Sometime in the 1990s, when I was working for state level DHHR, I was asked this question by a regional DHHS consultant who came into our state from Philadelphia: Is there any culture in southern West Virginia? My sense was that he was challenging me to respond.
I was outraged by his question but responded calmly. I talked about our incredibly rich traditions of music, visual art, storytelling, handcrafts, and other aspects of our culture. This was before I learned even more by reading John Cuthbert’s wonderful book, “Early Art and Artists in West Virginia,” or began learning from Michael Lipton’s ongoing groundbreaking work with the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
Ten years later I was equally outraged by a colleague at the Capitol who basically wrote off the value of any civic life south of Charleston. I could not grasp how she could work for our Legislature without understanding the great vitality and richness of this major part of who we are as a state.
Over the years, I have also heard comparable misconceptions about the rest of our state. I remember a time in the mid ’70s when my late parents, living mostly in a West Virginia University bubble in Morgantown, expressed strong views based on stereotypes of rural neighbors like those of the farm where I lived with my own family in western Monongalia County.
For at least two decades, rural residents had defeated all of the county school bond issues. As part of my graduate school research, I was privileged to accompany an advisory group on their listening tour around the county. As a result of this tour, the group was able to help develop a new bond issue that was passed because it invested in local community-based schools instead of meeting a city-based dictate to abolish them via consolidation.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office, he realized there was a great disconnect between the people in cities who influenced public policy and the residents of rural areas and small towns who were facing a dire situation due to the drought and the Dust Bowl, the collapse of the economy, and other factors. Most of the national press shut him out, so he developed his own strategies to reach out to people on his own.
One of those strategies was to use radio for his famous fireside chats.
Another strategy was to hire his own photographers and send them out to mostly rural areas and small towns across the country. Their purpose was to highlight dire conditions and needs, show how government projects were addressing those needs, and generally document and validate the ordinary lives of the American people wherever they lived.
This project, which formally launched 85 years ago after some initial work in our state and region that began in 1934, has been described as introducing America to Americans. The photographs and their distribution helped to lay the groundwork and garner support for government investments in critical infrastructure, jobs, housing, and benefits and services.
Our own Kanawha Boulevard has historical signs documenting its origins in the New Deal. Other projects throughout our county and our state also resulted from these investments.
In retrospect, we also know that the photography project helped to lay the groundwork for the people of our country to unite as a nation in order to fight and provide support on the home front that led to victory in World War II. The photographs, which were made through the summer of 1943, may be accessed for free in the FSA/OWI Project files on the Library of Congress website.
We do not need to be headed into a war — and I pray we never will be — to know that we need to rebuild unity again by introducing America to Americans.
Despite our great connectivity and options for travel, we are in some ways isolated as never before, especially during this time of a pandemic. We get different information from different sources and believe, hold on to, and act on different beliefs and convictions about what is true.
Our state embodies the same issue as our country as a whole. We continue to have a great need to introduce West Virginia to West Virginians.
This is not a new issue here. What is new is the level of hostility and demonization that has been fostered over the past four years by our national leadership and the echoes this attitude has found in some ways at our state level.
We must go back to an earlier time and get to know each other in new ways, learn where each other is coming from and dig deep in order to find common ground to build on the things that unite us.
The No. 1 issue right now is to keep our people safe in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Just as our president-elect commits to doing at the federal level, we in West Virginia must also address the pandemic as well as our economy, systemic racism and global warming.
The future of humanity in our state, our nation, and the world, are all at stake here.
We must ask all of our state leaders to do what it takes to bring us together to get the job done. This cannot be a superficial exhortation to go along with their orders.
Our differences are not going away and neither are our people. We must engage in open discussions and learn from each other in order to arrive at the best results and actions as a basis for making the kinds of changes that we know we must make.
I was excited to witness the long caravan of cars late Saturday afternoon after the election as they passed by me as I took my daily walk along FDR’s boulevard. One car detoured up by the Capitol and released a bouquet of giant balloons that floated up higher and higher above our city and our state.
We need both to dig deep and to rise high — and, depending on our faith, to look to a higher power. Then we must do the hard work to figure out how best to join forces to improve our health, our economy, our love and respect for each other, and the fate of our earth.
Our collective survival depends on each of us reaching out beyond our comfort zone to do whatever we can do to engage in this process of coming together.