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Using the Arts to Reclaim Community Pride

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Originally appears in the Fall 2007 issue

Young people today in southeastern Tennessee never knew the barren red hills and deep eroded gullies that were here in their grandparents’ day. By the late 1800s, open-pit roasting of copper ore in the Copper Basin of the southern Appalachians had produced the largest man-made biological desert in the United States, and the ecosystem was in trouble. Fifty square miles of forested land had been stripped bare to provide fuel for the processing of copper ore; and any vegetation that was not lost to clearcutting had been decimated by the sulfur dioxide fumes released in the ore roasting. The Basin had become so barren that the bald, red land could be seen decades later from space as a huge scar on the landscape — other than the Great Wall of China, the only man-made feature on the planet that could be recognized from that distance. Today, the natural beauty of the Copper Basin is re-emerging as the result of a successful but ongoing environmental reclamation project, a combined effort of government, private companies and local citizens and organizations.

Given the community’s history of environmental degradation in the pursuit of economic goals, teachers at Copper Basin High School were determined to create a better future by educating their Grade 7-12 students about community pride and character. Successful community partnerships helped us establish a Learning Center at the school, and the arts became a focus of a progression of activities that has expanded over the past five years. In this article, I will outline a number of our arts-oriented initiatives, as well as the partnerships and community support we have developed to maintain the program in our small high school of 331 students.

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Angie Cook is the Coordinator of the Copper Basin Learning Center and a professional teaching artist with Artist-In-Education programs in Tennessee and Georgia. She is very interested in connecting cultural history and environmental concerns through the arts.