This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
It’s early January, but the high tunnel at Mount View High School in McDowell County, West Virginia, is sweltering. High tunnels are inexpensive greenhouses, unheated but covered in plastic, that make it easier for farmers to extend the growing season for their fruits and vegetables. In this case, it’s strawberries: About 300 strawberry plants, donated by a McDowell farmer, are growing in raised beds.
The students at Mount View chose to plant the strawberries, says Jenny Totten, who works with the high school students as the McDowell County Community Development Coordinator at the West Virginia Community Development Hub. The students don’t get to make a lot of their own decisions, she says. So she lets them choose what they want to do, whether it’s the work that they’ll do in the high tunnel or what they’ll make with the harvested plants. The kids don’t just learn gardening and cultivating, but also how to make their own products from the crop, and how to sell them.
Because it’s winter, the strawberry plants haven’t borne fruit yet. When they do, the students intend to make—and sell—strawberry jam. With other fruits and vegetables that they’ll grow, the students have chosen to make and sell smoothies, jams and jellies, and ready-to-sell vegetable boxes. To make even more growing space, Totten has plans for the land surrounding the high tunnel: spread out some mulch and plant more raised beds, to protect the produce from harsh chemicals that could exist beneath the surface, because the high tunnel is built on reclaimed coal mine land. The whole school is.
Ideally, Totten says, students could eventually sell fruits and vegetables to the county school system so that the foods that they and other students eat are from their own county. There are three high tunnels in total at schools across the county, and plans for more.
McDowell is the poorest county in West Virginia—a distinction that comes with high rates of food insecurity and high joblessness. That’s what the high tunnel projects are intended to mitigate: Students can not only grow food to sell but also to feed themselves and their families. And encouraging agriculture, says Totten, “[helps] build an economy not based on a single industry anymore. If we can spend just a piece of our money in the county, we help build that local economy.”
There are also plans to install a high tunnel project at a drug rehabilitation home—because agriculture can also be used as therapy for people fighting addiction.
THE HIGH TUNNELS ARE JUST one example among many innovative projects happening across McDowell County that are part of a six-year-old initiative called “Reconnecting McDowell.” Perhaps surprisingly, it is coordinated by a labor union, the American Federation of Teachers. Reconnecting McDowell—a partnership of community members, nonprofits, and public and private organizations—has a mission that’s nothing if not ambitious: essentially, eradicating poverty in the county. It focuses on education, but also on providing wraparound services and economic development. When the project began, 40 partners joined the AFT—a list that has grown to about 125 today.
They face a daunting challenge. Fully one in three McDowell residents live in poverty. Median household income is $25,206. Life expectancies are some of the lowest in the nation: In 2014, the average life expectancy was just 70 years; the national average was 79. McDowell has high rates of opioid addiction, and one of the highest rates nationally of prescription drug overdose deaths. The county’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, nearly double the national rate.
McDowell’s poverty, and its consequences, are exacerbated by the county’s distance from other communities and their goods and services. McDowell is the state’s southernmost county, and the failure of the state government to extend the long-promised King Coal Highway into McDowell and other southern counties has clearly taken a toll. Doctors, dentists, and mental health providers—as well as the grocery store—are more than an hour’s drive away for many residents. (McDowell’s Walmart, which once provided jobs, groceries, and other necessities, closed in 2016.)
Reconnecting McDowell—often called just “Reconnecting”—is looking to reverse these statistics. To staff Reconnecting, the AFT hired three project coordinators to work within McDowell, in addition to a team in Washington, D.C., to organize the partners and help connect residents to, as Washington-based Reconnecting Project Manager Leah Daughtry says, “the resources … that they should, by right, have.”
Mount View High School students tend strawberries in their high tunnel greenhouse.
McDowell’s decline began many decades ago. The elimination of coal jobs—where unionized miners could expect to earn better-than-decent wages—hit McDowell hard. At the county’s height in 1950, nearly 100,000 people lived in McDowell. But as the number of coal jobs decreased due to both increased automation and the rise of cheaper substitutes like natural gas, residents seeking work were forced to look elsewhere. Today, McDowell’s population hovers around 20,000.
With this loss of jobs and population came a loss of civic infrastructure. “A lot of our big civil institutions bringing people together and working on problems … those institutions are gone,” says Chad Webb, who coordinates Reconnecting’s projects within McDowell.
