Prove your humanity

Ashley Funk looks back fondly on her days of playing in the black hills behind her southwestern Pennsylvania house. But when she learned more about what those black hills were made of, it drove a wedge between her and her hometown.

When Ashley was a young girl, the family lived in a house that had huge piles of dark dust behind it.

“You kind of just see this expanse of black,” she said.

The piles were a really fun place to play. Funk and her twin sister would go out there and build things kind of like sand castles. They would come inside with the dust in their hair, on their hands and around their eyes. They didn’t know how dangerous it was.

LISTEN: “Coming Home To Coal Country”

Funk was born in Westmoreland County in a hospital named for a famous coal man: Henry Clay Frick. Frick had made his fortune and died long before Funk was born, but his name still adorned Frick hospital, as well as two streets in the town she’d call home—Mount Pleasant. The town had been built on coal.

As a child, Funk knew she wanted to go to college, and by middle school she was already worrying about how to pay for it.

“When I was in eighth grade, I was watching Gilmore Girls,” she said. One of the characters on the television show tried to get into Harvard, and another character told her that she should volunteer. “That’s when I realized, ‘Oh my god, I have to volunteer to get into college.’ That strangely started my volunteerism.”

Funk, who was then 14, gathered a group of Mount Pleasant kids together to pick up trash on the side of the road.

“We called it Pollution Patrol,” she said. The motto was “Making a mount more pleasant, piece by piece.”

People in the town donated bags and gloves and would sometimes even stop their cars to thank Funk and the kids for their work.

That next summer, Funk went to a science camp that was sponsored by NASA. Because her family was low-income, it was all paid for, and every kid got to choose a focus area to study. Funk chose the environment and climate change.

Little by little, Funk’s interest in science and the environment grew. The two interests came together into one overwhelming obsession: climate change.

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This story was produced by WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR news station. And be sure to check out more stories in WBEZ’s “Heat of the Moment” series, which explores the impacts of climate change on our everyday lives. Support for “Heat of the Moment” is provided by The Joyce Foundation, which works to improve quality of life, promote community vitality and achieve a fair society.