West Virginia Rising up

Last week I went to Beckley, West Virginia to keynote Rise Up Southern West Virginia, a conference of about 200 leaders committed to fighting childhood poverty. I traveled there because I wanted to make two simple and basic points: No people or part of our country should be left behind as the nation seeks to move forward, and the path forward must start with the individuals in that room.

West Virginia has long lagged behind the rest of the nation by almost every measure but is now suffering at record levels. In just the past year, thousands upon thousands of coal jobs have disappeared. More and more families have lost loved ones to the scourge of a prescription drug epidemic. And vast teacher vacancies have left public schools ill-equipped and short-handed to prepare the next generation.

This is part of West Virginia's reality, but only part of it.

I have been to West Virginia numerous times over the course of my career, and this trip left me more committed to the state than ever before. But it was my first-ever visit that came to shape my views of the people there and help propel me to launch what is now known as The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Back in August 1985, a Union Carbide chemical plant in Institute, WV leaked toxic gases. Just months before, deadly gases had escaped at its sister plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands of people. At the time, I was working for a non-profit in mid-town New York, and we were asked to come to Institute to help the community and the chemical industry figure out how best to respond.

The work was inspiring. Residents bravely sought ways to balance their urgent desire for safety and protection with a need to maintain jobs. They were deeply proud of their state and its history and culture. What I also remember, vividly, was the reaction of my friends and colleagues in New York City and elsewhere when they heard I was working in West Virginia. Their refrains were biting: "You can't get a good glass of wine there." "The people there are uneducated." "Why do West Virginians even support those chemical industry jobs, anyway?" And on and on it went.

I fear such attitudes still persist in our country about West Virginia and places like it. It's an attitude that says that some people are worth more than others and that some of us will be left to go it alone. It's one reason for the deep anger now permeating our political landscape. There's no room for such attitudes if we are to find more effective and inclusive paths for moving forward.

I started The Harwood Institute because I believe every individual in America should have a fair shot at the American Dream. That each person should have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. And that all people should be afforded dignity. As I said in West Virginia last week, I believe that in order to make progress, we must make community a common enterprise again, where each of us is a part of something larger than ourselves.

During the course of the presidential primaries, various candidates have gone to West Virginia to make pledges and promises to revitalize the state by bringing jobs back and fixing the education system, among other ideas. The people of West Virginia have heard such promises before, and little has come from them. Using the state as a convenient backdrop for campaigns only promotes more false hope and cynicism. My own read is that the people of West Virginia don't buy it.

Instead, there is a growing desire within the state for people to come together to begin to tackle their own pressing challenges. I'm convinced more than ever that change has to start there, at the community level. Progress on this path may be slow at times, but it will be real, and matter in people's lives. I plan to be there supporting them.