Now and then, McDowell surfaces in national media coverage, generally in stories that blame the victims for their poverty. During the 2016 election, journalists flocked to Appalachia, and McDowell County in particular, “to illuminate the values of Trump supporters,” writes Elizabeth Catte, a historian and author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. On her blog, Catte chronicled how various journalists referred to McDowell County as “the forgotten tribe,” “the most pro-Trump county in America,” and “down-and-out coal country.”
Those stories left out a lot. While it’s true there was, and is, clear support for Trump in the area, just 6,179 votes were cast in McDowell County in the 2016 election, with 4,614 going to Trump. More tellingly, though, the county’s voter turnout was the lowest in the state, at 36 percent. Those pieces also tended to leave out the support Bernie Sanders won in McDowell during the 2016 primaries—receiving 1,488 votes on the Democratic line to Trump’s 785 on the Republican. Sanders was the only presidential candidate to visit McDowell County in 2016.
McDowell and Appalachia are in fact not “other.” Like so many places across the United States—the Delta region in the South, many Native American reservations in the West, the borderlands of Texas—Appalachia’s McDowell County is a place of deep, generational, rural poverty, much of it the result of economic exploitation. Though the mountains of McDowell are isolated in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, McDowell’s problems are not.
THESE PROBLEMS ARE what motivated Gayle Manchin, who was appointed to the state board of education while serving as the state’s first lady, to approach the AFT in 2011 to do something about McDowell County Schools. The county’s public schools had been turned over to the state in 2001—and a decade had passed without improvement.
As Manchin recounts it, she thought, “If we could start a group and start talking about how could we make a difference in McDowell County, not only would it be good for McDowell … but we have other counties that certainly need help.” AFT President Randi Weingarten “really impressed” Manchin “with her passion for education and children” when she had visited West Virginia.
Rather than put the state board of education in charge of the initiative, Manchin says, “I thought we needed a national partner that could be kind of the umbrella … [and the partners] would be peers under the umbrella.” Though teachers unions in West Virginia lack collective-bargaining rights, Manchin recognized the strength that the AFT and its organization of teachers had. So Manchin approached Weingarten about the AFT serving as the “umbrella.”
After further researching the problems facing the county, Weingarten agreed that the AFT should try to work with the McDowell community to help implement changes. And just like that, a labor union—not the state education officials, or a chain of charter schools with its “education reformers”—was launching an initiative to improve a county school system—and, in short order, the county as a whole.
SINCE RECONNECTING’S beginnings in late 2011, more and more partners, including residents, community groups, nonprofits, churches, businesses, and government agencies, have joined the effort. Reconnecting originally made a five-year commitment to the county, but renewed that commitment for another five years in 2017.
Twice a year, Reconnecting hosts a meeting for its partners from across the state and the country. One meeting is in the state capital of Charleston, the other in McDowell County itself. At the January meeting in a Charleston hotel, the McDowell partners discussed the county’s most pressing needs and brainstormed new solutions. Many pointed to McDowell’s teacher shortage; others highlighted the lack of a highway that could more easily connect McDowell to other communities. The problems intertwine: The inability to get to McDowell contributes to the substantial teacher shortage—the schools needed to fill more than two dozen positions in January. Adequate housing for new teachers—or anyone—in McDowell has been hard to find or build. The land is rocky and mountainous, often with limited infrastructure for water and sewage.
At our table, Weingarten picked up a handful of the hotel’s sugar packets to illustrate a point about unions. “This is not just a fight for your little piece of the economic pie,” she said, picking up one sugar packet. “It is a fight to create the bigger economic pie,” she added as she grabbed the lot.
Gayle Manchin (right) wanted a national partner to improve McDowell County schools, so she approached Randi Weingarten (left) and the American Federation of Teachers.
Since Reconnecting’s beginnings, the pie has begun to grow: Partners have donated millions of dollars for new programs, services, and resources for the schools. As Reconnecting has expanded, it has “gotten better at leveraging our relationships across the state and bringing in national partners when needed,” says Daughtry. Consequently, Reconnecting has taken on bigger projects—instituting community schools, starting a large-scale mentoring program, and helping to redefine the function of the county’s juvenile drug courts. What may be the biggest—and surely most concrete—project of all has been building an apartment complex for teachers and other professionals. That’s a project, however, that has yet to come to fruition.
A major focus of Reconnecting is providing wraparound programs and services within the schools themselves. Because the county lacks health professionals, mobile dental offices visit the schools to provide care, and nearly all provide mental health services. Reconnecting is currently working to expand access to dental care for adults in the county as well. Two of the high schools have medical clinics, and two high schools also have graduation coordinators to work with the students, not necessarily just to help students get a diploma, but to build relationships with them, says Ingrida Barker, the director of secondary education on McDowell’s board of education. The county has instituted a home visiting program, where K–12 teachers meet with children and their families in their homes.
