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Where the Hell is Charlottesville? A Reflection on Place



On the first overcast Monday after rioting here, across from Charlottesville District Court, a man gripes to a reporter about unwanted guests. He won’t share his name for fear his opinions might impact his job (which he also doesn’t disclose) — so his description is important: he sports an average build over a 5-foot-nine-inch frame, which is covered by a worn, green T-shirt over faded dad jeans. He’s in his early fifties. He is white with short, salt-and-pepper hair. He registers the things he can’t understand about the preceding weekend’s events in a tone that’s half-complaint and half-inquisition; he’s OK with his thoughts being on record if somebody can help him make sense of things.

Among things Green Shirt doesn’t get: What do the red, black and green flags carried by some of the counter-protestors of the white supremacists represent? Why can’t the word “Black” be replaced with a more universal “All” before the words “Lives Matter” on the dozens of T-shirts he saw over the tumultuous past weekend? Green Shirt shrugs when the reporter explains that those colors have been a symbol of solidarity to some African-Americans for nearly a century; shoots a quizzical look when his second query is met with a question in-kind: “If all lives really matter, have you known anyone who looks like you who’s been killed by a cop who was never charged?”

Despite his bafflement at the symbolism in last weekend’s counter-protests, Green Shirt reserves most of his ire for the waves of neo-nazis and white supremacists who converged on this same spot 48-hours prior. Their violence and hate-speech, he said, were never welcome. The stain they left on Charlottesville’s reputation isn’t appreciated. The life of the 32-year-old woman who died in a vehicular attack was far more important than their right to free speech, he said.

Artist Sam Welty creates a chalk mural of Heather Heyer during her memorial service Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va. Heyer was killed Saturday, when a car rammed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally. (AP Photo/Julia Rendleman)

“I just want to know who even invited them? And why’d they come here? We didn’t want ‘em.”

Last week’s violent protests in Charlottesville grabbed the world’s attention, led to condemnation of American racism by, of all people, Iran’s supreme leader, the dissolution of two presidential advisory councils and a stunning display of tone deafness by said president. It has roiled American politics. And it caught residents of this prosperous college town nearly flat-footed. Locals are quick note that the bloody clashes in their downtown were the work of outsiders. But they can’t grasp what drew them here by the hundreds, turning Charlottesville into the scene of one of the country’s worst incidences of racial-political violence in decades.

Alexander Holtz, 7, of Ashburn, Va., draws a heart on sidewalk in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Aug. 18, 2017, near the site where Heather Heyer was killed. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

It’s true that far more property damage and injuries have occurred in clashes between protesters and police in places like Ferguson. But those skirmishes — preceded by years of police misconduct and abuse — were like the boiling kettle that everyone should have heard whistling. And they weren’t terrifying reminders of a past era of American racial terrorism: hordes of white men, obscured by Klan sheets, carrying torches, flying swastikas, chanting Nazi slogans and being accompanied by right-wing militiamen who local officials feared might have outgunned police. If Ferguson was an uprising against abuse of police power, Charlottesville was something more incendiary — a gathering that could not have ended in anything but the tragedy that occurred. In the aftermath, people here are struggling with how their city was added to the list of places with historically tragic significance: Birmingham. Kent. Ferguson. Tulsa. Charlottesville.


James Alex Fields Jr., is making his first court appearance 50 yards from where Green Shirt is complaining. Accused of using his car to kill 32 year-old counter protester Heather Hayer, Fields, like hundreds of other white supremacists in the crowd, isn’t from here. But while he sits detained without bond by the Commonwealth of Virginia, his comrades are long gone. Downtown shows little signs of the past weekend’s chaos. About four blocks west of the courthouse is the main branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, so named for the two Presidents who were born here. A banner that reads, “Diversity Makes Us STRONGER”, and features a cross, a star of David, a star-and-crescent and other symbols hangs across East Market Street. A sign in front of the library’s entrance reads “All Are Welcome.”

