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

Our Way of Life

Recently I made a mistake.  I did not resist the urge to leap into a Facebook back-and-forth about the coal industry, the environment, and most importantly, the economy.   You don’t have to be a native West Virginian to be troubled by what is going on, but I am both native and troubled.  Status update soundbites can never give justice to the dynamics and complexities of West Virginia’s agonizing, heel-digging resistance to even talking about life outside the colonial economy of coal.

We need to talk about one thing above all others, and that is how seemingly impossible and yet absolutely necessary it is for our state to stop defining ourselves by a fading economy.  I saw a quote today on the side of a building, it said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”  Eleanor Roosevelt said this, and it is used in a wide range of human circumstances.  West Virginia would do well to take these words to heart.

I am unaware of any other industry or profession where people are not expected to do what everyone else has to do, and that is figure out how to be employable in more than one field.  It’s extremely difficult, but we all have to do it.  Some people talk about coal miners as if they are some unique category of people who never have to adapt and figure out how to be relevant in a changing economy and find new work, ever.  Underneath that way of thinking is a condescending attitude that they aren’t like everyone else because they aren’t smart enough or tough enough or modern enough or something.  It drives me crazy because just the opposite is true. 

If you want tough and adaptable and curious and indomitable, you want a West Virginia coal miner.  These folks eat my fears for breakfast, and negotiate circumstances so deadly day after day it would finish most of us within 24 hours.  There are families in West Virginia that go back generations who are built on the genetic and character codes of this kind of work, so please, don’t condescend to them.  Ever.  Not even for a vote.

The trouble is, while West Virginia’s future rests on the cannot-be-defeated nature of miners, what it does not rest on is out-of-state coal companies.  This post is not about coal companies, but most people are aware that their reputations are much less glowing than the reps of miners themselves.  Let’s leave it at that.

In my Facebook comments, I compared the dynamics of the economic transitions ahead of us to the shock to the Old South with the end of plantations where the production was almost entirely from a system of slave labor.  That was not a wise thing to pop up in a few lines in a real-time conversation, because it is so easily misunderstood.  In no way am I comparing slavery to coal mining.  I do believe, however, that there are valid opportunities to see West Virginia’s economic issues through the lens of the Old South if one can stay focused on the transition problems.  I maintain they are relevant and potentially useful in bridging the gaps in public dialogue around us every day.

The language similarities are striking when thinking about comparisons between the Old South agricultural empire and West Virginia’s extractive industry economy .  Threats to “our way of life” are common cries.  People bring up their family trees, how long their family has been part of a work culture, and how the nation depends on the product to survive.  Patriotism and morality are questioned.  Families and friendships are strained and in some cases broken.  Some people talk about the President of the United States as if he is an enemy of the state, and there is constant pressure to not say the wrong thing so as not to be labeled disloyal — to what, take your pick.  You risk being disloyal to your beloved state and the commitment and even sacrifice of generations of miners if you question anything about the impact of the coal industry, and you risk being disloyal to your own children’s health and well-being for a few bucks if you don’t chain yourself to a tree. 

Something’s gotta give.

It starts with talking about one thing with a laser sharp focus: The New Economy.  No one stopped needing food and fibers when abolition became law, and no one is going to stop needing electricity when mountain top removal and even coal mining itself is no more.  We must focus on what we need, and how we will continue to get it through new methods that meet the new information we have about the destructive contamination inherent in coal mining.  Really smart people I’ve known all my life are turning a blind eye to what everyone outside of West Virginia knows without even trying — coal ash, mercury poisoning, degradation of streams and elimination of entire ecosystems are poised to do more than inconvenience a few fish.  Even the most stubborn person out there has got to know in his or her heart that this is insanity.

We need to stop letting the coal industry define this debate.  The WV Coal Association has one of the nicest, kindest men you will ever meet as its spokesman, and it does not matter.  Personalities need to disappear from the conversation.  I started by saying I am a native West Virginian, and that comes with a big guarantee — I will never give up on this place.  I do everything I can to keep the conversation on a high level, but also on a level that matters.  At the end of the day, in the Old South it did not matter, not even a little bit, how long anyone ran their farms a certain way.  It needed to end, and people needed to have a higher vision for what they could do, how, and why.  It took a Civil War and the near end of this country for people to get a clue.

Let’s not make the same mistakes.