What if we could open a door to see all the good that is happening in West Virginia? What if we told you that, if we opened this door together, we would not only feel more positive about progress happening in our state – we could build a tool to counter stereotypes, help break the cycle of poverty, and build more economically resilient towns across West Virginia?
There are thousands of West Virginians working on the ground for the greater good. They are leaning in to the work of lifting up their fellow Mountaineers and building a brighter future for the state, even when the going gets tough.
They are working in unexpected places. They are on laptops in church basements and holding meetings in high school auditoriums, coffee shops, and local diners. They are gathering outside of the Capitol with signs in hand, even when it means they may lose their jobs. When they find a gap in their communities, they are opening a business to fill it.
They are paving a path that is respectful of what has happened in the past, but takes a new approach to what can be for the future. They are making an impact with few resources in hand.
These people are the changemakers for our state. They believe that by working collaboratively, lifting up new leaders, and leaning in to challenges, they will land upon lasting solutions to change the trajectory of our communities.
Most of all, they believe in West Virginians. They believe in the multitude of possibilities that reside in each one of us. They know that, if we find ourselves faltering today, that tomorrow is a new day. We are under no obligation to be the person – or people – we were five minutes, five or fifty years ago.
We know that these visionaries are working under challenging circumstances. According to research released by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and shared by Generation West Virginia, the pace of population loss for the state has been incrementally escalating over the past five years (1). The emergence of the Opioid Crisis has ravaged families in every neighborhood. Businesses have closed in downtowns across West Virginia. Buildings have been vacant for many years, and abandoned properties are causing problems.
The changemakers keep trying, no matter what it takes.
Working together, we are making an impact. When one of us may be facing a setback, others of us may be leaping forward. We can propel one another to greatness, and the evidence of our work can make a difference in the hearts and minds of West Virginians.
Our story, when taken together, shows a different picture of West Virginia. It’s a story about perseverance in the face of sometimes extreme challenges, about innovation and grit, about passion and deep-hearted investment, and – most of all – about commitment to our neighbors and communities.
When West Virginians who have left talk about the pull that keeps calling them back, this is the story that is in their hearts. This is our state’s true story, and it’s one that we are better positioned now than ever to share with the world.
Not only does this story have the potential to change the perception of our state both within and beyond our borders, it has the power to motivate West Virginians to get up, get out, and get involved in changing the trajectory of their own lives. This story also holds the potential to create more economically resilient communities for West Virginia.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, ‘The Will and the Ways: Development and Validation of an Individual-Differences Measure of Hope,’ the authors declare that a greater sense of hope is associated with positive outcomes for people and, “as such is not ‘foolish.’” (2)
This research tells us that if we want to gather and sustain momentum toward new and different outcomes in the lives of West Virginians, we have to inspire a sense of hope across our communities.
The authors define hope in two parts: 1) a perception that the person has a sense of agency – or ability effect change – in their lives; and 2) the knowledge that there are pathways available to successfully bring about their desired changes.
If we are going to inspire this sense of hope in West Virginians, the kind of hope that will move mountains, we must provide evidence of the pathways to change that are available today and show the people who are taking advantage of them.
The story of the changemakers working across the state is this evidence – and we have it in spades.
Telling this story collaboratively has the potential to address another significant challenge our state is facing – the unhelpful stereotypes about who we are, what we do, and what we care about.
These stereotypes create a persistent narrative of Appalachia – and West Virginia in particular – as being hopeless and in decline, and this narrative has been repeated for decades in popular media and the press. Beyond the initial sting that reading these types of stories brings for people living in the region, the consistent negative feedback loop about Appalachian communities has contributed to keeping families trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Research conducted by the United Nations from Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (3) and also set to come out this year from Eastern Kentucky University draw a link between negative portrayals of Appalachia in the media and intergenerational poverty.
A research team led by West Virginia’s Downstream Strategies and funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission identified instituting strategies to tell positive community stories as one of the key tactics used by Appalachian cities and towns who have built the resilience needed to successfully weather shocks and downturns in their economies (4).
Working on our own, we may not be able to create the tidal wave needed to combat our state’s persistent story of decline, but when we come together, we have everything that we need to make this happen – today. To create the transformational impact that will refute this story, we need the changemakers to work collaboratively.
A collaboration of this nature has the power to shift the perspective of individual West Virginians in seeing that it is possible to change the circumstances of their lives while remaining in the state; it will enable us to proactively influence decades-long, entrenched negative narratives about West Virginia; and it will support building communities that are better able to withstand shocks and downturns in their economies.
These three outcomes, working in tandem, could change the future of West Virginia.
We are living in an era where we are successfully positioned for the first time to be able to tell our collective story using tools that we are likely already using every day.
Nearly ¾ of the population of the United States is on Facebook, and – for all of the changemakers working on the ground in West Virginian communities – we see how residents use social media as a tool to keep tabs on what is happening in their cities and towns.
Further, national, regional, and local news sources no longer look primarily to individuals for story ideas – they look to see what is bubbling up from the masses, and they spot those trends by using social media.
What if the changemakers in West Virginia organized around one strategy to put a spotlight on all of the ways, big and small, that they are working to make a difference for their communities?
We have already successfully organized in this manner once, just last year. During the teachers’ strike in 2018, public employees used social media as the primary means to spread the word and gain traction for their efforts. In 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, an essay by Jay O’Neal of Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Kanawha County tells about how the Facebook Group public employees used as a tool to organize grew from 1,200 to 21,000 members over the course of one month (5).
In the same way that West Virginian teachers can spark a movement that has touched the entire nation, we can band together to inspire a greater sense of hope for West Virginians and take back the story of our state.
What if we told you the idea we’re proposing likely wouldn’t take additional time from your schedule?
We are sending out a call to West Virginian changemakers to ask that we all start using the same hashtag: #NewStoryWV. Every time we post on social media about the people and projects that are making a difference in West Virginian communities, add #NewStoryWV to the end of the post.
When West Virginians search for this hashtag, they will see our collective story of hope. They will see the story of perseverance and grit that they already know to be true in their hearts, and they will see it reflected in the actions of West Virginians working on the ground today. They will see all of the ways, big and small, that we are fighting to change the lives of our fellow Mountaineers, the ways we are working toward a new trajectory for our communities.
Working together, we can weave the narrative of hope that will have a transformational impact on the future of our state.
We are calling all West Virginians to share the #NewStoryWV.
(1) The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2018, June 20). Years of Slower Population Growth Persisted in 2017. Retrieved March 8, 2019 from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/06/20/years-of-slower-population-growth-persisted-in-2017
(2) *Snyder, C.R. et al. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 570.
(3) *Ingber, S. (2017, December 21) U.N. Investigator On Extreme Poverty Issues A Grim Report — On The U.S. Retrieved March 8, 2019 from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/12/21/572043850/u-n-investigator-on-extreme-poverty-issues-a-grim-report-on-the-u-s
(4) Boettner, Fritz et al. (2019) Strengthening Economic Resilience in Appalachia: A Guidebook for Practitioners Prepared on behalf of the Appalachian Regional Commission. 38, 42.
(5) Catte, Elizabeth et al. (2018). 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike. 22.
*Special thanks to Melissa Newman of Eastern Kentucky University for ferreting out the research/stories from Snyder and Ingber.