At the First Methodist Church a block to the northwest, more banners: “You Are Welcome Here,” and a verse from the 133rd Psalm about all God’s people living together in unity. But it’s the parcel between the church and the library that started the discord. Officially, it’s called “Emancipation Park.” Mostly the homeless camp here, interrupted at lunchtime by white-collars taking a shortcut between Jefferson Street and East Market. But in the middle of the park sits a 26-foot-tall bronze cast of Robert E. Lee astride a horse. The statue was erected in 1924, during Jim Crow’s heyday. The park was named for Lee–who after the Civil War urged that the South accept defeat and not construct such monuments — until February, when Charlottesville’s City Council voted to change it and remove the statue. The city council had long been pestered to do so and was finally pressured into action by a petition movement.  Locals say the statue had long been divisive, but was something they thought of as a parochial matter until hate groups decided to use Charlottesville for their stand in defense of the Confederate imagery.

Now, it’s hard to find people who mind the statue vanishing.

“If stuff like this is going to happen, why don’t they just take it down? Take them all down,” said Kandis Sowers, a 35-year-old Charlottesville native who walked by the park last Monday? “That poor child lost her life,” she trailed off. Her sentiment was typical among more than a dozen people interviewed downtown in the riot’s wake. Landscaper Wayne Greer, who is white, said said he’d always thought of the monument as a marker of history, not a symbol of a war fought over racialized slavery. He previously hadn’t wanted the statue to go, “but now? Maybe so.”

Tom Lever, 28, and Aaliyah Jones, 38, both of Charlottesville, put up a sign that says “Heather Heyer Park” at the base of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee monument in Emancipation Park Tuesday, Aug. 15 in Charlottesville, Va. Alex Fields Jr., is charged with second-degree murder and other counts after authorities say he rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, including Heyer, Saturday, where a white supremacist rally took place. (AP Photo/Julia Rendleman)

Some showed their opposition with more than words. As reporters scoured the park for interviews and tourists shuffled by to take photos of the doomed statue, a woman walked up and staked a sign in front of it, unofficially renaming the space “Heyer Mem. Park” — a misspelled tribute to the fallen counter protester. Another woman had a stronger protest: cutting through the bushes ringing it, she unhooked a black romper, squatted and urinated on the statue’s base. Tattooed, bespectacled and wearing a knife which she said was a wardrobe staple, the woman would only identify herself as Crusty-P. She’s 29, originally from Queens, N.Y., and said she witnessed the fatal crash from about 20 feet away.

“I figured that was the best place to use the bathroom,” she said. “If people are no longer afraid to be Nazis out in the open, why should I be ashamed of that?”


Understanding where Charlottesville lies helps in understanding why people here say they’re stunned at what transpired last weekend. Yes, the city is distinctly Southern, a town of about 10 square miles and fewer than 50,000 residents. It sits along the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, which provide stunning views as you approach along Interstate 64 — and places it technically in Appalachia. But that geographic description is a cultural and political half-truth; this isn’t the hills of West Virginia, where many still hope the president follows through on his promise to bring back coal jobs. Charlottesville’s median income is $49,775, the surrounding Albemarle County’s is $68,449, both above the national median. About half the people here are college educated and a significant number work in government or at the University of Virginia or it’s renowned research hospital.  It’s not Trump Country, either. These aren’t stereotypical, Conservative hill people bent on slashing government and hating elitists. Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump in Charlottesville by a 66.5-point margin; she won Albemarle by more than 20 points.

John Palmer noted those differences after two hours from Martinsburg, WV, to bring four-year-old grandson Chaiem to see the statue before it’s torn down. Palmer, 51, and Chaiem, are African-American, and he says his mostly-white neighbors in Martinsburg had clung to their support of Trump until last weekend. “I told them, ‘Y’all voting against your interests’,” he said. “Now, they all say, ‘I didn’t vote for this.’ They regret it.”

