WV Can’t Wait: This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around Redux

May 16, 2011, I wrote this in a blog post:

Life is short.  There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with  their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos.  These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates.  They are health care specialists and teachers and professors.  They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors.  They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts.  

Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it, I promise. There’s a brief backstory.

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I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed a week ago yesterday, and up pops, “Mark Wolfe is live now.” I chuckle to myself thinking that man is nothing if not LIVE, and move along.

But every now and then I realize it’s still there. Mark Wolfe is still live now. I get suspicious. What’s this creative genius doing, anyway? (Yes, he designed my blog header and the masthead for Essays on Childhood, made art for the WV Land Trust and a revamped logo for the WV Alliance for Sustainable Families…..along with hundreds of other things. It’s good to know what Mark is doing at any given moment.)

I’m not 100% sure what is happening in this video, but then I see John Barrett. John is someone who has always impressed me with his sincere and affable demeanor, his quick mind, and his commitment to West Virginia. He was on the board of directors for the WV Land Trust when I worked for them. Just rock-solid, good governance, can-do, let’s-do-the-right-thing stuff flows from John.

Now I really have to know what’s going on, because whatever it is, my gut is telling me I want to be part of it.

And then there it was. It was the last thing I expected to hear.

I was being introduced through cyberspace to the next Governor of West Virginia.

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Stephen Smith (left), 38, who ran the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, announced he is running for governor as a Democrat in the 2020 elections. Photo accompanying Jake Zuckerman’s 11/28/2018 article the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Community organizer launches 2020 gubernatorial bid as Democrat”

This can’t be real. But it is real.

And he’s not a coal baron. Or a lawyer. Or the 9th copy of the same family politician over generations.

He’s a dad. And a nonprofit executive. And a WV native. And a WV native who came back — to help.

He’s 38 years old. His relative youth is one of his greatest assets, and potentially also such for the state. When you’re 38 and running for elected office for the first time, you do not accept all the things the jaded Gollum-like creatures crawling out of their offices try to sell you. Extractive industry is not yet the precious.

I email with Stephen, we talk on the phone, and he’s real. He is a different brand — more informed by ideas of equality and partnership than most. He talked about his family, and his interest in building a movement that has legs to carry it apart from his candidacy.

He really listened to me, and he asked me questions about myself and clarifying questions about my ideas and observations.

He is not kidding when he talks about a movement that shifts power and resources from corporate outside interests and back into the hands of regular West Virginians. It will be very difficult, and as the effort progresses I am sure it will get a little bit scary. I’ve seen how established power brokers react to challenge. (Pro Tip: They are not nice about it.)

I’m excited about this, which has my attention because it’s been years upon years since I was excited about the potential to move the needle in West Virginia. I feel so strongly about this that I joined the campaign as a part of a leadership team making contacts with “ex-patriates” and trying to help make connections with friends in other states who might do the same where they are.

No matter how this goes, I believe supporting a candidate like this — the kind of candidate who rarely comes along — is a needle-moving opportunity in itself.

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I know what it’s like to believe and be disappointed, but this feels different. Maybe it’s different because I am different.  Two ideas about that:

  • It may feel different because, truly, West Virginia Can’t Wait. A lot of disillusioned people in my generation and beyond tried to build a life in WV and faced challenges we couldn’t overcome. And that is in fact on me; I decided the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work. That was my choice. But gosh darn it, it didn’t have to be that way. Life is challenging no matter where you are. I needed vocal people in leadership positions to care a lot more about the future for me and my family, and they were too few or too hard to find. It’s only gotten less friendly since I departed. I am astonished by the friends who have left, who are still in the process of leaving. It’s not a few. It was a core constituency of Create West Virginia at one time. The organization never wanted to go political, and I thought then and still think that was a mistake. I understand the concerns, but we are at a chance-against-a-certainty-stage now. We all have to take a risk. It’s true that a ragtag gang of believers in the knowledge economy were going to lose a street fight with extractive industry, but you don’t always fight to win the battle. Say it with me: You fight to win the war.
  • I’m over 15 years older than I was when I decided to move back to West Virginia. I was a few years younger than Stephen Smith is now. I had nothing but optimism and hope in my soul for helping my home state; at some point, I lost that hope. I was severely discouraged, and scared, and I left. The power structure in state government seemed stacked against my concerns. In hindsight I think I may have retreated to recover; for the first time in a long time, I am thinking about how to get back into this fight.

