More Mountaineer spirit
With the end of the 2021 legislative session, I’ve seen the usual outcries from people, particularly my age or younger, wishing to leave West Virginia over this bill or that bill.
Inevitably, there are a handful of bills that raise the ire of young people that make it across the finish line that cause them to start updating their resumes and looking at apartment listings in whatever more enlightened city or state they wish to move too.
I’m a reporter, but I’m also a human being and a resident of this state. I’ve been covering and paying attention to the West Virginia Legislature for the better part of two decades. Trust me, there are plenty of bills that get introduced, get debated and even pass that make me privately hang my head in shame.
Yet, I’ve never once had the desire to leave West Virginia because of legislation. For one thing, where would one go? If your beef is with West Virginia’s Republican legislative majority, guess what? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans control 61 percent of all state legislatures. There are Republican governors in 27 states.
Even blue states are starting to see people leave, such as California and New York, so this fleeing problem isn’t exclusively a political problem. People leave for all sorts of reasons and usually because of job opportunities. But, if you’re someone wanting to leave because of politics, you’re almost better off staying.
The following is a piece I wrote for a website called Vandaleer in 2016, but I find the content still timely. It’s about turning the struggle to stay into an opportunity for change.
Living in West Virginia, for some young adults, is a struggle. If so, it’s a struggle I’m happy to endure.
A few months back a couple of different entities sent out a request for stories from West Virginia millennials on why they choose to live in the Mountain State or why they might consider leaving. They were encouraged to use the hashtag #TheStruggleToStay when submitting their anecdotes.
When I first saw this hashtag come scrolling down my Twitter timeline it ate at me. It radiated negativity, which I’m sure was the goal. It was designed to get a reaction and get a reaction it did.
I get it. If you’re of that age, the prospects of staying in West Virginia for any length of time after college probably don’t look good. If you look at the top five in-demand jobs, it’s easy to see that West Virginia isn’t the place to be (at least not yet).
For young professionals, it’s easy to look at the job market, the political landscape, the health, and even the ingrained culture of our state and want to go running for the nearest border. These people do this without understanding that by their actions they’re actually making the situation worse, not better.
According to the WVU College of Business and Economics, West Virginia is expected to lose more than 19,000 people by 2030. That’s more than 1 percent of the state’s population gone. On the other hand, West Virginia’s population north of 65-years old will make up nearly a quarter of the state’s residents in the same time frame.
With that data in mind, who do you think will shape West Virginia economically, socially, culturally for years to come? Not its young professionals, but the same people who have always controlled this state and largely kept it in the dark ages. That only changes if young men and women do something bold: stay.
You see, our ancestors didn’t struggle to stay. They struggled to get here in the first place. It was a struggle to create homesteads here. It was a struggle to till the ground on these hills. It was a struggle to wrest this state from Confederate Virginia, so much so that President Abraham Lincoln had to pace in his pajamas to mull it over. It was a struggle to mine the coal, forge the steel, and mold the glass.
You see, West Virginia was born of struggle. We need not see West Virginia as a burden, but an opportunity, much the way our ancestors did. If you’re a young professional in this state, you’re every bit the pioneer your great-great-great-grandparents were. You’re 21st century Mountaineers.
We need to be more involved. We need to be taking the entrepreneurial risks and planting the seeds of West Virginia’s new economy. We need to be more involved politically, running for local and state office, getting appointed to local boards and agencies. We need to focus on giving back, joining philanthropic and community service organizations, volunteering our time and our skills.
None of this will be easy and none of this will change the state overnight. It will be a long game and, well, a struggle. It starts with us. It starts with us staying.
To make big changes we’re going to have many struggles. I just hope the struggle to stay is no longer one of those struggles.