Even as an black man, Palmer said he understood many Southern whites’ affection for the Lee statue because he served in the Army. Military families hold tight to their forebears’ sacrifices, even if they fought on the losing side. But he believes the Charlottesville riot will come to be seen as a turning point in that debate. “Don’t nobody want to be seen as representative of that. It stands for something too bad now.”


Everyone in Charlottesville has an opinion about what happened here, though only a very small quadrant was affected. The Rev. Seth Wispelwey,36, lives about two miles from downtown on a street of neat houses set back by big yards. He considers Charlottesville the “very wealthy, university town” that became his home base despite being born in the New York suburbs. His father was an early HIV researcher and moved the family here from Boston to work at the university hospital when he was only five.

Rev. Seth Wispelwey,36, pastor of the local United Church of Christ in Charlottesville. “They feel emboldened, not defeated,” he said of the white supremacists. “That statue…they wanted to light torches and dance around a totem.” (Photo: Keith Reed/100 Days in Appalachia)

Wispelway, who is white, wears a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and punctuates his sentences with expletives and drags off a cigarette as he recounts efforts to prepare dozens of local clergy for last week’s protests. The violence, he says, should have been expected; there was a cantankerous Klan rally here not that long ago. But Charlottesville’s relative privilege, he says, lulled many people into a false sense of security that’s now been shattered.

“We were saying people could die on Saturday, and they did. We knew it was going to be 100 percent worse than the Klan rally.” Wispelway is what the kids call “woke”: he attended UVA but shunned a lucrative career in finance or medicine to commit himself to social justice. He and his wife — also a minister — adopted an Afro-Latina girl whose confusion at why the city has a monument to a man who fought a losing battle over slavery pushed him to join the movement to remove it. None of his prior work, though, prepared him for what he saw last week, or what he believes is the terror it foreshadows.

“They feel emboldened, not defeated,” he said of the white supremacists. “That statue…they wanted to light torches and dance around a totem. They want to go to the Freedom Trail in Boston and dance on it. They want to revise history in a way that’s more fucked up than it already is and they will hurt more people.”

Keith Reed is a Pittsburgh native who has written for ESPN the Magazine, the Boston Globe, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. 

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Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination



The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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From Corn Liquor to State Pride – Origins of ‘West by God Virginia’



Trish Hatfield with her husband Jim and their son Ben. Trish’s question “Where does the phrase, ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” won West Virginia Public Broadcasting's latest Wild, Wondering West Virginia poll. Photo: Courtesy of Trish Hatfield

Here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’ve been asking listeners what they wonder most about West Virginia.

The latest question that won out in an online poll came to us from St. Albans resident Trish Hatfield. She asked, “Where does the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” WVPB reached out to experts across the state and discovered one of the first times the phrase was found in a publication — and we have a good idea why it has stuck around.

“West by God Virginia” is an idiom many West Virginians know well, but its exact origins have traditionally been less well-understood. 

West Virginia University linguistics professor Kirk Hazen did some digging for us into the phrase. The earliest printed version he found was in a Virginia magazine published in 1926 called “The Virginia Spectator.” It reads:

“And it is, we believe, the only way that corn can be mixed and presented to a girl — except the iron plated ones from West (by God) Virginia.”

The article was written by students at the University of Virginia who, in the middle of the prohibition, are likely alluding to making alcohol, Hazen said.

He said the quote is basically saying West Virginia women can hold their liquor.

“And the implication here is that they are accustomed to drinking homemade corn liquor,” he explained. “So, they can handle it without having to mix it up in certain concoctions.”

Hazen discovered this publication with the help from a Google Books application called Ngram Viewer. It’s an online tool that sifts through a massive digital database of millions of publications in several languages.

This screenshot of Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a peak in the published phrase “West by God Virginia” in the early 1960s — perhaps due to the centennial celebration of West Virginia in 1963. Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Hazen

Hazen said the phrase likely appeared in written form earlier than 1926, but to confirm that it would take months of sifting through physical documents, such as newspaper clippings, journals, books and magazines.

