From the Desk: Notes and thoughts on one year in West Virginia

From the Desk: Notes and thoughts on one year in West Virginia

It’s now been a year and two months since I moved to West Virginia.

When I accepted the job at the Gazette-Mail, I was almost a month into living in my best friend’s loft in DC after moving back from South Dakota; where I worked at the Rapid City Journal for four months before being suddenly laid off. Other than Harpers Ferry, I’d spent no time in West Virginia. “why are you here!?” was a common question. Admittedly, the first time I visited Charleston, I wasn’t impressed. From the height of its population of eighty thousand in the 60’s, the city count barely scratched fifty thousand now, and that number showed itself in the numerous closed storefronts and vacant lots that lined the streets. With the exception of Capitol street, every other one seemed like a random mishmash of drab office buildings and parking garages. I liked my apartment well enough, but I knew it’d take some time for me to warm up to this place.

In a city where the median age is 39, making friends in my age bracket hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, that has changed as of recently, and I’m the happiest I’ve been since I moved here. The scene continues to get brighter as new restaurants, cafes, bars and other businesses pop up around town. I’ve made some great friends, and only grown more comfortable here as time has gone on. Meanwhile, West Virginia itself is undeniably beautiful. I’ve swam in more creeks and rivers and done more hiking here then any other place I’ve lived. Nature surrounds you everywhere, and there are few places in the entire country more beautiful than West Virginia in the fall; when the entire state turns into a sea of gold and crimson.

All too often states like West Virginia are depicted in extremely simplistic stereotypes; coal, trump country, moonshine etc. A lot of people would probably be surprised to learn that the coal industry makes up less than 3% of the state workforce, whereas other sectors of the state economy such as healthcare and tourism combined make up over 26%. While it’s true that all 55 counties of West Virginia voted for Trump in the 2016 election, it’s also true that all 55 counties voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. More than that, Democrats dominated state politics for generations. It’s only been over the past 20 years or so that West Virginia’s legislature has flipped to a republican majority. Moonshining was popular in West Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but moonshine has since been legalized and sold as a commercial product. Marijuana growing has long replaced moonshine as the illicit product of choice in West Virginia, with cash flows far more lucrative to its cultivators than moonshining ever brought to its distillers.

Despite a steady stream of stories that come out of here that focus on the things you’d expect to be covered here, the truth is West Virginia is not the backwards, poverty stricken hell hole it’s often made out to be. West Virginia is a complicated state, with a history that is complex and deeply misunderstood. This isn’t to say this state doesn’t have major problems; Near-colonial exploitation of the state’s natural resources for generations by out of state entities that cared little for what collateral damage they inflicted on the land and people, A drug epidemic fueled in part by pharmaceutical companies that flooded West Virginia with prescription drugs, a steady exodus of young people, lack of opportunities, poor education and infrastructure from lack of proper funding. longstanding political corruption that makes a lot of other state governments look saintly in comparison. The list could surely go on.

But I’ve also met a lot of amazing people here; people who love this state and do their best every day to make it better. For each person that may pine for the “good old days”, there’s another person eager to look to a future beyond the resource dependent, boom-bust cycle economy that the state has largely relied on for much its 155 years of existence. I’ve also seen some pretty amazing things. Thousands of teachers across all counties in the state converged for weeks at the capitol demanding higher wages and a stable state health insurance program; a victory that has turned into a movement across the country. 4th and 5th grade students giving presentations to their classmates about everything from ways of solving the opioid crisis to alternative energies, 3d printers and more. People who’ve started farmers markets and greenhouses to alleviate the food deserts that plague the state. People who left the state and came back to open businesses and help their communities grow. I’ve learned a lot living here, and I’m glad I made the decision to do so. I thought i’d end this post with a small gallery of photos in no particular order dedicated to the people who make up West Virginia and give it the spirit it has.

I hope the reader understands, even just a little, that there’s a lot more to West Virginia then what you’ve read or heard. Thanks for reading!

February & March; The Month(s) in Pictures.

February & March; The Month(s) in Pictures.