Right now, that looks like serving on a leadership team to communicate with WV “ex-pats”  living in Virginia about how we can help leverage the movement for change.

If I can pass this spark to you, well, I would be delighted. Give the movement a look-see. Then consider emailing the campaign about how you can help.

There’s a place for you in this.

No foolin’ around.

 

Dark As A Dungeon

Essential reading, Appalachia. And perhaps everyone else, everywhere, who gets this line: “And I thought about how for years, they’d walked away when they wanted to, when they were through with us; and I thought how gratified I was, at last, to finally see us begin getting in the last word.” #notenough #enough

Cultural Slagheap

Let the record show that Don Blankenship’s last public act in the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse on April 6 2016 was to reveal, openly and for the transcript, how far gone into delusion he’d become over the course of his career.  In his final statement to the court, Blankenship insisted on positioning himself as a man who’d been unfairly accused: “It’s important to me that everyone knows I am not guilty of a crime,” he said, after offering the feeblest and most general condolences to the families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion six years before.  Yet that was precisely and exactly what he was now—a convicted criminal, albeit one convicted of a mere misdemeanor.  And then Judge Irene Berger, herself the daughter of a coal miner, hit Don Blankenship with the maximum allowable prison sentence of one year, and a $250,000 fine.

The court…

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Intersection: Elliot Rodger, My Past, & Every Woman’s Every Day

I remember sitting on a split-rail fence with my friend Lesley when we were 6 years old. It was a West Virginia early summer. The air was soft and warm. Shrubs bloomed behind us in the neighbor’s yard, while the hot blacktop where three roads met spread out before us.

Lesley had curly red hair and blue eyes. My hair was long, blonde and straight. When I remember the events of that day, I always see the two of us perched, trying to balance on the fence, not quite stable because we were so young and small. But we wanted to sit up high. We wanted to watch our world come and go from sideline safety. Cars came to the three way stop. Sometimes the right of way was obvious. Sometimes they would wave each other through the intersection if there was confusion about what should happen. Bicycles, joggers, but mostly cars.

Most of my childhood memories are internal. I don’t zoom to some observation of myself as if I’m an object. But this memory has always been from the middle of the intersection. I see two little girls sitting on a fence. I see expressions that go from happy, to confused, to frightened, to conspiratorial.

A jeep started to drive though the intersection and stopped dead in the middle. Two young men stared at me and Lesley. The driver started to wave furiously. Lesley and I stared back, tilting our heads like owlings. Who were these men? We didn’t recognize them, but they seemed to think they knew us. We didn’t wave back. We wanted them to leave the intersection and keep going, but they didn’t do that. One of them started calling out to us. “Hi! Hi, there! Hi-i-i-i-i-i, girls!” The driver was the one waving like crazy. The other man was laughing now, an ugly laugh, not the kind that makes you feel good or happy or safe. The more aggressive and insistent the driver became that we acknowledge him, the more committed I became to silence.

Who did he think he was? I didn’t know him. This was our space, mine and Lesley’s. We lived here with our families. With people we knew. I didn’t want to engage him. Even as a child I had an instinct that waving back would be the beginning of legitimizing this man. Something about these people was not right. They were adults. We were children. We were minding our own business. They were dangling out in a space where other people had the right to come and go safely. Did they think they owned the entire neighborhood? Did they think Lesley and I owed them anything just because they wanted something from us?

They wouldn’t go away.

After what seemed like an eternity, the driver slammed his hands on the steering wheel, and screamed, “Say HELLO, goddamned it!” His friend laughed more. The jeep lurched forward with a squeal and a roar, and then they were gone. We never said hello, and I’ve never regretted that.  Lesley and I were free to speak now. We looked at each other, relieved, and giggled and shrugged and tried to go back to our view of the world before the men stopped, stared, insisted, got angry, and did something threatening. Except we couldn’t go back to that view. I saw something that day when I was six years old that I would never forget and never really get over. There are men I don’t know, whom I have no interest in knowing, who have a sense of entitlement about gaining my attention. They will insist and push and cajole, and then when they don’t get what they believe they are entitled to, they will get angry. They will shift into a mode of violence to regain some sense of power over me if I don’t respond to them as they wish. They are entitled. They are dangerous. And they will force women and girls to learn that they are not be ignored.