Hazen found another early publication of the phrase in 1939 in an academic article published by WVU’s English department. The phrase is found in a footnote written by Harold Wentworth. The quote explores the possible history behind “West by God Virginia.” It reads: 

“Among phrases so formed is the well-known ‘West by God Virginia.’ But the expletive insertion here is more syntactical than morphological. One story of the origin of this phrase, true or not, is that a native West Virginian, irked at being called a Virginian, retorted with an intonation that can only be suggested here, ‘not Virginia, but West by God Virginia.’” — Harold Wentworth, WVU department of English, 1939

The exact origin of “West by God Virginia” as a spoken phrase is difficult to pinpoint.

Hazen points out how most spoken language is almost a living organic thing — not something that’s tracked, monitored, sorted or in databases.

But Hazen and other experts say there’s a good chance the phrase made its first oral appearance sometime after West Virginia became a state in 1863. But they say this is educated guesswork.

WVU Linguistics Professor Kirk Hazen. Hazen found one of the earliest uses of “West by God Virginia” in a publication from 1926 about corn liquor. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

We spoke with another expert from West Virginia University. Associate Professor Rosemary Hathaway specializes in American folklore and literature. 

Hathaway has been working on a book that explores the cultural history of the term “Mountaineer.” She points to parallels between the origins of “Mountaineer” and the phrase “West by God Virginia.”

“The first time the term Mountaineer shows up as a synonym for West Virginian is before statehood,” she noted.

Hathaway said before we separated from Virginia, there was a legislator from Harrison County who sent a letter to a newspaper in Richmond expressing annoyance that his region, western Virginia, was not being fairly represented in the Virginia Legislature. 

And when he signed that letter?

“He signed it, not with his name, but as a Mountaineer,” Hathaway explained. “So, I sort of see that as being parallel to the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ in the sense that it’s just kind of a way of reminding both ourselves and outsiders that we are distinct from Virginia, and we have a unique identity and a unique history as West Virginians.”

WVU Associate English Professor Rosemary Hathaway. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

But none of this answers the underlying question —  why did people start inserting “by God” into the name of West Virginia? 

The use of “by God” in language dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, but it became commonplace in the 1600s, according to Eric Waggoner, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council. Waggoner is also a retired history of English teacher.

Waggoner said “by God” has always been used as a way to emphasize something. He sees the inclusion of it in “West by God Virginia” as an expression of pride, when so much of the world perceives West Virginia in a negative light.

“There’s been a sort of narrative about West Virginia that focuses on illness; it focuses on poverty; it focuses on hard times; it focuses on this sort of thin, cultural and educational infrastructure; a lot of things that are here that need attention and that people who live here know intimately,” Waggoner explained. 

He said many West Virginians are tired and fed up with this negative narrative, and by adding “by God” into our state name, our identity, it allows us to reclaim our image. 

“There’s a kind of expression of pride, not just in place, but in being a person who is from this place, that ‘West by God Virginia’ seems to articulate in a very handy, in a very positive way,” he said.

Even though the exact origin of the spoken phrase may be difficult to find, Waggoner and others said today it’s often used to illustrate West Virginia as unique and separate from Virginia – that, by God, we are here, we exist and we have our own identity as West Virginians.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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How Leaving Home Can Help Appalachia



This article was originally published by expatalachians.

Appalachian folk have a complicated relationship with leaving. It’s a tension that shows up in regional media all the time: In stories about small towns working to keep their young people, about Appalachian millennials leaving New York to go back home, and, more negatively, about how folks in the region should just pack up and get out of dodge. 

This isn’t one of those stories. As one might surmise from the name expatalachians, I’ve already left Appalachia, and I’m not certain I’ll ever live there again. And although I’m sympathetic to helping young people stay in the region, I also understand why they choose to leave. As I’ve written about elsewhere, folks have moved into and out of Appalachia looking for a better life for over a century, and I won’t begrudge the current generation for doing the same.