Many of these wraparound services are hallmarks of “community schools,” which provide extensive and comprehensive services to students and their families. Two of the county’s elementary schools, Southside K-8 and Welch Elementary, are currently community schools. Outside of the wraparound services that nearly all the schools provide—like medical care and after school activities—Southside also provides programs and classes that involve a student’s whole family. The school offers computer classes and GEDclasses to parents and guardians, as well as classes like Zumba and painting for kids and their families. Welch Elementary is in its infancy as a community school; its main plan is to teach the students hydroponic gardening. The school is reaching out to community members and organizations to bring in their agricultural knowledge and build hydroponic towers—and these gardens can become community gardens.
Reconnecting’s goal is to make all McDowell schools community schools—hubs for the entire McDowell community. “We are slowly plugging in these supports for everybody,” says Barker. “We have bits and pieces in every single school.”
“Before, I was all about academics,” says Barker. “But when you look at different circumstances … you start looking at … what makes that final outcome of academics: healthy relationships, overall happiness. As an educator now, I’m not just thinking As, Bs, and Cs. I’m thinking, ‘Have you had a meal? Have you had your dental check-up?’”
Students and their families have also been able to access the internet and expanded libraries. Partners Shentel and Frontier Communications expanded broadband access to homes as well as the schools. A literacy organization, First Book, donated thousands of books to McDowell children and literacy centers around the county.
One program, which Chad Webb describes as “the best thing we do,” is a mentoring program called Broader Horizons, which pairs high school students who are dealing with difficult issues with mentors that help them plan their futures. Through the program, the students take trips to both Charleston and Washington, D.C. Reconnecting also worked with the West Virginia Supreme Court to create a juvenile drug court to divert students away from incarceration and the criminal court system and into treatment, so that they can get back to school.
Reconnecting has clearly had a positive effect on student success. Between 2011 and 2016, the high school graduation rate increased 14 percent, from 74 percent to 88 percent. The dropout rate decreased, from 4.5 percent to 1.6 percent. More high school graduates are enrolling in college and technical programs: 40 percent of graduates went to college in 2016, compared with just a quarter in 2011. And, says Barker, through surveys, the kids are reporting that they’re happier. The state returned the county schools to local control in 2013.
IT MAY SEEM ODD TO SOME that a labor union would get involved with community and economic development, but Weingarten would disagree. “It is unique for these times, but it is not unique in the historical context of who unions are,” she says. “Unions are about making things better for the people they represent and the people they serve.”
That was clearly once the case in McDowell, a coal mining community with a unionized workforce. Throughout the partnership meeting, Weingarten frequently reminded everyone of how McDowell, after its resources were extracted by corporations, was “abandoned by market forces”—which in turn led to the decimation of organized labor there. Both the decline of coal in West Virginia and Appalachia, and attacks from the right on unions across the country, have weakened the power of labor. These dual histories built on each other to help create the places of deep poverty where mining and manufacturing have all but disappeared, but where, as of 2013, ten out-of-state corporations still own 63 percent of the land in McDowell County.
Today, it has fallen to a union—not the United Mine Workers, a union made small and weak by the same factors that have devastated McDowell, but the nearly two million–member AFT—to rebuild what those market forces and political reactions have wrecked. Stephen Lerner, a long-time labor organizer, says that to “capture what made the labor movement so vibrant in the past and how we can make it vibrant in the future” demands that unions connect with their communities. “One part is lifting up the wages and benefits of our members, but the other part is being a transformative agent to win justice at every level. [That’s] how unions return to their roots—as a mission of winning social and economic and racial justice.”
Joseph McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, says that initiatives like Reconnecting allow unions to “expand beyond the workplace” and “approach the issues in terms of thinking about people as whole people—not just the lens of their connection to the workplace.”
To do that, McCartin says, “What has to happen is a cultivation of trust between the union and the community allies and potential allies.”
That trust was much in evidence this winter, when teachers across the state’s 55 counties went on strike, demanding higher pay and better health insurance. (The low pay is a major reason why the teacher shortage that plagues McDowell County is a common feature across the state.) The two teachers unions in West Virginia, the state branches of AFT and the National Education Association, both helped coordinate the strike, though much of the impetus for the action bubbled up from below.
