By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 23, 2012
Environmental and social justice advocate Maria Gunnoe received a standing ovation from nearly 350 students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents as she approached the stage in Rackham Auditorium to deliver the annual Wallenberg Lecture Tuesday night.
Gunnoe, the 22nd recipient of the University’s Raoul Wallenberg Medal, spoke about her efforts to eliminate mountaintop removal coal mining and valley fill operations in her hometown of Boone County, West Virginia and across the nation. The University also honored her for her focus on educating others about environmental affairs.
Gunnoe began her humanitarian work in 2004 after a flood filled with toxic coal sludge destroyed her home and left thousands of others homeless. With teary eyes, Gunnoe discussed how the flood impacted her community and said she refuses to stop fighting against the coal mining that has negatively impacted the health and lives of so many people.
“We demand an end to the abuses of the people of Appalachia and our human rights,” Gunnoe said. “We deserve a life with healthy land, clean water, clean air and a clean sustainable energy and future for our children.”
During the event, University Provost Philip Hanlon said Gunnoe demonstrates qualities and values of Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 University alum who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. The University presents the annual award in his memory.
“She demonstrates how much difference one person can make,” Hanlon said while introducing Gunnoe. “Her dedication to educating and empowering others will have a lasting impact. She is an inspiring example of Wallenberg’s belief of the power of the individual.”
Gunnoe said Wallenberg inspired her to make a difference in the world, and understand the value of humanitarian work at all levels.
“I am humbled to be in the company of such an amazing person as Wallenberg,” Gunnoe said. “His human rights work allowed me to believe in real change to begin at the grassroots. Our struggles will always benefit the next generation if each generation continues to demand better for future generations.”
Gunnoe also discussed her testimony in June before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources about the Obama administration’s actions against the Spruce Coal Mine in West Virginia. The Spruce mine is a controversial project in West Virginia that the Obama administration tried to block.
She said the Republican committee members would not allow her to show a photo of a five year-old girl in a tub filled with “tea-colored bath water” to demonstrate the realities of hazardous water because it qualified as “child pornography.”
“They are willing to do just about everything to keep their evil deeds under protection,” Gunnoe said.
Sean Goodrich, an Engineering junior and a member of Students for Clean Energy, said Gunnoe’s activism is inspiring.
“She’s a really powerful testament to what one person can do to stop coal and to encourage more sustainable, clean energy,” Goodrich said.
Goodrich said Students for Clean Energy hopes to organize a grassroots movement to encourage the University’s investment in cleaner energy, adding that Gunnoe serves as a strong example of how to lead a successful grassroots movement.
“She emphasized that we should tell stories and try to spread word through the media,” Goodrich said. “Hearing this from Maria Gunnoe is very inspiring, and I think it can definitely help and rally our club to encourage some support for it.”
Goodrich added that though Gunnoe demonstrates the efficacy of a grassroots movement, there are still vast areas for growth in environmental efforts.
“Our work will never truly be done,” Gunnoe said. “We are all one person and this one person’s name is humanity.”