When we summon an image of local grass-roots social activism, the Catholic Action Center or the Nathaniel United Methodist Mission might come to mind. Both organizations help the most needy among us, and both have been recipients of the Lauren K. Weinberg Humanitarian Awards, given by the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice.
But when we see someone or some organization doing what we could do ourselves, we often don't get involved. We figure others are taking care of the problem or need. We also probably think we don't have what it takes to make change. But social activism takes individuals and individual talents.
"We have to look at social justice beyond the obvious," said Debra Hensley, a longtime supporter of the conference. "We have to look at how we define social justice."
To help broaden our image of a social justice activist, the KCCJ selected a poet and a band as the humanitarians for 2011. They might not fit the image we have created, but they are working for social justice.
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Poet Frank X Walker and the Reel World String Band have used their talents as artists to help their communities and neighbors combat stereotypes, injustices and oppression for many, many years.
Their focus on inequities through literature and music — not food, clothing and shelter — is a different type of activism, showing us that we can use our talents to help others.
"It seems to be a conscious effort to be broader," Walker said of KCCJ honoring the band and himself. "We both represent perceived marginalized audiences and parts of Kentucky outside the Golden Triangle. We are artists. Artist activists."
Bev Futrell, guitarist with Reel World String Band and one of the four original members still performing, agreed, saying that from the beginning, the five-woman band wanted to produce good music and represent the rich culture of southern Appalachia.
In addition to Futrell, the band features Sue Massek on banjo, Karen Jones on fiddle, Herald-Leader employee Sharon Ruble on bass, and Elise Melrood — the newest member, with only 15 years under her belt — on keyboard.
The women have entertained for picket lines and strikers, but they also have helped to raise money for "Hammering in the Mountains," an effort by former President Jimmy Carter to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.
They've raised money for women's centers and community centers in Appalachia, and they have written and performed songs that celebrate activists and appeals for environmental protection.
"We thoroughly enjoy supporting all the causes in the Appalachia region that we played for," Futrell said. "We love giving back to the community through our music."
With a mix of country, swing, blues and jazz influenced by traditional and old-time music, the band — which has been together 34 years — has fought mountaintop-removal coal mining, and supported garment workers in Olive Hill as well as women's issues.
"Early on in our careers of making music, we all quit our day jobs to play music full time," Futrell said. "We soon realized that wasn't going to happen."
To have been commercially successful, "We would have to play where we didn't want to play, and play music we didn't want to play," she said.
Instead, the group sat with "plain people from the mountains" and "heard from them what life was like and how we could help," Futrell said.
"If we are playing for friends locally or playing on the picket line, or if we find ourselves in New York City, our message is always the same thing," she said. "We love Kentucky and we have causes down here we need help in supporting."
Walker echoes that sentiment. Knowing he will be honored with the band, Walker said, made the recognition sweeter: "It added meaning."
Walker, an associate English professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of several acclaimed books, including the most recently published Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate this Ride, is a co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets, which has become a movement in which African-American culture blends with Appalachian identity. Walker coined the phrase because he wanted the public to know that the people of Appalachia are not all white. He wanted to break the stereotypical image.
Along that same line, Walker created the Isaac Murphy Bike Club because, as an avid cyclist, he was dismayed to find so few blacks riding bikes. The club was created to give children in Lexington's East End bikes and bike training so they, too, can ride on the Legacy Trail.
It was a club that needed to be started, work that needed to be done. Walker, who has been honored as "one of the most creative teachers in the South" by The Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing, said that when we see a photo of marchers during the 1960s, we tend to focus on the iconic people up front. But we can lose sight of the thousands of people in the background, steadily plugging holes and making sandwiches.
"I am not a racehorse," he said. "I'm a workhorse. The steady, the slow, the grass-roots stuff, I think that has substance. I've grown comfortable with that role."
Activism is a mission for him, he said, instilled by his mother, a Pentecostal minister, who wanted her son to follow in her footsteps.
"I followed her and other women around as she was trying to change the church," Walker said. "I learned this at my mother's skirt. I saw that missionary zeal and sacrifice. This is my mission."