And when I say “my” attention, “me” and “I,” I speak for every human female on the planet, whether you are 6 or 86, black or white, Muslim or Christian or atheist.

Lesley and I were, in the end, conspiratorial, and by that I mean that we were drafted into one of society’s longest-standing back rooms of agreed-upon silence. I never told my parents about the men, and she and I never spoke of it again. There was an inexplicable shame in attracting their attention in the first place. I remember we were wearing shorts and flip flops. We were just sitting on the fence, clearly open to engaging our world. Had we brought this on ourselves? Maybe they were just nice people. But I knew that wasn’t true. I knew they were not nice people, and yet they had noticed me and tried to interact with me, and if bad people were trying to talk to me, what did that say about what kind of person I might be? Best to just never mention it.

When I think about this man from Santa Barbara, the way he talked about women, the way he rationalized his violent impulses, the way he terrorized people because life and the people in it weren’t giving him exactly what he wanted and believed he was entitled to have, it makes me sick. I am sick that that I find nothing “chilling” about his writings or his videos. I find them familiar and common. Because we don’t talk about it, little girls will continue to be subject to grown men’s harassment and blame themselves. Grown women will endure leers and catcalls and slink home to change into baggy pants and a stiff drink. And the band will probably play on. I’ve been marching to this drum for forty years.

 

Weeping for West Virginia

This is the post I haven’t had the emotional energy to write. Thank you, Colleen.

Mother Wit Writing and Design

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Here in Charleston, West Virginia, we are an official federal disaster area. A coal-cleaning chemical spill into the Elk River has contaminated the water supply for much of nine counties, including the state capital, where I live. We are warned not to drink, cook with, wash dishes with, do laundry with, or bathe in our tap water. All restaurants, coffee shops (yes, even Starbucks), and many other businesses are closed. It’s scary in a dreamlike way, as I suppose all real disasters are.

Like many people, I’m furious at the chemical company that let the toxic chemical leak into the river, the water company that stalled about reporting the contamination, and especially the politicians who have sold this state’s citizens out, year after dreary year, to big extractive industries, meanwhile complaining about the EPA and calling President Obama a “job-killer.”

Deadly pollution is nothing new in West Virginia. For years…

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WARNING: Kanawha County in the rearview mirror

My home community of Kanawha County, West Virginia, held a vote on a levy that would have restored funding to the public library system (long story) and shored-up the county school system’s budget against federal funding drops and self-imposed levy caps.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposal to meet these financial needs with additional property taxes. Superintendent Ron Duerring said Saturday that “everything will be on the table,” as they look for budget cuts.

“There will be cuts in pretty much every area — staffing, transportation, you name it,” one principal said. “The possibility of students paying to participate in extracurricular activities is not one that I look forward to.”

The library has a few short months to come up with millions of dollars or start closing county branches.

What on earth?

It all reminds me of a religion/ethics lecture I heard about three years ago at Davidson College:

What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

Distance lends perspective, and living in a different community right now I am starting to refocus on some painful dysfunctions in the Kanawha County public discourse system. It’s not that I didn’t know they were there, but it’s easier to see when I suddenly am surrounded by something else. In New England, there is a long tradition of transparent and straightforward public meetings. When we have a meeting about an issue of public importance you are often read a “warning,” and it’s read to you three times. The first time this happened I was scared to death. WARNING! What?

Oh, it’s just a heads up that something important needs your consideration and thoughtful decision. And we know making a big decision takes time and education. So, here you go: Three times we are going to tell you what is coming up and what is at stake, and you have plenty of time to ask questions and get answers, in public.

Norman Rockwell painted “Freedom of Speech” using his Vermont neighbors as models.

There is plenty of disagreement  in Vermont, just as there is anywhere else. But the process tends to support a well-reasoned and informed debate, and even when you don’t get what you want you’re rarely left with the bitter taste of feeling like you were the victim of dark politics and pure ignorance.

I can’t say that about Kanawha County. I want to, but I’d be lying.

