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An interview with Fred Campbell
Grass roots communications from Canada to Appalachia

Part 1 - Communication for Survival

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
near Elkhorn City, Kentucky

Fred Campbell.
Fred Campbell. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

The following interview with Fred Campbell is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Communication for Survival

Fred Campbell: My name if Fred Campbell and I’m from Atlantic Canada. The work that I do is specifically in Newfoundland and even more specifically in rural western Newfoundland. I also do work in other areas of the world.

I work with Ryakuga, a grass roots communications company. We help people take control of the media process to facilitate communication with communities and develop self esteem among the community members. We work a lot with youth. We’ve helped initiate dialogue and cultural celebration on community radio and we help develop participant-controlled interactive community television.

In Motion Magazine: What town do you live in?

Fred Campbell: Stephenville. Stephenville is the hub of a large region which branches out.

In Motion Magazine: What does Newfoundland look like?

Fred Campbell: Newfoundland itself is the tenth largest island in the world so it’s not the same all over. It takes twelve hours to drive from one side of Newfoundland to the other. It’s a big place. St. John’s, one of its cities, is closer to Ireland than it is to Toronto.

In Motion Magazine: No.

Fred Campbell: Oh yes. It’s out quite far out in the ocean. Also, it has a long history. The Norse people had settlements there a thousand years ago. After them, you had the Basques coming, and the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, then the British. They had lots of wars there.

Basically it’s forest. There’s a lot of problems with clear cutting. They have pulp and paper mills. The biggest industry in Stephenville is pulp and paper mills. And, of course, the fishery was really strong but there was over-fishing caused by a corporate fishery which raped the sea and cleaned up the fish. There has been a cod moratorium for years. It’s still in effect but they’ve found other species of fish. It will never be what it was. It’s sort of like the coal mines in Kentucky closing down.

Newfoundland was late into the Canadian confederation. They were a British colony up until 1949. They were independent for a while and then, in 1949, they voted to join the Canadian confederation.

A big problem that occurred during the 50s and 60s was there was an official federal resettlement program. The government went through these tiny settlements and convinced people to go. They closed their schools, and gave them a few hundred dollars. They closed down hundreds of communities that had been there for generations. Communities that had been there for hundreds of years with lobster canneries, two story houses, established places - they just wiped them out.

In Motion Magazine: Why?

Fred Campbell: They had a grand program of having growth centers. They talk about the same thing here in Kentucky. For example, Hazard would be a growth center, and they’d take places like Kelly Fork and close them down because it is expensive to get water and other services to them. Close them down and get rid of the clinic. Get rid of the school. You save money. They have had periodic schemes in government where they have though of large scale industrialization, but of course it wasn’t very practical for Newfoundland.

In Motion Magazine: This was the Canadian government?

Fred Campbell: It was supported by both governments - the Canadian government and the provincial government. It was driven more by the provincial government.

It’s interesting because a lot of places in the world have resettlement, right? They move indigenous populations. The Brits used to do it a lot. For example, take Nova Scotia, you had the Acadian population who came very early in the late 1500’s. They had a massive agricultural civilization in Nova Scotia. They built the dikes. They had incredible orchards. They used to sell a lot in Boston. Then, in 1755, the British just rounded them up and shipped them off to Louisiana where they became the Cajuns. The British did the same in the Caribbean with the Garifuna people who were in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Britsh had a hard time defeating them, so they just put them in boats and sent them off to South America.

Historically speaking, re-settlement is a solution for governments when they want to avoid a problem. I’ve had some talks with development people in Kentucky. If you ask the question, “What would be more feasible if you are looking at big industrial development?” it would be more desirable to have the coal companies keep slashing the mountains away. But as for the people who live up the small hollows, just let them go away. Send them off. It’s related to the school consolidation that’s happening where the kids have to drive a long distance to school. What do you usually do? You follow the kids and go to the school. They call it “out-migration”. It’s happening now on a grand scale. People boarding up their homes. Moving out. Thousands. They don’t call it resettlement anymore, but it’s influenced by official government policies of closing down schools, closing down hospitals. It’s bad.

