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Expert on challenges of coal country to lecture at Pitt

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, April 3, 2017, 5:27 p.m.
A dragline excavator moves rocks above a coal seam at the Spring Creek Mine in Decker, Mont. (AP file photo)
A dragline excavator moves rocks above a coal seam at the Spring Creek Mine in Decker, Mont. (AP file photo)
Jennifer Silva
Jennifer Silva

Jennifer Silva immersed herself for years in the erosion of working-class America, particularly in Pennsylvania coal country.

She gained trust of impoverished families by showing up regularly at addiction forums, public events and ethnic festivals. Many invited her into their homes and shared their stories.

Since 2015, she's conducted 120 in-depth interviews in central and northeastern Pennsylvania for her book project, “We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America.” They came from generations of coal miners.

“There was one woman in this really difficult, abusive marriage,” Silva said. “Her husband is addicted to meth; she had two kids, and the only social support she has is her church, which helped her buy toiletries and other things. She is on food stamps.”

On Tuesday, Silva, an assistant professor of sociology at Bucknell University, will share her research tales at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health's “One Book, One Community” lecture.

The featured book will be Robert Putnam's “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Silva was lead qualitative researcher on the book, which focused on the stagnant economy in the United States.

“The topics she covers are directly relevant to public health,” said Jessica Burke, associate professor and associate chairwoman of Pitt Public Health's Department of Behavioral and Community Health, “the most basic being income and poverty and how they are associated with inequalities in health. The conditions you live in and grow in are connected to more traditional public health issues, such as obesity and substance use.”

Silva dedicated much of her research to the unraveling of working-class lives and how families and communities cope with pain and loss.

Despite President Trump's campaign promises to bring coal jobs back to the region, many of Silva's subjects were so disillusioned that they did not vote in the presidential election.

“One of most striking findings is the extreme distrust for social and political institutions,” she said.

A jarring quote came from a woman who was running out of hope.

“I'm not considering suicide, but sometimes I wish God would take me out of life,” she told Silva.

Among the questions Silva is trying to answer in her research: What happens when people feel left behind? Who do they blame? And if they can't rely on getting a job to have a good life, how do they create a life that is meaningful?

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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