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Lenny Kohm, ‘Legend and True Warrior for Environmental Justice, Human Rights,’ Dies at 74 in his Todd Home

Kohm - Photo by Jamie Goodman / Appalachian Voices
Kohm – Photo by Jamie Goodman / Appalachian Voices

By Jesse Wood

Sept. 30, 2014. Appalachian Voices Senior Campaign Advisor Lenny Kohm, who has been described as a “legend and true [gentle] warrior for environmental justice and human rights” by colleagues, passed away last week in his home in Todd at the age of 74.

Kohm’s foray into activism for the environment and social justice began in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and Canada, where he arrived as a photojournalist, according to a 2013 profile of Kohm in The Appalachian Voice.

He was soon, though, drawn to the native Gwich’in people, and for the next 13 years, Kohm travelled the region with tribe members to help educate people about oil development threatening inhabitants and the land.

“I wish I could remember how many slideshow presentations he did to protect the Arctic,” Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices, said. “He directly spoke to tens of thousands of people about that and many thousands and thousands more about mountaintop removal in Appalachia.”

That was Wasson trying to quantify Kohm’s impact, but on a qualitative level, Wasson added, “I’ve never known anyone with a better sense of how to wake people up to their own power, how much power they have as individuals to affect political change or just accomplish something good they care about.”

“He had,” Wasson continued, “a particular blend of confidence in away that I think came from just a real dedication to speaking the truth and a huge level of humility. That’s what made him so effective and a good advocate. It was never about Lenny. He always put others [and the message] up front and tried not to get in the way of that.”

To listen to Wasson reminisce about Kohm brings to mind the works of Lao Tzu, the author of Tao Te Ching, and Sun Zzu, the author of The Art of War” – something even Wasson noted would be befitting in a tribute of Kohm. (Actually, someone even put one of the quotes below on a memorial page for Kohm here.)

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say ‘we did it ourselves.'” – Lao Tzu

 “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” – Sun Zzu

Wasson stressed that Kohm emphasized winning the environmental battle was more about making friends and helping others than about making enemies and harming anyone. Wasson recalled whenever Appalachian Voices hired a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to stop mountaintop removal in Appalachia, Kohm was the person who mentored and tutored that lobbyist.

“His instructions were very simple: your job is to come up here and make friends on Capitol Hill,” Wasson recalled, noting that Kohm had “a very deep sense of strategy” pertaining to understanding people and their emotions.

Before that, though, Kohm arrived to Appalachian Voices at the request of Harvard Ayers, founder of Appalachian Voices, and witnessed first hand the impact mountaintop removal had on those living in Appalachia. He then began community outreach across the country from where he began his activism years earlier.

“Kohm spearheaded the Appalachian Treasures Tour, which connected residents impacted by large-scale surface mining to communities around the country. He believes the surest way to end the practice is to outlaw it, and maintains that constituent outrage and pressure is a critical component of any winning campaign,” according to that 2013 profile on Kohm.

Kohm then told The Appalachian Voice in that 2013 profile: “Some would see a separation between the social justice issue and the ecological issue, and that, I think, is a fallacy. There is no separation. They are one and the same. The people are part of the system.”

Wasson noted that in his 70’s Kohm had downsized to working part-time with Appalachian Voices for a much-deserved rest. However in this time, Kohm started a new project called Boots on the Ground.

“It was just about helping nonprofits and whoever wanted to be more effective at making change in the political arena,” Wasson said, adding that up until the day he died, Kohm was still helping people discover their own power.

Kohm’s colleagues at Appalachian Voices started a memorial page for him here. It features photos – new and old – of Kohm and also hundreds of comments from those that knew him and were impacted by his work.