By C.V. Moore
From drug abuse to teen pregnancy to affordable housing, the challenges facing West Virginia communities are real. But the good news is that the talent to overcome such problems rests in those communities already, say organizers of Wednesday’s West Virginia Regional Policy Workshop in Beckley.
“West Virginians are as creative as anybody. We’re trying to light a fire to bring that talent together,” says Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, one of the event’s hosts.
The workshop — one of two held this week in West Virginia — brings together organizations, elected officials, and community members to learn about why it’s important to seek state policy changes and how to advocate for those changes.
Conversations about policy often leave out the voices of community members themselves, who are the real experts on the issues that impact them and the common-sense solutions to those issues, said Stephanie Tyree of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, another host organization.
“We wanted to create a space in different regions of West Virginia — not in Charleston — where we intentionally brought together (people) to start strategizing about what those solutions could look like.”
More than 100 people attended the day-long event at The Dream Center in Beckley, where they participated in policy training and attended workshops on seven issues of statewide importance: community revitalization, minimum wage, affordable housing, physical activity in school, teen pregnancy and sex education, juvenile justice reform, and substance abuse.
The workshops were designed to roll into a Statewide Policy Symposium to be held on Sept. 24-25 in Charleston, where groups will present ideas to the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty.
“Today is not about talk. The policies we work on and talk about today will be the basis of what we present to legislators this September and what we fight for in the spring,” said Smith.
Over lunch, attendees heard from leaders on a variety of issues who outlined some of their work. Here is a sampling:
-- The Rev. Matthew Watts of Grace Bible Church in Charleston and founder of HOPE Community Development Corp. shared highlights of a template to address child poverty, which he developed for his work on the West Side of Charleston.
-- Sean O’Leary of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy discussed the need for an increase in minimum wage, which has dropped by 32 percent since 1968, relative to inflation.
-- Brandon Dennison of the Coalfield Development Corp. described his group’s strategy for creating good-quality, affordable housing and providing work, education, and life skills coaching to at risk youth at the same time.
-- Paul Sheridan of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia pointed out the need for juvenile justice reform by moving from an incarceration model to community-based services.
-- The Rev. James Patterson of Institute Church of the Nazarene and director of the Saving Our Children program described the need to fund substance abuse and recovery support systems delivered and facilitated by recovering citizens. “I want to end a war (on drugs) and raise an army — a recovery army,” he said.
The three organizations sponsoring the event on Wednesday — the West Virginia Community Development Hub, West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy — focus on grassroots community work, statewide coalition building, and research, respectively.
Seventy-five organizations signed on to co-sponsor the two forums.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that community change is greatly enhanced when connected with policy change,” says Kent Spellman of the Hub. “There are obstacles and challenges that communities face that need help at the state level.”
The workshop concluded with an address by State Senate Majority Leader John Unger, who stated in a press release prior to the event, “Building a thriving and sustainable democratic society begins with the understandings and the exchange of ideas that emerge from deliberative, civil dialogues.
“These (workshops) will help foster an understanding of critical issues and engage us in acting together to ... overcome our common challenges to build a better, brighter future for all of us.”
The second West Virginia Regional Policy Workshop is set for Friday in Bridgeport.
For more information on the workshop, contact Stephanie Tyree at 304-360-2110 or email@example.com.
For more information about the upcoming symposium in September, contact Alyson Clements at firstname.lastname@example.org.