Memorialized in May this year at the Ramey Cemetery in Lyon County, the service was fitting for a woman who was a legend in her fight for issues related to social and environmental justice. Described as a fierce but gracious activist for western Kentucky, she was a regional heroine to many and her influence reached across our nation.
I first encountered her in the 1970s when Harl Barnett, the publisher of the Tribune-Courier asked me to do a feature profile on her. At that time, she was the impetus behind securing Hollywood actor Tom Ewell to assist in directing the production of “Babes in Toyland” at Ken Lake amphitheater.
I would encounter her over the next two decades – sometimes as an antagonist when I worked for the federal government, and later as a protagonist when I started my public engagement firm in the 1990s.
Antagonist or protagonist, Whitehead taught me much about the importance of getting people to the table and keeping them there to talk. It was said, from age 19 until she passed at age 94, that she was a stalwart and consistent force against injustices, be it in the arts, human rights, the environment, or the intrusiveness of government in a person’s rights granted under our Constitution.
I know this to be true because I had seen her hold her own with arrogant and recalcitrant government managers and corporate executives. However, for some reason, she never intimidated me, rather she caused me to reflect on the importance of keeping everyone at the table to talk through the problem and find a solution that was mutually acceptable. That principle would later be the basis for our public engagement practice.
Having been displaced from her childhood home by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), she became a fighting voice for families who had been there for generations.
During the ’70s, I helped her and the federal managers engage in dialogue on the matters of clear-cutting timber and maintaining access roads into cemeteries within Land Between the Lakes. In the ’80s, I assisted her in establishing a dialogue about the threat of invasive species and water, and air quality issues on Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River. Moreover, in the mid-’80s, she outlined the dangers to the region’s infrastructure that could be wrought by an earthquake along the New Madrid fault.
Here is what you and I, as small business owners, and what government managers could learn from such an activist:
1. Listen to understand. I witnessed people who did not bother to listen carefully to the viewpoints, and at times, the demands, of Whitehead and her constituency. When someone brings us a problem, an issue or concern, even a question, it is incumbent on us to understand first what is being said or asked before we engage in the collaborative process of seeking a solution.
2. Passion will always trump bureaucracy. Few people, especially at the federal government level, believed Whitehead would change the process of eminent domain; however, representing approximately 5,000 families from Between the Rivers, she and her constituency argued for the right to a trial by jury regarding compensation for properties seized under the federal provision of eminent domain. The case stemmed from the seizure of land in Between the Rivers to create a national demonstration area in the 1960s. The Supreme Court sided with her argument for such a trial; unfortunately for the former residents, the ruling was not retroactive to the Between the Rivers’ complainants. Her passion for justice, combined with her research and analytical reasoning, demonstrated that the government’s project utilization and actual use (how many people would benefit vs. those displaced) were grossly overestimated. The project never achieved the 10 million visitors it projected for the first decade of operation nor has it ever. Passion for a cause and knowledge can overcome most any objection.
3. Know your opposition and their weaknesses. When it came to people’s health and the environment, she was at the tip of the spear. In the 1980s, Whitehead founded the Coalition for Health Concerns, a nonprofit group that advocated for environmental justice. She and her constituency fought to have LWD, a hazardous waste incinerator on the Tennessee River in Calvert City closed, and they were successful. They later advocated for compensation for workers whose health was impacted by their work at the US Department of Energy’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant; this was also a successful campaign. When people have been harmed, justice will prevail when persistence is applied, and you understand your opposition.
4. Vision is fraught with responsibility. The New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12 changed the course of the Mississippi River for a few days and formed Reelfoot Lake. In the 1980s, Whitehead’s research was primarily responsible for bringing public awareness of the earthquake vulnerability of the areas of western Kentucky and Tennessee and southeast Missouri. Agencies such as TVA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DOE, along with the U.S. Geological Survey Service were persuaded to assist in addressing the emergency management requirements of the region. Vision requires those who have it to accept the responsibility to get things done.
In 1990 when we established Armstrong and Associates (www.ldarrylarmstrong.com), I received a facilitation contract for DOE for a series of public meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee.
At the initial session in Paducah, I saw Whitehead for the first time in several years. We greeted each other respectfully, and she seemed pleased when I explained that I had started our firm with the mission of engaging in collaboration, often between differing parties, that would lead to mutually agreeable outcomes. I am grateful I had the foresight to thank her that evening for what she had taught me and others about the need for dialogue and collaboration in the face of disagreement.
With a sly smile and a firm handshake, she looked me directly in the eye and with authority said, “And don’t you forget it.”
Whitehead was an example of what Dr. Margaret Meade, the great anthropologist, and sociologist once exclaimed, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever does.”
L. Darryl Armstrong is a crisis prevention and management consultant. He can be reached at 1-888-340-2006 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is http://www.ldarrylarmstrong.com. He is available on a limited basis for speaking engagements and workshops.