Instead, I’m interested in discussing the possibilities leaving presents for Appalachia. Rather than enjoining people to stay or shaming them for going, I would argue conversations about leaving the region should instead focus on how to incorporate the Appalachian diaspora into regional conversations from where they are. Doing so successfully would not only expand our view of the Appalachian experience but also, with millions of Appalachian migrants and their descendants living outside the region, meaning we could better draw on migrants’ diverse backgrounds and resources in addressing Appalachia’s problems.

Doing this properly means wrestling with several fundamental questions. The one I would like to address here is where Appalachian migrants should fit in discussions about the region. Having left the region, to what extent can and should migrants claim a seat at the table in conversations about Appalachia, and when might their voices usefully contribute to discussions of its issues?

This question has gained increased urgency following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, a descendant of Appalachian migrants raised in Southwest Ohio. I don’t care much for JD Vance’s views on Appalachia, or the solutions he offers to its problems. However, in addition to critiquing Vance’s arguments, a particular line of Hillbilly Elegy criticism has focused on his lack of Appalachian credentials due to his being raised in Middletown, Ohio. 

Wherever you come out on the debate, this line of criticism highlights the ambiguities Appalachian migrants face in trying to address the region. On the one hand, I personally find it hard to deny Vance’s identification as Appalachian. Although not part of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, southwest Ohio, was a major destination for Appalachian migrants in the 20th century, and the Appalachian migrant identity remains relevant there. Furthermore, I fear this kind of territorial gatekeeping threatens to exclude those in the diaspora who sincerely and legitimately identify as Appalachian.

On the other hand, Appalachian migrants, including Vance, must also recognize their unique position in speaking from outside the region. Just as a well-off professor in Morgantown has a different experience from a glassmaker in Clarksburg, so too is an Appalachian migrant’s experience of the region different from someone who stays. Those of us who’ve been outside the region for several years must accept that both we and the region may have changed since our departure, and that our experiences “abroad” mean we can no longer claim to speak as “typical Appalachians,” if we ever could. 

Moreover, while we may strongly identify with the region and its people, we must also accept that, in having left, our stake in the game is different from those who remain. As such, our role and our degree of power in deciding the future of the region should be different.

Of course, this does not mean migrants have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, in return for giving up our claims to being typical Appalachians, we have gained new experiences and insights that can benefit the region if used properly. One of expatalachians’ founding goals was to create a place to share and debate these insights. Almost one year on, I’m proud of the fresh perspectives we’ve been able to inject into conversations about Appalachian historypoliticseconomicsenvironmental issuesliterature, and more. 

What other forms Appalachian migrant organizing may take remains an open question. In the past, migrants have created explicitly “Appalachian” organizations to agitate for better public services, state-specific clubs to commemorate their heritage, and hometown associations to network and reminisce. 

As we are currently undergoing a renaissance in Appalachian organizing, diaspora activists would do well to look back on these experiences and think creatively about what kind of community they hope to create, and to what end. Whatever form it takes, for me Appalachian migrant organizing means prioritizing at least three goals.

First and foremost, in light of the Appalachian identity movement’s uncomfortable relationship with racism and exclusivism, we must strive to build a diverse and cross-sectional movement that includes Appalachian migrants of all backgrounds, regardless of race, class, indigeneity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor. 

Secondly, while preserving a personal connection to the region is important in Appalachian migrant organizing, we must also seek to critically address and work toward resolving problems back home, be it through scholarship, donations, economic investment, volunteering, activism, or other endeavors. These problems must include not only pressing issues affecting the region, like the opioid crisis and poverty, but also deeper structural factors that are often ignored, including the present-day realities of racism and colonization. 

Finally, to return to my original point, we must organize in solidarity both with fellow migrants and with folks back home while being cognizant of our different positions. This shouldn’t just be an Appalachian migrant investment fund that seeks to “innovate” Appalachia while maintaining control. Rather, we must strive to build meaningful relationships and organizational structures between migrants and home communities so that, in seeking to promote positive change, we don’t take power away from the region and the people ultimately supposed to benefit from it.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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