Hey everyone. Long time no talk. Sorry I’ve been away for awhile. I’ve been meaning to start writing again. A lot has happened in the past couple months. At the beginning of February it was announced that our paper was declaring bankruptcy in order to be sold; and that wasn’t even the worst part. Our buyer was to be a company that was well known for having a penchant to slash newsroom staffs; often by dramatic numbers. None of us had much hope for keeping our jobs, the only upshot to the whole situation was that the process was to take relatively two months to complete; with the final auction being held sometime in later March. Meanwhile we still had a job to do.

gm_ashwednesday
Henry Owens, 3, leans over a pew to retrieve a pretzel he dropped during an afternoon mass at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Charleston, W.W., on Ash Wednesday, February 14th, 2018.
gm_wrestling
George Washington’s Zakarie Bailey is dogsled by teammates Ben See, Nick Graham and Hunter Douglas in between matches during the Kanawha County High School Wrestling Tournament at George Washington High School in Charleston, W.Va., on Saturday morning, February 03, 2018.
gm_heroine
Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader embraces Andrea Harrison, a recovering addict during a panel discussion at the University of Charleston in Charleston , W.V., on Thursday, February 15, 2018 after a screening of Sheldon’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Heroin (e)” which focuses on three women dealing with the drug crisis in Huntington. Harrison who thanked the Huntington fire department for providing Naloxone.
west_virginia_daily_life
A man walks across Capitol St. on a rainy day in Charleston, W.W., on Wednesday, February 14th, 2018.
gm_trains
Benjamin Gross, 2, of Beckley, checks out a model train set during the 13th Annual Train Show at the lodge in Coonskin Park in Charleston, W.V., on Friday, February 17, 2018. The show is put on annually by the Kanawha Valley Railroad Association, a non-profit group.
gm_teachers
Braxton County teachers and other staffers congregate in a parking lot before demonstrating at the intersection of 79 in Flatwoods, W.V., on Saturday, February 10, 2018.
_JTR6144
From right, Joyce Bumbus, C K Dolan and Chloe White protest before conducting a walk in outside of Kanawha City Elementary School in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday morning, February 02, 2018.
gm_schools
Hundreds of teachers and staffers from schools throughout counties in Southern West Virginia are seen at the Capitol building in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday morning, February 02, 2018.

gm_schools

gm_schools
Teachers and school personnel preoccupy themselves through many hours of Senate deliberations at the Capitol.

I spent the first half of the month mostly shooting high school basketball; the notable exceptions being groups of teachers were staging throughout the state along highways and busy street corners. I knew almost nothing about the various issues facing teachers in West Virginia; that wouldn’t last for long.

gm_teachersrally
Thousands braved cold temperatures and sustained rainfall to attend a Statewide Day of Action rally on the south steps of the Capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Friday, February 17, 2018. The rally was done in support of education and public employees in their struggle for competitive pay and benefits.
gm_walkout
From left, Heather Myers, Sharon Cobaugh, Jennifer Kesecker and Ashley Bowman demonstrate in animal costumes at the West Virginia State Capitol on the second day of the teacher walkout in Charleston, W.V., on Friday, February 23, 2018. All four are teachers from Eagle School Intermediate in Berkley County.
gm_lewisburg
Ivan Weikle makes a face at his father while holding a sign in support of PEIA drawn by Lewisburg Elementary School art teacher Jody Wilber (in hat) along Route 219 in Lewisburg, W.V., on Monday, February 26, 2018 on the third day of the statewide walkout by school personnel.
gm_walkoutrally
Colette Brown (back turned), 6, and Emily Knight, 6, draw with chalk on the sidewalk as their mothers who are also teachers from Nitro demonstrate (out of frame) outside of the capitol building on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.
gm_walkoutrally
A protest sign is seen outside of the press gallery at the capitol building on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.
gm_candlerally
Hundreds attend a candlelight rally in support of the ongoing statewide teachers walkout outside of the capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Sunday, February 25, 2018.
gm_candlerally
From left, Capital High School teacher Susie Garrison, George Washington High School student Amelia Engle and Nitro High School teacher Kizmet Chandler smile during a candlelight rally in support of the ongoing statewide teachers walkout outside of the capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Sunday, February 25, 2018.

West Virginia has long suffered from a debilitating brain drain, as workers can often make substantially more money doing the very same job in a neighboring state than they can in West Virginia. Teachers are no exception. When it comes to teacher pay, West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation; second only to Mississippi and Oklahoma, where teachers are now staging their own statewide walkout. As one teacher from a group who came from the Eastern Panhandle told me, “I can drive 20 minutes North and make $20,000 dollars more per year than I do right now, or I can drive 40 minutes South and make $27,000 dollars more”. While it’s true that the average teacher’s salary is higher than the average income of most West Virginians, it’s often still not enough to raise their families and pay off student loan debt accumulated to get the necessary credentials to teach, forcing teachers to take a second job to make ends meet. So for many of the teachers that I talked to, the money was less an end in itself than a means to continue doing what they really wanted; to do their part for their communities in educating the next generation of West Virginians.

gm_walkout
Governor Jim Justice stands up to leave a press conference at the capitol building on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.
gm_walkout
School personnel crowd outside of the capitol building on the fourth day of statewide walkouts while waiting for word of an agreement reached between union leaders and Gov. Justice in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018
gm_walkoutrally
The looks you give when you realize that your rank and file are not happy with you…at the capitol building on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.
gm_walkout
Jennyerin Steele Staats, a special education teacher from Jackson County holds her sign aloft outside of the capitol building after WVEA President Dale Lee outlined the terms for ending the walkout on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.
School personnel leave the Capitol grounds after WVEA President Dale Lee outlined the terms for ending the walkout at the capitol building on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.

