Imagine with me for a few moments.
Imagine that you get in your car, and you drive. You drive, and drive. The odds are that this drive, no matter where you are now, will take a very long time. It will wind, and wind, and all but the strongest of stomachs will turn a bit with every addition to the stream of endless curves on the narrow roads you will eventually find yourself on. You will follow the creeks, always – smaller than most rivers but sometimes swollen, high and white from the rain shedding off the sides of the mountains packed in so tightly that you can put a foot on each one and straddle them. The floods could carry away or damage most of the houses and trailers you pass, many depressing and forlorn to my eyes, so I can’t say what you would think as they drift past you, and the high water climbs of the spine of many families as it climbs the banks in a day, but at least it hides the hundreds of discarded tires, thousands of plastic bags, and deposits of “trash” that lie at the bottom; on the sides; in the trees and little dams and blockages. The creeks will almost make you give a dismal laugh as you’ll hear grief-stricken tales about how the pH levels are off in a given river.
Water affects some, fire others. You’ll see burned out shells of structures as you drive, and after crossing some rusted bridges, one with the name “Acey Fox” spray painted on the side, the arson’s signature and a name I’ve never forgotten. You’ll probably not notice the barren and grassy lot where the church my father pastored was burned by arsonists. Alcoholism, prescription drug addiction, and most recently heroin addiction, burn the people. Finally, you’ll reach the bottom of one mountain in particular – Kelly Knob, my home, at which point I can say to you: welcome to West Virginia.
The issues I’ve mentioned are just a few, and do not even address the major problem of dependence on coal in the economy, and inevitable blow of reduction in coal use that has already been put into motion, but if I want to address that and the troubles that West Virginian individuals so often face, I see it as stemming back to childhood and education, which were the differentiating factors for me and my family, being home schooled in a loving environment. School systems are broken, families are broken, and neither children nor adults learn the how to change things for themselves or their communities. West Virginia is caught in between a history and legend of hard work, honest living, mining, logging, and farming and a reality and present of our fading purpose, history, tradition, motivation and identity. There is a stagnation of the soul of the communities, with no way to look to the future hopefully and with determination to forge new purpose, identity and community. If one were able to embed the innovation, long-termism, pride in and love for place, values, and humanity (rather than coal) into children, schools, life-skills training centers, orphanages, and colleges, I believe that the situation in West Virginia would begin to improve, taking time and patience, but improving nonetheless.
Without referencing the article directly, and pulling from what I’ve committed to memory, a method that has inspired me to see this happen is John Kania and Mark Kramer’s concept of collective impact. The idea behind collective impact is partnership and teamwork to the extreme; cross-sector partnership between NGOs and the private sector (mostly through companies’ CSR initiatives) in particular. There are many disparate efforts to tackle these societal issues and relieve the individual troubles of West Virginians happening today, and many are doing worlds of good. However, if we look at educational after-school programs for example, each separate effort is seeking to separate and isolate the effect it is having from external factors or other organizations or programs, so that they can prove the effect they are having. We have many organizations vying for the same funding against one another – therefore, what is needed is a unified effort. Kania and Kramer talk about having a common agenda, shared measurement systems, constant communication, and a backbone organization to archive this. In essence, the idea is to do it together. What I couldn’t get past however, was the question of how does one bring about this unity? How do you get hundreds of organizations who are focused on doing it their way, to do it a common way? The key to this I think is having something like a “Backbone” organization. In some ways the unity and focus that this organization must bring about seems to be in the flow of funding, with donors and local government saying to organizations “If you get with these people, partner with them and work hand-in-glove with them we’ll fund you.” I don’t like that idea a whole lot. It seems almost like coercion and franchising the effort of helping people, but some form of financial incentive might be needed. To be honest, I’m not sure. But one key thing that I see in bringing collective impact to bear is the backbone organization and it’s leader’s credentials – their identity, vision, and skill set. I think that if West Virginians can bolster the skills and tools that make up their identity and agree (somewhat) upon a vision for West Virginia beyond coal, beyond the short-term, then we will see their identities as open doors in the closed communities, and partnership can flourish.
Ultimately, I have just expressed what I would hope that I can do in my state, but that hope circles right back to the reason I am here and writing this blog, and that is my childhood. What child, and as they grow what adult, can think about the future when the present isn’t even certain? Bringing about change in communities when they can’t change the abuse they suffer? Health, the environment, education – when their parent is OD’d on heroin in the next room, or absent completely, their teachers don’t teach, and their peers are as lost as they are? So, then, we West Virginians round out our credentials, we learn, and then we come back and start over again with the kids – with ourselves, 20 years ago.
Photo Credit: My sister Jessica Hannah, who took this not far from our home.