A lot of the work that I have been involved in, communication for survival, is working in communities with people to help them create a dialogue about their issues. They might use anything from newsletters to community television. Participant-controlled community television in Newfoundland. Early on, in the late ’70s, they started getting satellite TV so we just set up a satellite dish outside of town, wired it, and received television. You can plug into those things. It gives you an avenue to have town meetings that include everybody.

Town meetings that include everybody

High school students interview each other.
High school students create and use their own media during their protest and meeting with officials of the Department of Surface Mining, Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: To watch?

Fred Campbell: It’s more than that. Say, for example, you hold a public meeting and you ask people to get up and speak, a lot of people are going to be pretty shy about talking. But if you do your public event by television, it’s a lot easier to phone in from your kitchen to give your view. The events include cultural celebrations with beautiful scenery so that you have positive mirroring about where you are. Kids operate all the equipment.

In Motion Magazine: Is it this way because of the distances between people in rural areas?

Fred Campbell: I think it’s a general experience that it’s harder than it once was to call for a public meeting and get people to turn out. Why could be for various reasons. But it seems to be what is happening. Television is in most people’s homes so it’s a tool that is already available. It’s similar to the way that Appalshop uses radio.

In Motion Magazine: Do a lot of people participate?

Fred Campbell: It varies. It depends on how relevant the issue is. One of the most relevant public discussions that I can remember was in the French district and they were having problems with their water supply. It was also tied in to problems of local government which called for a collective solution. They ended up deciding to work themselves to collectively reconstruct their water supply.

You see the same thing at Kelly Fork. Water is a pretty unifying problem. It stares you right in the face. They talked about their local government and why it wasn’t working. It was all tied in together and it revealed their inability to deal with the water problem through conventional avenues.

Critical mass

In Motion Magazine: What kinds of things come out of these events?

Fred Campbell: Again it varies. It could be a simple thing, for example the government created a new economic zone in that area. The people who were doing economic development and were partners in all of this kind of stuff wanted to let people know what was changing. In that case, it was more for delivery of information. But quite obviously, in the case of the water, the public discussion was more important. I don’t think they solved their water problem but they worked on it and they did have a new election.

I remember in one community a forum on youth issues. They decided they needed a place for youth, so the community got together and found a place for youth and started programming for youth. This was voiced out of youth’s concerns. Maybe it’s critical mass. You can have youth mumbling all over the place about the need but it doesn’t get heard as much as it does in this sort of public event. We call them community forums. It’s about our interest in being a facilitator of participatory grassroots communication.

In Motion Magazine: Is that what you do in other countries?

Fred Campbell: Yes, I’ve worked quite a lot in the Caribbean. There, it’s more centered on youth work. I think more in the Caribbean the groups are advocacy groups. For example, there was an early indigenous leader that they wanted to be recognized as a national hero. They were doing a lot of advocating for that on radio. It’s not just that that person was a legendary hero it’s that there’s an indigenous population there that is not being recognized who they feel should get a better deal. One issue leads to another.

Youth are the vehicle for this kind of expression

In Motion Magazine: Do you describe that as a form of art?

Fred Campbell: I think that to a large extent what I do is to set up environments in which things can happen. The environment is like a stage and what happens within it is like theater. I’ve worked with theater people in combining the community television forum with a theatrical presentation - like a popular theater presentation where they want to confront the audience with an issue and want the audience to participate. The setting, say for example in Newfoundland with community television, the setting is a grassroots community studio. But it’s not like mainstream television with great huge cameras. There are small cameras that people can use easily and the equipment is very user-friendly. And it’s always local people, youth, involved in it. The programming is set up not as an imitation of television. It’s more like a community event where people play music. There’s announcements in between. We add the discussion to it as well.

