I was talking about the conditions of the roads here in West Virginia with a friend of mine yesterday. The conversation included phrases like ‘lost cause’, ‘no signs of it getting better’ and ‘get out while you can’. I hear these phrases often when people talk about West Virginia. Particularly those who are Millennials and Generation X. Some of them are still here ready to jump ship the first chance they get while others left years ago and never looked back. This same conversation, I responded with, “I’m the idiot still holding out hope.”
WTRF 9 published an article on April 14th that cited a study done by WalletHub in which West Virginia was ranked dead last in overall quality of life for Millennials. The article read, “West Virginia came in last place in the study, placing 51st. The Mountain State also came in last place in the quality of life, economic health and civic engagement rankings. West Virginia placed 35th in the education and health ranking and in the top half of the affordability ranking at 18th.”
With studies like this, is it any wonder why people are running away? I’ve been a West Virginian pretty much my entire life. I’ve lived here since my first memories, and no matter how far I wander, I honestly can’t imagine life anywhere else. There is something beautiful about this state, and I’m not just talking about the scenery. The people here are unlike people anywhere else. We look out for each other. Each community has pride and passion for their little spot in West By-God. As our infrastructure falls apart, we keep building each other in hopes that there will be something here for us 5 or 10 years from now.
As a mother of two young kids, I often wonder if my passion and desire to stay is wishful thinking. That West Virginia truly is the lost cause that everyone thinks she is. Let’s face it: our own legislature voted this last session to let companies poison our water because they believe West Virginians are too fat for it to make any sort of difference. As if we don’t bathe or brush our teeth or eat fish from our rivers. This state has a track record of cutting off our noses to spite our faces through the people we elect to ‘represent’ us in Charleston and Washington. The people making laws and choosing our destinies care more about the corporations that line their pockets than they do about saving the state and people they were elected to represent.
In the last 25 years, we have seen an increase in suicides and addiction. We are still one of the states ranked highest in poverty per capita. We continually cut funding for public education and then when the natural order leaves our classrooms with teachers who can’t afford to keep paying health insurance AND supplies for their students, we insult their character and do everything possible to sway public opinion against those who can help prepare our next generation to bring this state off its knees. Our roads are crumbling, and several counties have declared a state of emergency based on conditions of the primary and secondary roadways. The majority of our citizens, if they can even find work, are working minimum wage jobs that require more hours than any person should reasonably work in order to pay for basic necessities. Many of our citizens need safety net programs just to survive. Our natural resources are exploited by out-of-state companies that tear apart our mountains, extract our lifeblood in gas and oil, pay others to take those resources to other states, and then leave us thirsty for the prosperity we were once promised.
We need something, anything. Our state is dying. As quickly as we export our resources, we export our citizens. Millennials like myself don’t want to be caught in a landslide of dead end employment that can’t pay for our degrees we were told we needed, exhausted and fallen infrastructure with no guarantees of reconstruction, and lack of accountability for pharmaceutical companies that got our families and friends addicted to opioids all while they raised the cost of life-saving medications to the point where our citizens must choose between rationing their prescriptions, if they purchase them at all and paying to keep the electricity on…
We’re desperate for a little light in between the storms that are ravaging our home. And, we’re tired of promises. Empty words have left our state working on skeleton crew and our people need change. We need someone who can put their actions where their words are. We need to band together as citizens who KNOW what West Virginia has to offer and begin choosing representatives that are behind us as we seek to take back the state that promised freedom for all in 1863. Representatives that will be the change we need, with hearts for those they represent.
There are days when I feel like so many of my peers—West Virginia is a lost cause. When we make the news, it’s rarely for anything that I’m proud to be identified with. Whether it’s a representative that alluded to drowning his children if they were homosexual, or whether our legislators sell our water for their own prosperity, I don’t know how much longer I can hold my breath waiting for a white horse to save our mountains from the same old politics that continue to push West Virginia farther behind as the world moves on without us. And, make no mistake, they will leave us behind.
When are we going to say enough is enough and do something revolutionary; like elect someone who doesn’t fit the status quo? When are our children going to be worth the change at the ballot box? When are we going to stand up for ourselves against the Good Old Boys who love power more than their constituents?
We don’t need more of the same. When you pick the same apples from the same dead trees, don’t expect the pie to taste differently. We need innovation. We need something outside our comfort zone. We need more than promises.
I don’t want to leave. West Virginia is my home. And, despite all of the bad publicity and the self-destructive legislation and the self-absorbed legislators who choose themselves over my family, I love her. Her dissected mountains, her extracted soil, her broken roads and her scrutinized educators. I love her people and the diversity seen between the Ohio River and Seneca Rocks. Everything she is, as much as it makes so much sense to say goodbye, I will fight to save.
Montani semper liberi. In June 1863, West Virginia chose sovereignty because we believed that we had liberty in these hills. Whether you’re in Morgantown or Martinsburg or Philippi or Charleston, West Virginia is still your home. Each of her regions has its own tribe of people whose needs are so different from one another, yet we all believe in the same principles.
There is freedom in these mountains. A place we can call home. Will we save her or will we abandon her when she needs us most?