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Posts Tagged ‘west virginia’

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn.
Jean Evansmore of West Virginia, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking at a rally on July 19, 2021
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It’s not news that the attitudes of the people who raise you help to make you who you are. Activist Jean Evansmore, brought up by grandparents in West Virginia, never knew she was poor. What she knew was that her family worked hard and had dignity. Their self-esteem has carried her through life.

Courtland Milloy recently wrote about Evansmore at the Washington Post. “When Jean Evansmore was growing up in West Virginia coal country, her grandfather did two things that would have a profound effect on her life. He showed her how to plant a garden and, by his own example, let her see that just because you were poor didn’t mean you were lazy or stupid.

“Her grandfather, Webster Evans, earned between $2.50 and $5 a day in the 1920s if he could blast loose, load and haul at least five tons of coal from the mine where he worked. Today, low-wage workers make about $7.50 an hour.

“According to the Poor People’s Campaign, which focuses attention and resources on poverty, about 40 percent of West Virginia residents are poor or low-income. And as in much of the nation, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent in West Virginia grew by about 60 percent, while income for the bottom 99 percent fell by 0.4 percent, the group said. …

“Evansmore, 80, [is] one of the chairpersons for the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. That is a branch of a national faith-based activist civic organization founded by the Rev. William J. Barber II. In remaking the Poor People’s Campaign that was started by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Barber has cited poverty, racism and ecological destruction as culprits in the spiritual bankruptcy of the nation.

“The people of West Virginia know firsthand just how damaging poverty and not having a voice can be. One hundred years ago, in August 1921, thousands of coal miners gathered in Madison in preparation for a trek to Logan and Mingo counties. Several workers had been arrested for attempting to organize a union in both places.

“To reach their incarcerated co-workers, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. … The miners lost what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. But years later during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, reforms were made that eventually would give miners safer working conditions along with better pay and health care.

” ‘What we should have learned from that history is organizing makes a difference,’ Evansmore said.

Just as the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain were of different races and ethnic groups, Evansmore, who is Black, hopes the same diversity can be achieved in organizing the poor today.

“Her goal now is to teach more people about the fight for justice in the state. She encourages everyone to tune in to city and county council meetings. She writes letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, often expressing her dismay at how out of touch they are with the struggles of everyday residents.

“And she protests, carrying signs in opposition to proposed cuts to programs that help the poor — even if only a handful of people join in.

“ ‘Because people are told that poverty is caused by some character flaw, a lot of people won’t even admit they are poor,’ she said. … “Sometimes, she tells them about how little she knew about economics as a child.

‘I didn’t even know we were poor,’ said Evansmore. … ‘We were used to eating pinto beans six days a week and chicken on Sunday. The only time we knew something was wrong was when we had to eat beans on Sunday, too.’

“But after graduating from high school in 1958, she left the state to stay with relatives in New Jersey. It was a different world — one with well-insulated homes and indoor plumbing, not outhouses. She eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Then she got a job with Raytheon, first as a secretary and later working her way up to a buyer in the submarine signaling division. … In 2012, she returned home for good.

“ ‘I vowed that nothing would run me out of West Virginia,’ she said. ‘If I didn’t like something, I’d just stay and fight it.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Jason Margolis
Solar Holler founder Dan Conant, foreground, observes a solar roof installation in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

As warehouse and distribution jobs proliferate and meet a need for lower-skilled employment, I’m beginning to accept that companies like Amazon that destroy traditional industries have some redeeming social virtues. After all, times change.

Perhaps no American workers feel the changing times more deeply than do those in the coal industry. But displaced workers who are open to new opportunities seem to be emerging from the disruption OK.

Jason Margolis provided a coal-country report for Public Radio International’s excellent 50 States series.

“Tanner Lee Swiger graduated from high school in Wayne County, West Virginia this spring,” writes Margolis. “His father and grandfather both worked in West Virginia’s coal industry. But not Swiger, or any of his high school classmates.

“Nobody from his graduating class is working in coal, says Swiger. ‘[They’re] working in fast food or not working at all.’

“Not Swiger. He has a job installing rooftop solar panels. He says his family is delighted with it. …

“Swiger is working as an apprentice with Solar Holler, which was founded four years ago by 32-year-old Dan Conant. Conant doesn’t see solar energy and coal at odds with each other.

“ ‘The way I think about it, as a West Virginian, is that West Virginia has always been an energy state, and this is just the next step. It’s the next iteration,’ says Conant. …

“He left his job at the US Department of Energy to start Solar Holler, to try to help slow his state’s economic slide. By many metrics, West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country. …

“ ‘We need to find new things,’ says Conant. ‘It’s not going to be the coal industry of the past.’ …

“Solar may be an energy of tomorrow, but … coal mining jobs in West Virginia typically pay more than twice the starting wages for solar. But those jobs are increasingly hard to find, and Solar Holler, and other solar installers, need workers now. …

“Solar Holler is partnering with a non-profit called the Coalfield Development Corporation. They own the building. Beyond solar jobs, Coalfield Development is teaching former coal workers skills like woodworking and farming.

‘Apprentices with Coalfield Development work 33 hours, spend six hours a week at a community college, and three hours engaged in ‘life-skills mentorship.’ Nearly 90 people have entered the program. ”

More at “50 States: America’s place in a shrinking world,” here, where you can listen to the story or read it.

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The Nonprofit Quarterly recently published a short piece about how artisans are playing a critical role in West Virginia’s economic development strategy.

Ruth McCambridge reported, “In West Virginia, a state rich in artisans including fashion designers, leatherworkers, and furniture makers, the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts offers business help meant to bring that local work to a more national market.

“ ‘We get artists’ work into major markets outside the state,’ CEO Alissa Novolselick said. ‘We help them get in front of power buyers, big art institutions or really high volume galleries, or different sorts of market opportunities.’

“Success in this larger arena is completely possible, she says, pointing to Blenko Glass and Fiestaware as West Virginia–based businesses with a ‘hugely diversified portfolio.’ She calls this part of a strength-based community economic development strategy, rather than just support for artists: ‘We really believe that art as economic development can be part of the total answer to working on a more diversified economy for West Virginia.’ …

“Art can create more than a visual; it can create a place. And the richness goes both ways, says Novoselick, who contends that the rural nature of the settings of many of these centers of arts development informs the art. …

“A recent study of five hundred West Virginia art entrepreneurs found that they felt the low cost of living and doing business in the state helps lower the risk of what would otherwise be a chancy endeavor.” More here.

When I was working at the magazine, we had articles from a number of New England states about their version of a “creative economy.” The perennial worry, of course, is that once the artists have done their job and brought tourists and business to an area, they may be unable to pay the inevitable higher rents. Forward-looking locales explore ways to protect artists for the long term.

Photo: MountainMade WV Handmade Art
Blenko Glass

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