Create West Virginia and “All of these people….”

In 2007, I helped write and publish a white paper about West Virginia’s economy; specifically, I wrote about the state’s need to transition strategically from an old-school, extraction economy to what author Richard Florida termed “the creative economy.” This new economy is one based on knowledge, innovation, creativity, social openness, and a strong sense of place.

From that original paper, an advocacy organization was born: Create West Virginia (www.createwv.org). CWV holds an annual conference, but this year’s event in Richwood, WV, was a bit different from anything the group had tried before. Rather than scout out a large community with well-defined conference facilities, the organization decided to put its money where its mouth is and show off the potential of a small, even modest, typical West Virginia community.

Hello, Richwood, Nicholas County.

Richwood’s population was 2,051 at the 2010 census. Once a thriving coal and lumber community, Richwood was once a town of nearly 10,000 people. When underground coal mines closed, so did much of the community. Residents left not only Richwood but West Virginia entirely in search of work. Richwood was the perfect place to showcase why the mission of Create West Virginia is important.

The promise at the October 2013 Richwood event was a bold one. Marketing claimed that attendees would gain strategies “to solve a big problem.” I was hooked. There really is no end to the big problems anyone who loves Appalachia can drag out of the bag. I wondered if CWV had let its mouth write some checks its planners couldn’t cash. I had to find out.

I relocated to Vermont this year, so it did not pencil out for me to go in person to Richwood to find out what happened. Yet this entity, this passion, this dream of building a new economy in my home state is still a bit of my offspring. A baby bird, if you will, that I have let others adopt, but still a fledgling I want to see learn to fly and, well, not get eaten by a cat before it has a chance to grow up at least a little. I decided to sit down in a digital living room with my friend, educator Mark Swiger of Wheeling, West Virginia. Mark is a teacher and the department chair of Social Studies for John Marshall High School in Glen Dale. He’s a straight shooter. His focus was naturally on the education track, and he told me that Create West Virginia did more than just provide strategies for attendees this year in Richwood. The conference, planners, facilitators, and panelists modeled for communities and individuals how to transform communities.

As an educator and a presenter, Mark used problem-based learning as a model to look at the achievement gap but also at what he called “a more devastating gap” — the engagement gap. He also attended the Entrepreneurship track where questions emerged about encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit in West Virginia communities and schools.

It was refreshing to see the state’s schools through the West Virginia Department in partnership with business, government, NGOs, and higher education being encouraged to contribute to the innovation economy through programmatic response to what education stakeholders have been saying for some time. Schools need to be encouraging student to plan to be in control of their own futures. CWV’s track discussions received good reviews from attendees and most admired how Richwood was utilized as a Create West Virginia laboratory for building creative communities in concert with local leaders and community members.

The most inspiring part of the event was just being in Richwood. He noted taking a conference of this magnitude to places like Richwood is risky. People might not want to come to a place without the usual luxuries of dining and shopping. The location was off the beaten path and not easy to access compared to a big venue just off the Interstate highway; but the CWV team is known for seeing the direct correlation between risk and reward. The organization’s leadership knows how to capitalize on the pioneering spirit of West Virginians: this is a state built by people who understand a rough road. Richwood’s community spirit is similar to other hamlets and cities in the state; people are proud of their place. “Create West Virginia is inspiring communities to be their own problem-solvers,” Mark told me.

He overheard an elderly couple walking through the streets of Richwood talking about this place, this has-been-might-could-be-again town. The woman said, “This reminds me of the town when we were young.” The man retorted, “Not really,” to which the woman said gently, “Not the buildings. The people. Look at all of these people . . . “

What if West Virginia had started diversifying its economy decades ago? Would people still be in Richwood? Would the generations lost to the “brain drain” have found rewarding careers in technology, research, science, art?

The people who brought Richwood back to life, if only for a few days, think it’s time to grab the reins and direct a new vision for West Virginia. I know many of these people, and I believe they represent the intellect and leadership to realize that vision. If you would like to get involved and learn more about the motivated, hard-working people of Create West Virginia, visit their contact page here. You’ll find a telephone number, email address, physical address as well as plenty of social media hook ups.

They invite you to “bring it,” and I hope you will!

 

Fly Away Home

I was born in Charleston, West Virginia, over four decades ago. Before I was fourteen years old, I had been to Bermuda, Quebec, Denmark, Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. I attended college in North Carolina, and before I graduated I had back-packed Germany, Scotland, and England. I worked on Capitol Hill my first year out of college, and lived and worked in the international university community of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for 10 years before making a conscious choice to move back to West Virginia.

Simply put, I’m a big fan of West Virginians getting out before they lock it in.

I’ve puzzled for several years since my return over the hungry – yea, desperate – plea from some contingencies here to create an environment that children don’t leave. “If we only did this…….if we only changed that……if we had a…………then our kids wouldn’t have to leave home.” This is one of the most misguided philosophies I’ve ever encountered on two fronts.

