I Will Smile in His Shadow: Remembering Thomas Pearce

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.”   - Dakota

Longtime Sierra Club organizer and indigenous rights activist Thomas Pearce, a proud native son of Kentucky, died on April 22 in Louisville. He was 58.

Pearce worked for eight years as an organizer for the Sierra Club in Kentucky, most recently as Senior Organizing Representative for the Beyond Coal campaign. He was preparing to start a new job as a Maryland Beyond Coal organizer at the time of his death.

“Thom was dedicated to healing the environment and bringing about a just transition for workers in Kentucky and beyond,” says Sierra Club environmental justice organizer Bill Price. “He was a gentle, thoughtful, and graceful human being, but he was also a fierce warrior when it came to justice.”


"Thomas was an awesome organizer who was deeply committed to his community," says Sierra Club National Organizing Director Bob Bingaman. "He approached his work in a spirit of love and inclusion, and he was beloved by many, both in the Sierra Club community and the Kentucky and Appalachian communities he fought with such heart and conviction to protect. "

Pearce was born in Louisville in 1961 to Tommy Curtis Pearce, Jr., an early and vocal opponent of segregation, and Betty Winstead McGary, who played an integral role in the movement to get women ordined as ministers in the Southrn Baptist Church. As an undergrad at the University of Louisville he became a leader of the Progressive Student League, which at the time was focused on getting the school to divest from South Africa.

Running parallel to Pearce's devotion to the cause of environmental justice was a deep and impassioned commitment to equity for Native Americans. For many years he contributed his prodigious organizing skills to Idle No More, a movement to promote indigenous rights, values, and sovereignty, and he served as co-chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Indiana and Kentucky. The Sierra Club and the Progressive Workers’ Union, of which Thom was a member, will be making contributions to AIM.

Pearce was an outspoken champion of indigenous LGBTQ pride. “Pride becomes more and more important to me every day,” he said in the aftermath of the June 2016 mass shooting in an Orlando gay nightclub. “I don’t want people to be afraid of being proud after Orlando. My own indigenous LGBTQ community is often very wary of being proud, and I don’t want to be part of the problem.”

As a Sierra Club organizer, Pearce dedicated himself to mitigating the economic and environmental damage wrought by the coal industry in Kentucky. He spread the gospel of clean energy, galvanized public opposition to a proposed coal terminal on the Ohio River, relentlessly pressured Louisville Gas & Electric to close its Cane Run coal plant, and beat back proposed ratepayer hikes to subsidize upgrades for three of Kentucky’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants.

Pearce was a true believer in grassroots power and community-based activism. "I met Thom in 2010 when he was canvassing my neighborhood regarding a proposed coal ash landfill permit,” says fellow Louisville activist Kathy Little, a winner of the Sierra Club’s Special Achievement Award. “He had amazing skills as an organizer, and he was very proud of the fact that Louisville Gas & Electric decided to close its Cane Run operation. I believe he played a significant part in their decision. I've never known anyone so passionate and willing to stand up for those who are oppressed.”

Cumberland Chapter activist Mary Cupp says Pearce was invaluable in helping the local Pennyrile Group rally public support for clean energy and bring pressure to bear on Owensboro Municipal Utilities to replace coal-fired electricity with renewable energy. "Thom’s words were backed up by his ability to convince elected officials and the business community of the importance and viability of the change we sought," Cupp says. "The announced closure next year of the two Elmer Smith coal-fired plants in Owensboro and the utility's decision to purchase locally-generated solar energy are now part of his legacy. Thom was a friend to our Ohio Valley region.”

The following remembrance is from recently retired Sierra Club senior field organizer Dave Muhly, who worked closely with Thom.

I was Thom’s supervisor and he was a part of my life from the day I met him at his hiring interview in 2010 until the day I retired from the Club in October of 2017. I knew at that interview that Thom was a unique and skilled organizer; I did not know at that time how close and dear a friend he would also become.

You won’t often see a photo of Thom smiling. It was fun to watch him when he saw a camera around that was pointed at him. He would immediately and reflexively strike the pose that projected power and authority. Thom had an imposing physical presence, and he knew how to use that to his advantage when it was beneficial to do so, but that was always balanced with a tenderness and humility that was even more powerful.

Thom had a dogged determination. When we were approached with the tip that Louisville Gas & Electric was illegally piping waste out of one of their coal ash ponds at the Mill Creek Station into the Ohio River, Thom offered to set up a camera to record it over time in order to document our case. He volunteered to literally strap a camera to a tree across the river in Indiana and regularly visit the camera to swap out memory cards and batteries. Through rain, snow, and even when he was under the weather, Thom made that trip. On one occasion, he was met by an old boy in a pickup, the landowner, who wanted to know what Thom was doing there. Thom took that as an opportunity to do a little organizing, explained about LG&E polluting the river and recruited the feller to help keep an eye on the camera to make sure no one was messing with it.

Thom was meticulous and thorough. I knew I needed to carve out a significant chunk of time to read and review Thom’s organizing plans and performance review documents. Thom was diligent in his belief that nothing should be left out of either. I have shared Thom’s method of power map visualization (a Word doc with different shapes representing political, economic, and cultural forces that could be adjusted and modified in real time) with other staff I supervised and colleagues on the other side of the globe. Thom firmly believed that “If it ain’t written, it ain’t a plan,” and referred back often to those planning documents for guidance throughout the year. But Thom was also flexible and gracious as situations and circumstances changed. Thom’s willingness to take on the challenges of working afar in western Kentucky, Indiana, and even all the way to Paducah spoke to his determination to do whatever was necessary.

The Cane Run Power Station coal ash dump was one of the finest moments I have seen of Thom’s dedication to justice and community and the necessity of lifting up others above oneself. Thom partnered and collaborated with Kathy Little and developed in Kathy a nascent leadership that was absolutely inspiring. For Thom, leadership development was not a catch phrase or a box to check. It was fundamentally the way he lived his life. Everywhere Thom went he was searching for opportunities to engage with others in a real way, to make connections and encourage others to grow and lead. It was a skill Thom learned and internalized over many years of organizing.

Thom was a fearless, quiet giant of a presence. He and I spent many an hour laughing together over the years and I’ll miss our laughter together. But I will smile at his shadow.

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