Maybe it’s our enormous income gaps, or maybe it’s our labor-strike-dynamics-to-every-fight legacy. I don’t know. But whatever it is my beloved home place has got to turn this ship around, and soon.

There are a lot of proud stands against perceived inefficiency and mismanagement and budget-balancing on the backs of those least able to pay. I understand that frustration. My family is a one-income family right now, and a couple of hundred dollars a year is the difference between having some things we need and not having those things. I, too, would expect clear and compelling evidence as to why this is necessary. Apparently that didn’t happen.

But the scary thing is that it was ever “okay” for certain things to be on the chopping block.  My fervent hope is that as a community Kanawha County can pull together and talk about its values. I grew up there. I know children and education are important to most people in the community. To everyone? No. But those people are so few that they alone could never do the damage that as done with this body blow to the public good. There is a bigger hole here.

There needs to be a coalition that doesn’t pit responsible fiscal management against kids.

These do not have to be opposing goals. But there does have to be an “outing” of who always gets what they want and is never held accountable and who doesn’t.

The whole thing is so classic it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. It traditionally works like this: Status quo interests don’t want the masses tuned into their self-interests, so they steer the general public toward cannibalism.  Why, I wonder, can’t there be an insistence that something like the levy was not an acceptable solution and send the whole thing back to the drawing board?

WARNING: The public will be asked to vote up or down an inappropriate proposal to increase taxes to support our schools and public library system. We ask that we be presented with a source of funds from cuts to less-essential public services.

WARNING: We the public will keep insisting that you do better until you do better. This proposal is unacceptable.

WARNING: We are not kidding.

Look, I feel for the over-taxed and under-paid. I do. I’m about up to here with it as well. But I just hope that Kanawha Countians can work through this frustration to a better way to deal with it than listening to fear-mongers and assuming the worst of those least likely to want to deceive them.

Ask yourself, are people who’ve devote their lives to sharing books and literacy and youth development more likely to jerk your chain than career politicians and out-of-state corporations?

I love you, KC. Don’t give up.

(For more information, read The Charleston Gazette, Libraries to begin searching for funds.)

Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub

Via EPA.gov

Since the invention of the camera, human beings have known turning point images.

These images capture moments denied to the outside world, but intimately connected to the realities of specific scenes of human suffering. Most often those scenes take place where no one wants to go. Photographers who document these places take great personal risk to bring remote, hidden pockets of pain into the daylight where we all can see.

And once you’ve seen, you can’t go back.

Consider the Vietnam conflict’s “Napalm Girl.” The iconic image turned 40 years old this week, and you can see the picture and read an interview with the woman who was that child in the photograph here.

(Nick) Ut’s editors made an exception to a policy preventing frontal nudity in photos and went ahead and published it. Known simply as “napalm girl”, the photo transcended the divisive debate about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War and crystallized the barbarity of war.

Also in the news this week, a photograph of a five-year-old Kentucky girl made national headlines when it almost appeared in a U.S. Congressional hearing about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining practices. The photograph shows the child sitting naked in bath water that appears to be contaminated with toxins and heavy metals from mining runoff. (Click here to view the photograph on Katie Falkenberg’s website: The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining.)

Note: The photographer removed the photo of the girl in the bathtub due to the controversy, but other powerful photos remain on this link.)

There is a lot going on in this news story, and it continues to evolve. There are accusations of child pornography, sham hearings, sleazy politics, and emotional manipulation. I’m not sure where it will end, but I feel confident we have reached our turning point image.

The girl is not running and screaming, like Kim Phuc in the napalm attack on her village. She sits still as a stone, her arms wrapped under her legs. Her head is down. She is a portrait of submission and vulnerability, and any adult looking at her knows she has no real knowledge of the insidious presence in her bath. She probably knows water is supposed to be clear, but she has no choice but to trust those who care for her and accept her surroundings.

We Appalachian people like to think ourselves hard to tame. The Hatfield McCoy feud movie was on The History Channel last week, and there was plenty of armchair whoopin’ and hollerin’ about how fierce our people can be. Big men, big guns, lots of chest puffing and tough talk. I wonder this week, as a little child shows who we really are in 2012, if we will own the truth.

We are vulnerable. We are alone. We have trusted and we have hoped for the best. In many ways, I think we have remained deliberately ignorant about what is all around us.

Will we ever get up and run? And if we do, is it too late?

