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Creating conversation: Groups to facilitate discussions on state’s future

By Rachel Molenda, Staff writer

West Virginia’s economic future is bright or dim, depending on whom you ask, and one set of organizations is hoping to talk about the topic more in depth this year.

The West Virginia Center for Civic Life, West Virginia Development Hub and West Virginia Public Broadcasting are coordinating to start and document conversations across the state addressing the question, “What’s next, West Virginia?”

“One of the things we’ve heard is people really want to have a conversation about what West Virginia’s long-term future looks like,” said development hub director Kent Spellman. “This is motivated in some cases by the decline of coal, motivated in some cases by the explosion in the shale gas industry.”

The hub is “a statewide nonprofit focused on improving communities” across the state, Spellman said. The organization does this by listening to what communities’ needs are and connecting them to the people and resources “they need to achieve their goals and overcome their challenges,” Spellman said.

Spellman said during more than 300 interviews conducted by the partner organizations across the state, they learned most people generally want to develop a diverse and sustainable economy “that will allow our kids and grandkids and great grandkids to stay in the state and have decent jobs here.”

People across West Virginia will have the opportunity to lead conversations in their own towns, counties and regions, and What’s Next hopes to provide them with the skills necessary to do so. The 2014 Civic Life Institute — to be held Wednesday and Thursday in Charleston — features a series of workshops that “focus on effective, inclusive ways to help people talk about and work together on issues that affect the quality of life in West Virginia,” according to the Center for Civic Life’s website.

This will be the 18th institute, said center director Betty Knighton. The nonpartisan nonprofit facilitates these kinds of events annually, which have focused on a variety of issues, such as prescription drug abuse, Knighton said.

“People will learn how to be those neutral conveners of the dialogues, and they’ll also learn how to pull together coalitions of people at the local level, who will reach out and bring others into the conversation,” Knighton said of the institute.

Catherine Moore, a 2014 Appalachian Transition Fellow with the Highlander Research and Education Center, said people across the state are “starting to come to terms” with changes in West Virginia, like a steadily declining population and evolution from the extraction industry to the service industry as top private employers.

“I think it would be to our detriment to not recognize that things have changed and to evolve with it, or we’re going to be left behind,” said Moore, who lives in Fayetteville.

As part of her fellowship, Moore was matched with What’s Next to help develop the project’s online engagement via social media and www.whatsnextwv.org, where participants and those interested can post and view their own ideas and stories from regional workshops across the state.

“This website, we’re hoping, is going to be a real clearinghouse for all this discussion and action,” Moore said.

What’s Next, West Virginia is hoping to hear from a variety of people at the Civic Life Institute and its regional workshops, to be scheduled at later dates, Knighton said.

“It’s important that new people start thinking about these issues,” Knighton said.

Moore hopes this week’s trainings and the workshops that take place throughout the year provide communities with apolitical spaces to discuss where they are economically and where they’d like to be.

“The economy tends to be politicized,” Moore said. “How can we as West Virginians play an active role in writing a future, so that this thing called the economy isn’t something that happens to us, but something that we can take an active role in creating?”

The 2014 Civic Life Institute will be held June 4 and 5 at the University of Charleston. The cost is $95, but Moore said there are scholarships available. Those interested in attending can find more information and register online at www.wvciviclife.org.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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