Chad Webb says that there was massive support across McDowell for the striking teachers. Local businesses put up signs that read, “We support our teachers,” and community members brought food and coffee to the picket lines. After nine days of walkouts, the teachers won: The legislature approved a 5 percent raise for teachers as well as all state employees.
In undertaking to rebuild McDowell’s engines of growth and civic infrastructure, though, Reconnnecting needs to win even more trust than West Virginians showed their teachers during the strike.
THE MOST AMBITIOUS PROJECT that Reconnecting has proposed is to build an apartment complex for teachers and other professionals in downtown Welch, which is McDowell’s county seat.
One of the problems plaguing McDowell is a lack of housing, and a lack of land on which to build new housing. For educators, that’s especially tough. Just 56 percent of McDowell school employees live in the county. Many teachers live outside the county, in cities like Beckley and Bluefield, which can be about an hour’s drive from work. But once a job opens up in Beckley or Bluefield, those teachers may leave to work closer to home.
In order to build what it termed “Renaissance Village,” AFT tore down the abandoned eyesore building that was once Best Furniture in 2016. But funding troubles have meant that now, instead of an empty building in downtown Welch, there’s an empty lot. By the normal criteria of market forces, teacher housing in McDowell isn’t a high-yield investment.
In getting into the building business—and by extension, the economic development business—Reconnecting has entered a minefield. McDowell residents have heard the promises before. Many organizations and initiatives have made their way into McDowell to try to alleviate the county’s poverty, with little to show for it. Sometimes it’s a way for organizations to win grants—they use McDowell’s statistics, but then the money for the county itself never comes. Other times, the funding dries up, and then the commitment does, too. Webb says that it could seem like Reconnecting is “just another example. Delays that we’ve had in the building project ha[ve] been translated into people skeptical of our work. And I understand why they feel that way.”
The AFT tore down an adandoned "Best Furniture" building in downtown Welch as part of a plan to build much-needed teacher housing on the site. But amid financing problems, the project is in limbo.
A portion of the apartment complex’s funding has been secured from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund (the site of the future complex is on an old coal mine). The rest of the funding and the timeline are yet to be determined.
As the long wait for the apartment building has demonstrated, the AFT has needed to prove to the community that this time would be different—that Reconnecting could be trusted even when its plans for economic development didn’t yield quick results.
Linda McKinney, who runs the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank, a partner of Reconnecting, has lived in McDowell County all her life. She says that when she first heard of the Reconnecting McDowell project, she joked with friends who had also witnessed well-intentioned groups come and go, “Are we ‘disconnected’?”
McKinney’s remark points to a possible communication problem between Reconnecting McDowell and the rest of the McDowell community: The top-down approach isn’t necessarily welcome.
Without any federal or state help, McKinney runs the only food bank in the county. And running the food bank is volunteer work—there are no paid employees. She says she feeds anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 people a month. Five Loaves & Two Fishes has its largest food distribution once a month, and some people come the night before, sleeping in their cars in the parking lot to ensure that they’re first in line.
According to Preston Pace, who has two children in a McDowell elementary school, Reconnecting is “doing a good job with whatever they have to work with. They’ve been kind of humble about it. It’s like somebody giving an anonymous donation—you don’t know who they are, you just got a donation.”
Stephanie Addair, another long-time McDowell resident and head of McDowell’s Economic Development Authority, says, “They’re boots on the ground. They’re here with us and working with us and not coming in to save us. … With them [being] with us, it’s different.”
Jina Belcher, who grew up in McDowell (and is McKinney’s daughter), says that “one of the things that I appreciate most about [Chad Webb] is that he recognized early on … that he needed to develop the trust in the community in McDowell County.” Belcher says that previous organizations failed because “they didn’t enter into the community correctly.”
Belcher, who is the director of business development at Coalfield Development Corporation, an economic development nonprofit, says that before the January partners meeting, she didn’t realize some of the positive results that Reconnecting was achieving within the school system.
When Webb was growing up in southern West Virginia, he figured he would leave the area when he grew up. After all, that’s part of a common narrative: Successful kids leave—and they can only be successful if they leave. But when Webb was at law school at West Virginia University, he “fell back in love with West Virginia.”
“I never thought of myself as a West Virginian when I was younger,” says Webb. “[But] then it became a part of my identity.” So he came home.