In Stephenville, the woman that I’m working with who is working directly with the youth to facilitate this process is a theater person. She even does theater on television with the youth. The way she leads it is from a director’s approach of theater. But it’s not like mainstream television. It’s a different approach.

In Motion Magazine: On what level do the youth participate?

Fred Campbell: The youth are the people who are technically doing it. There are no other technicians there. Quite often the programs are hosted by youth, though quite often there is an adult part as well. We are continuing to examine what we do. Questioning how we approach it. Finding words to describe we what we do.

In one of the latest initiatives that we are working on, which we call Sharing Our Future, we analyzed the principles of what we are doing. Right? Youth are the vehicle within the community, in much the same way as the kids were the other day in Frankfort. The kids are so essential in that kind of event. It wouldn’t have been the same if they had gone with a group of old miners. It would have been an entirely different situation. Because elements of theater and dance were incorporated, it became a different event again. But it wasn’t a youth project.

It’s not youth work because it’s issues faced by the whole community and it’s inclusive of the whole community. I’m not there, yet, but the best words that I have to describe it are, that youth are the vehicle for this kind of expression. They are not afraid of the technology. Parents are not afraid when they see their children making television, carrying on an event like that. They feel pride in themselves. As adults, they are more likely to move on there own issues and stand up. This is the reason for the cultural input we include. What I call cultural celebration. It’s so people feel better about themselves. When they have more self esteem, they are more likely to analyze what is happening and strategize for the future.

In Motion Magazine: What is cultural celebration?

Fred Campbell: In all the events, music is really important. A lot of people think of it as entertainment, which it is to a certain extent, but that’s not the purpose for it. The purpose is that people have their own music. It’s their own self-identity. By having their own musicians and appreciating the quality of their work, they feel better about themselves.

In Motion Magazine: So were you thinking you would apply some of your work to this situation, or that just happens to be your background?

Fred Campbell: I think my situation is a bit different than the people I was with because I don’t think of myself as an artist. Though I’ve had arguments with people who have said what I do is art, “You are using video in this way. It is art. Right?” Which is interesting. It’s probably more of working in media much the same way that a lot of Appalshop people are working in media.

In Motion Magazine: Well, filmmaking is considered art, right? Why do you think you are not an artist? Are you more of an organizer? Where do they cross over? Do you do straight film making?

Fred Campbell: Yes, I do production work. Maybe because they are documentaries. It’s interesting I hadn’t thought of that. I think I dismissed the ties.

Maybe I do have a bit of schizophrenia in dividing the two. I do production work but I see it as being different from the community type work that I do.

One of the things I feel strongly about in the community work is not exaggerating the importance of the work I do. I think some people feel the artists aren’t giving enough credit to the community. These communities have been organizing for generations. They’ve been taking on their issues for generations. It’s not that they don’t know what their issues are or they haven’t faced up to them. They face a problem of being in a peripheral area that doesn’t have a strong voice and they have to constantly fight back. It’s also an area of natural resources which are, like they are everywhere else, being taken out of the ground and taken away. It was quite obvious when we went to Kelly Fork that we weren’t inventing anything. We were moving into a process that was under way. We were being welcomed into a process and we added a little bit to the process. But those processes are ongoing.

I think of the work that I do as a plug-in into work that is already underway. It can enhance the opportunities, and I think that is important, but it’s not the most important or the reason that it is happening.

In Motion Magazine: But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It is both.

Fred Campbell: Yes, but I think that another one of the principles that we are working with is absolute local control. Quite often when you have outside intervenors going in they want to take the credit for what is happening in the community. When I work in Newfoundland, I’m participating in a process that goes way back. Some people would say it goes back to the sixties to the Challenge of Change and the Fogo Process. A woman said to me yesterday, who works in Access TV in the States, “We in Access TV consider the Fogo Process the genesis of what we are doing.”

Published in In Motion Magazine October 15, 2000