First, kids are supposed to leave home. When you reduce it down to its barest elements, the whole ideal purpose of parenting is to raise children to a level of maturity where they can take care of themselves in their developing social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual spheres. Even when children have special needs, there is a feeling that the maximum level of independence and autonomy possible should be the goal.  To suggest that there is something unnatural or undesirable about leaving the nest is a bit smothering and insecure. One of the best things that can happen to a young person is to explore the world on his or her own terms. Whether you grow up in West Virginia or Tuscany, you need to deliberately depart the confines of your small, childlike world, and put yourself in the environment of newness, diversity, challenge, and change.

Second, from an economic development standpoint, we need less a climate of existing jobs than a climate of innovation to draw the people our state needs to blossom now; and yet we still have a strong dialogue here that centers on former West Virginians coming “home” to fill job vacancies that await them. The people I have in mind that will come to make their lives in our state are looking for opportunity to build, create, and innovate. I am interested in the minds that seek an environment that supports new business creation, not simply seats for warm bodies.

I propose we give the clutching after our offspring a rest. Let’s stop worrying about getting former West Virginians back, and start strategizing about creating a place where smart, motivated people who have grown through diverse life experiences want to work and play. With all due respect to those of us who grew up here, our birth certificates do not automatically make us part of West Virginia’s bright future. What will make us part of that future is our willingness to engage the world; to embrace new people and cultural elements from outside our borders; and to stop asking for jobs and start making them.

Oh yes. And our willingness to kiss our children on the cheek and wish them well on their own journey to whatever place – maybe ultimately here – that creates a sense of home and identity for them and their best lives.

This post is adapted from the original composed for “A Better West Virginia Challenge.”

Image credit: Jamie Gaucher

Twittiquette

As I am still puzzling over a recent “event” I experienced on Twitter, I thought I’d blog it out and see what anyone else thinks.  The event was an emotional backlash to one of the posts on Esse Diem from a new follower on my Twitter account.  As he followed me first, I naively assumed he had positive intent. 

Twitter: The etiquette is unwritten, but it is real.

Positive intent for me does not equate with agreeing with everything I express; in fact, some of the most helpful comments I get from readers of this blog have been critiques and questions about my thought process and conclusions.  This Twitter thing was something different. 

Rather than ask questions on the blog, this fellow retweeted my post with nearly hysterical questions, accusations, and sarcasm.  There were lots of exclamation points and question marks.  He managed to focus on one illustration of a larger argument and avoid the real point of the post.  In essence, rather than engage me directly he chose to advertise me to his followers as a nitwit.  When I asked him about it later he told me he was not upset — which is odd, because he certainly came across as very stirred up and angry.  I would not like to encounter him when he is actually troubled. 

I’ve since spent a little time trying to figure out why he uses Twitter, and I detect a pattern of doing to others what he did to me.  He likes to follow people he doesn’t agree with and then use that connection to try to discredit the ideas rather than to build rapport and understanding.  In fairness to him, this is a common use of Twitter among many people; it’s also disappointing, but it is a risk people take when they publicly “own” their work, especially online. 

This is not a media empire (yet).  It is one thing to RT (retweet) faceless corporations with whom you never have a prayer of actually communicating and hashtagging their tweets with smart aleck phrases.  And this is the United States of America — anyone is free to RT my tweets and label them any way they choose.  That is the game, and if you don’t know it when you engage you will learn it sooner or later.  It does seem, though, that when individuals engage there ought to still be an understood environment of respect everyone can reasonably anticipate.  It seems even more reasonable to expect this from others who live in your tiny state of 1.8 million people. 

If you are looking for accounts that demonstrate the very best professional execution of Twitter, I can recommend @bobcofffield (health care law blogger + local interest advocacy), @createwv (statewide grassroots organization), @CartneyWV (social media strategy + politics + fashion), @DanSchawbel (big time millenial personal branding), @lineberg (personal + marketing + fitness), @DUKEPress (academia + publishing + humor) and @mistygirlph (social media + reciprocity) for starters.  Each of these people have figured out what they want to do with Twitter, and they do it well.  They all use Twitter differently, but they are each professional, organized, and effective. 

There are many great accounts, and it is worthwhile to follow people who know what they are doing and just watch and learn.  Much of what you can learn is style-driven as much or more than content-driven — how do you feel when you read their tweets?  What words in tweets make you bother to read or RT versus just scan by?  A great tweet just today from @mistygirlph included “15 Reasons to Love Twitter,” with number 14 being “Receive kindness and love 24-7.”  A-HEM……….. 

As a professional, I like Twitter because it is an opportunity to discover new people who can teach me things and to find new resources that can enrich my life.  I also like the general environment of civility and etiquette.  It’s odd, but it’s pervasive in my favorite accounts.  Lots of please and thank you, lots of credit given to others and return favors delivered.  It’s a community of strange P’s and Q’s.  But in a world that has lost nearly all of those kinds of things, it’s a pocket of politeness and professionalism that I enjoy.  

Of course, I was never following John Mayer .  It pays to choose wisely.