Reconnecting works to establish its commitment in many ways. Webb routinely hosts community conversations in different towns across McDowell, alongside others like Belcher and Totten. These informal listening sessions allow residents to discuss what they’d like to see in their communities, and they also allow Webb to figure out how he can help connect them to the resources that could make their plans happen. At one January listening session in Davy, the residents said they wanted to build a playground and splash park in one of their neighborhood green spaces. Webb mentions an organization, called KaBOOM!, that specifically funds playground equipment, and says that Reconnecting is looking into working with them to connect those resources to Davy. And every month, Webb, Totten, and others from a county health group host a 5k race with a cheeky name to benefit different local charities. January’s chilly Saturday morning race was called “Freezin’ 4A Reason.”
“You have to have a physical and interpersonal presence,” Webb says.
RECONNECTING’S MOST ambitious initiatives—revitalizing McDowell’s economy—inevitably involve diversifying it away from coal.
A mural celebrating the town's history decorates a building in Welch's business district, a sign of local efforts to revitalize McDowell County's post-coal economy.
“When you talk about economic development,” says Totten, “you want to work with what’s already there.” McDowell has a lot to offer. Many people talk about how West Virginia, with its rivers and mountains, could be like Colorado in terms of attracting young people who want recreational activities.
The mountains surrounding the Welch town center rise up like the sides of a bowl. During most of the year, the town is framed with foliage that’s lush and green. It doesn’t look like a different America—it looks like rural America, but a place ravaged by a post-industrial economy.
Last summer, the McDowell County Convention and Visitors Bureau began operating in Welch. It’s headed by Betty Jones. When I sat with Jones in her office, she had notes in front of her as she carefully told me about her projects. But it’s not long before the paper lay forgotten and she was telling me about what McDowell used to be like, and her hopes for it. Like many, including those at the January partners meeting, she points to the prospect of tourism, such as trout-fishing in local Elkhorn Creek.
(The story of how the creek became a popular destination is the stuff of folktales. As the story goes, a truck carrying trout broke down along the highway near Elkhorn. All the fish would die if they remained in the truck, and though they’d probably die in the creek too, the driver took a risk and dumped them in the creek, where they prospered. Unfortunately, the creek is blighted by trash and sewage—but that doesn’t stop fishers from visiting “world-class” Elkhorn, says Jones.)
People also come to ride the Hatfield-McCoy trail system in all-terrain vehicles and on dirt bikes—a large sign in Welch welcomes them. The McDowell woods are there to be explored too, and plans for lake houses and cabins, where families can relax, are in the works.
Many point to the self-sufficient and entrepreneurial character of Appalachians as a way to revive not just McDowell but the entire region. Among them is Brandon Dennison, head of Coalfield Development Corporation, a partner of Reconnecting that uses social enterprises to help West Virginians learn new skills and open their own businesses.
“Appalachian culture,” Dennison stresses, “is creative and gritty. There’s this closeness to the land. Hunting, building, planting and growing, harvesting. [There’s an] ability to fix things, to understand equipment.”
Dennison’s organization has created jobs across West Virginia in sustainable agriculture, solar energy, sustainable construction, arts and culture, and mine land reclamation (training people to make mine sites usable for the community). His vision may well be a viable one, but as the general condition of West Virginia’s economy makes clear, the resources to realize it have come up short. Reconnecting could ultimately become a way to get those resources to the state’s poorest county. But as Weingarten points out, Reconnecting is an important effort that in itself will never be enough.
Taking this kind of economic revival to scale, Weingarten says, requires the federal government to step in. “Shouldn’t taxes be actually funding the human infrastructure, not tax cuts for the rich?” she asks.
Currently, however, we have President Donald Trump and a government that would never consider that kind of infrastructure investment. Private grants “are Band-Aids,” Weingarten concedes, “but you can’t have an either/or strategy. You have to have a both/and strategy: At the same time that you’re fighting austerity and fighting privatization … you have to try to figure out how you can get other means—it’s kids’ lives at stake!”
Reconnecting McDowell, she says, could be a template—not a replicable formula, as every place is different—but a templatefor other rural areas across the country suffering from similar problems: poverty, the loss of industry, and the consequences of exploitation. An initiative inspired by Reconnecting has already begun in St. Lawrence County in upstate New York.
What really matters to a depressed community, Weingarten continues, is an advocate, with roots in the community, focusing on issues of community concern. “Reconnecting should be advocating, I think now, for the [King] Coal Highway to be built. It sounded from [the partnership] meeting that that was a high-priority issue. So that should be part of the plan we advocate for.”
If Reconnecting can make a meaningful difference in McDowell, Webb says he’d want to take the model “to where I grew up and other communities around McDowell.”
“If we can fix this here,” he says, “we can fix this anywhere.”