Teachers and school personnel were also striking for a longer term solution to their insurance plans under the control of PEIA’s (Public Employee Insurance Agency) Finance Board. As reported by the Gazette-Mail’s statehouse reporter Phil Kabler a few weeks ago, “In December, the PEIA Finance Board approved changes in the 2018-19 plan that would have cut benefits and raised premiums by a total of $29 million — primarily through significant premium increases for family and for employee and spouse coverage for most insurees.” While the Governor froze premiums for the coming year, the measure was deemed inefficient as it offered only a temporary solution to the issues of funding that have plagued the agency for years. Because PEIA affected all other public employees who were not permitted to walkout, the striking teachers and school personnel insisted that they weren’t just striking for themselves but for all public employees in their efforts to stabilize the agency. As it stands, a special task force ordered by the Governor in the midst of the strike has been assembled to address the issues.

gm_teachersstrike
Kristen Kief of Jefferson County wears bunny ears, an emblem of the ongoing teacher strike at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Monday, March 05, 2018; the eighth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Thousands of teachers and school personnel fill the capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Monday, March 05, 2018; the eighth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Teachers line the capitol grounds after the capitol was declared at capacity and admittance was temporarily on hold in Charleston, W.V., on Monday, March 05, 2018; the eighth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
From right, Wyoming County’s Mullens Elementary school teachers Kara Brown, Katherine Dudley and Nina Tunstalle, along with Lois Casto of Central Elementary school in St. Albans, react to news of a deal reached between the House and Senate for a 5% across the board increase for state workers at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Teachers and school personnel watch a conference committee hearing in session at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Monday, March 05, 2018; the eighth day of statewide school closures. The hearing was called as a discussion to end the impasse between the House and Senate regarding pay increases for education personnel.

One of the things that admittedly took me by surprise was just how many of the people I spoke with were not merely supporters of the strike but actual teachers or other important school personnel; cooks, bus drivers, librarians, etc. I’ve been to a lot of rallies and protests, but I don’t think i’ve ever been to a demonstration that was almost exclusively made up of the very people the topic of protest was about; and in such huge numbers. On top of that, none of the people I spoke with hesitated when I asked for more than just heir name. In fact they were proud to mention their position, their school and their county; even continuing to do so after they had temporarily lost their legal protection when their Union leaders called the strike off. Hell, hundreds of them wore red shirts with the names of their respective counties like they were team jerseys.

gm_teachersstrike
Senate President Mitch Carmichael is seen as the Senate approves a bill to increase state employee pay by 5% at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
State Senators acknowledge the cheers of teachers and school personnel after the passage of a bill to increase pay of state workers by 5% at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Teachers and school personnel celebrate after the state Senate approved a bill to increase state workers pay across the board by 5% at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
State Senate Democrats leave the Senate after passage of a bill to increase state worker pay across the board by 5% at the Capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Teachers and school personnel celebrate after the state Senate approved a bill to increase state workers pay across the board by 5% at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Surrounded by Union leaders, Gov. Jim Justice signs a bill increasing state workers salaries by 5% across the board during a press conference at the Culture Center after the House and Senate passed the bill earlier in the day in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; ending the statewide teachers strike after 9 days of school closures.
gm_teachersstrike
Gov. Jim Justice signs a bill increasing state workers salaries by 5% across the board during a press conference at the Culture Center after the House and Senate passed the bill earlier in the day in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; ending the statewide teachers strike after 9 days of school closures.

Another thing I loved was that despite the seriousness of the issues, there was no shortage of creative signs, costumes and lighthearted moments along the sidelines and halls of the Capitol. For me, those quiet moments that happen while everyone else’s attention is elsewhere can often say just as much if not even more than the loudest ones.

gm_teachersstrikegm_walkoutgm_walkoutgm_walkoutgm_teachersstrikegm_walkoutrallygm_teachersstrikegm_teachersstrikegm_teachersrallygm_teachersstrikegm_teachersstrike