You can read the testimony by Boone County WV resident Maria Gunnoe on June 1, 2012, at the hearing titled “Obama Administrations Actions Against the Spruce Coal Mines: Canceled Permits, Lawsuits and Lost jobs” (sic) by clicking here.

Esse-a-Go-Go: The Post Office Story

When I buy stamps, I always ask for “the writer stamps.” It’s usually a pretty simple request. I ask for the writer stamp du jour, the clerk provides it, I buy it, the end.

On a recent trip to the main office of the U.S. Postal Service here in my hometown, I encountered something different. I’m still not sure what it was, but this is what happened.

The waiting line was long, long enough to engender awkward silences between me and the people standing next to me. We’d start some small talk with the assumption that we wouldn’t be standing there long, and then five minutes later when we were still standing there it was uncomfortable. Every incremental push forward in our line was one breath closer to social relief.

At the window, I made my standard request for the writer stamps. The clerk looked in the drawer and shrugged, “I don’t see any.”

“That’s OK,” I said, wary of upsetting the waiters behind me. “I’ll just take…..”

“Let me go look in the back,” he said.

Well, that’s right nice of you. Hurry back.

Except he didn’t hurry back. He was gone a long time. The people behind me starting pawing the earth. I glanced back repeatedly, smiling weakly and suggesting that I had no idea what the clerk was doing or why.

When he finally reappeared, he had stamps in hand but they were clutched to his chest so I couldn’t see what the images were.  He looked and me and said, “OK, I found some stamps. We do have some.”

What’s the drama?

“First, I want to show you these,” he said. “These are so beautiful and they are some of my personal favorites.”

He showed me a very pretty stamp from the American Treasures series. It was an Edward Hopper painting of a sail boat.

“Now I also have these,” he said.  He revealed the second stamp, a Black Heritage series stamp of John H. Johnson (1918-2005).  I realized to my dismay that the clerk was afraid.

He was afraid to show me a stamp of a black man.

What did he think, that when I said writer I really meant sailboat? That I don’t think African-Americans are writers? That girls only like purty things with pastels and sunshine? That I would call his supervisor for daring to try to sell me a Black Heritage stamp when I’m white and I said I wanted a writer stamp so surely I must have meant a white writer?

The truly strange thing is that to this day as I write this, I’m still not angry with this clerk. He went out of his way to help me. He did what I asked him to do. What stays with me is that he assumed I didn’t want this stamp.  What he did was make me want this stamp even more, and make me want you to want it, too.

Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.

This man was incredible, and I never knew his name before my Post Office story. Thank you, strange clerk. You helped me more than you know.

John Johnson. Forever.

(Right about now, I wonder what’s happening at Karan-a-Go-Go…….)

In 2012, the Postal Service® is pleased to honor John H. Johnson, the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines. Johnson overcame poverty and racism to build a business empire embracing magazines, radio stations, cosmetics, and more. His magazines portrayed black people positively at a time when such representation was rare, and played an important role in the civil rights movement.

His unwillingness to accept defeat was a key to Johnson’s success. When he was unable to buy a lot in downtown Chicago because of his skin color, he hired a white lawyer who bought the land in trust. Thus, Johnson became the first black person to build a major building in Chicago’s Loop, where Johnson Publishing still has its headquarters.

As Johnson’s influence, accomplishments, and fortune grew, he received many prizes and honors. He joined Vice President Richard Nixon on a goodwill tour of Africa and served as a Special United States Ambassador for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1966. Six years later, in 1972, his industry peers named him publisher of the year — a prize Johnson compared to winning an Oscar. In presenting Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, President Bill Clinton lauded him for giving hope to African-Americans during difficult times. A panel of experts polled by Baylor University in 2003 named Johnson “the greatest minority entrepreneur in American history.” That same year, Howard University named its journalism school after him.

The John H. Johnson (Forever®) stamp, designed by Postal Service art director Howard Paine, features a color photograph of Johnson taken by Bachrach Studios. The photographer was David McCann.

The U.S. Postal Service has recognized the achievements of prominent African-Americans through the Black Heritage series since 1978. This stamp honoring Johnson is the 35th stamp in that series, which highlights outstanding individuals who helped shape American culture.

The stamp is being issued as a Forever stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.