2015 Ketteler Award for Social Justice

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Sisters of Divine Providence presented the Ketteler Award for Social Justice to Beth Davies, CND. In 1998, the Sisters of Divine Providence instituted the Ketteler Award to honor individuals who demonstrate a strong commitment to social justice. The award, named for Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz, Germany, and founder of the Congregation, is presented annually.

Sister Beth Davies has served as an advocate and activist on behalf of the impoverished, addicted and exploited in the heart of Appalachia—a region left in despair by the coal industry. A member of the Congregation of Notre Dame, she has worked in close collaboration with the people of Southwest Virginia for more than 40 years, building effective substance abuse and addiction programs; fighting the intrusion of maximum security prisons; working for environmental protection; and developing a network of medical clinics.

Sister Beth was first drawn to the region by the poverty she witnessed during a visit in the summer of 1971. The region’s residents were receiving little return or reward from the coal industry and left with heavy environmental and social fallout. After spending a career as a teacher and administrator in New York and Connecticut, she made the move to Appalachia in 1972 to join the region’s struggle. She said she learned early on that “whatever gifts I bring are useful only in collaboration with those that are already here, because we can only be effective when the whole community is working together.”

In those first few years, Sister Beth helped to build a community center where people could meet and share their experiences; she was part of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, which conducted “listening sessions” in towns across the Appalachian region and served as a guide for the 1975 Appalachian Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, This Land Is Home to Me, which called for a meaningful response by people of faith to the exploitation of people and mineral resources in Appalachia; she was an active member of the Virginia Citizens for Better Reclamation—an organization instrumental in bringing to passage the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which is a federal law that regulates the environmental effect of coal mining in the United States; and she was an integral part of establishing the St. Charles Community Health Clinic—a permanent local clinic for the medically underserved area, which over the years grew into a network of clinics for low-income families.

In the 1980s, Central Appalachia was reeling from the loss of mining jobs to technology. Coal operators, desperate to keep their land profitable, began trying to turn mining operations into landfills to accept stockpiles of trash from other states. Sister Beth wanted more worth for Appalachia than being known as America’s dump. She helped lead the fight and block two proposals for private landfills in Lee County, Virginia, and founded CLEAN—the Citizens of Lee Environmental Action Network. She also wanted more worth for those abusing substances as a way to medicate despair. In 1982, she co-founded the Addiction Education Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia—an outpatient facility for low income alcoholics, addicts and their families—with the late Elizabeth Vines, a Sister of Divine Providence and 2005 Ketteler Award recipient.

With layoffs in the coal industry, prisons were built in the 1990s in an effort to solve local economic problems but only multiplied them. Job-starved people with little experience and without racial sensitivity were given guns, badges and authority over inmates from different races and cultures. Prison guards began to seek out medication to help them deal with the job and were prescribed OxyContin, which was being aggressively marketed to doctors in Southwest Virginia because of its high Medicaid and disability rates. By 2001, OxyContin was the drug of choice and death rates skyrocketed. “This has changed the face of Appalachia,” Sister Beth said in a 2007 Time article about punishing the pharmaceutical company that makes the painkiller. The prisons became an abusive, oppressive environment and concentration camps for drug addicts. Joining forces with the Appalachia office of Justice and Peace—a prisoners advocacy group—and the Lee County Coalition for Health—a nonprofit corporation composed of people from local government agencies, churches, health care institutions and the community—she worked to change the Virginia criminal justice system and improve its treatment of inmates, as well as bring drug courts to Southwest Virginia, which help people get rehabilitated and reduce the need to put non-violent drug offenders in prison. Unfortunately, prisons are a growth industry and the battle has not been easy. In a 2010 Virginia Organizing article, she said, “The most important thing is to have staying power because nothing happens overnight.”

Sister Beth’s educational background includes a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor certification from Rutgers University School of Alcohol and Drug Studies and she is a member of the Association of Addiction Professionals. Given the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, she focuses much of her work today on drug rehabilitation at the New Beginnings residential treatment center in Dryden, Virginia, where she is on staff, as well as running the Addiction Education Center in Pennington Gap that she co-founded nearly 35 years ago.