I shot the strike for as many days and as much time as I could. Because of our paper’s connection to the AP my images started appearing all over the place; major newspapers, some networks and even an appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers, haha. It was a strange combination of emotions; feeling the most successful and fulfilled that I’d felt in years, all the while not knowing if I would have a job at the end of the month. The truth is I had convinced myself I was going to lose it, so I went about my work assuming it would be the last big assignment I’d be doing for the Gazette-Mail. Thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case, but it motivated me at the time to get as much work as I could out there. I finished out the rest of the month shooting as best as I could for the assignments I had. Last Monday was the day we were supposed to find out if we were staying or leaving, with sealed letters placed on each of our desks to let us know if we’d get a rose or not. I had my editor open mine up, and thankfully most of us in the newsroom stayed on board. We did take some bad losses though, especially the loss of our executive editor Rob Byers, who’d dedicated himself  since joining the paper straight out of college to keeping it as successful and important as it has been for West Virginia. Things are still calming down here, but I’m happy to say that at least for now, I can look past the date of March 31 and start moving forward on some stories I want to do and really dive into this state now that Spring is upon us!

spt_mec
a cheerleader is silhouetted by an American flag as the national anthem plays during the Mountain East Championship basketball games in Charleston, W.V., on Sunday, March 04, 2018.
spt_northmarion
Wyoming East students watch a free throw during the WVSSAC Class AA North Marion-Wyoming East girls basketball state championship at the Civic Center in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 10, 2018.
spt_central
Central’s Taylor Duplaga, left, and Riley Bennington embrace each other after Wheeling Central defeated St. Joseph with a final score of 67-62 during the WVSSAC Class A St. Joseph-Wheeling Central girls basketball state championship at the Civic Center in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 10, 2018.
spt_mec
Glenville’s Tayana Stewart and Abby Stoller lunge forward with Notre Dame’s Ciara Reed during the Mountain East Championship basketball game in Charleston, W.V., on Sunday, March 04, 2018.
spt_mec
Glenville State College players celebrate after besting Notre Dame college during the Mountain East Championship basketball game in Charleston, W.V., on Sunday, March 04, 2018.
spt_championship
Alex Cook tries regaining control of the basketball during the George Washington-Martinsburg Class AAA boys state title basketball game at the Civic Center in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

spt_gwspt_sissonville

gm_viewpage
Owner, barber and stylist Linda Javins cuts Zandrea Wiley’s hair inside Guy’s Cut-N-Shave along Midway Road in Yawkey, W.V., on Friday, March 23, 2018.
gm_noahs
Chef Noah Miller prepares main courses including the pan roasted halibut, seared sea scallops eggplant wrapped swordfish and beef fillet inside his kitchen at Noah’s Restaurant & Lounge in downtown Charleston, W.V., on March 20, 2018.
gm_gonzoburger
Lunchgoers and wall art are reflected on the bar counter at Gonzoburger in Charleston, W.V., on Thursday, March 15, 2018.
gm_pubcrawl
From left, Paul Howard, Mark Burdette, Greg McCoy and Steve Hendricks of Kanawha Valley Pipes and Drums play outside of Bluegrass Kitchen during the 7th Annual East End St. Patricks Day Pub Crawl in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 17, 2018.
gm_mudslide
Brenda young is seen with her home that has been heavily damaged by a mudslide along Cabin Creek road in Eskdale, W.V., on Friday, March 09, 2018.
gm_fire
The aftermath of a house fire on Quarrier street is seen in Charleston, W.V., on Friday, March 09, 2018.
gm_marchforourlives
Kanawha City Elementary school student Derrick Johnson, 5, and his brother David Johnson, 3 stand with others gathered on the steps of the Capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 24, 2018 in solidarity with the March for Our Lives rally in Washington organized by survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “After the Parkland shooting I was scared to death to send my son to school” Their mother Carrie Samuels (not pictured) said.
20180328-gm-kimball06
State Senator Richard Ojeda, Joel Mckinney, his mother Linda Mckinney and his wife Melissa Clark speak with a reporter inside Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.V., on Tuesday, March 27, 2018.
gm_eastercarnival
From left, Gracie Pritt, Kennedy Anthony and Parker Pritt react to bubbles being blown by Caroline Barner and Erin Anthony during the Easter Carnival at the North Plaza of the Capitol Complex in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 31, 2018.
gm_eastercarnival
Layla Collins, 2, of Hurricane plays in a puddle during the Easter Carnival at the North Plaza of the Capitol Complex in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 31, 2018.
gm_marbles
Samantha Stalnaker, 14, aims her marble during a match at the 2018 A. James Manchin Memorial Marble Tournament at the Culture Center in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

_JTR0773_JTR0538

gm_feature
Steady rain and the return of leaves mark the beginning of Spring in downtown Charleston, W.V., on Friday, March 30, 2018.