the time to meet today!
I’m Afraid of that Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis is available from West Virginia University Press at https://wvupressonline.com/node/829
Elizabeth Campbell is the chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University.
Luke Eric Lassiter is a professor of humanities and anthropology and director of the Marshall University graduate humanities program.
Jim Hatfield is an advocate for safe water systems in the Charleston, WV area, following a career with Union Carbide as a research scientist.
Trish Hatfield is a program assistant for the Marshall University graduate humanities program and a board member of Step by Step Inc. (Charleston, WV).
Brian A. Hoey is a professor of anthropology and associate dean of the honors college at Marshall University.
Cat Pleska is an author, educator, and storyteller who teaches part-time for the graduate humanities program and full-time in the English Department at Marshall University.
Angie Rosser is the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.