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.

 

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.