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Failure Was What I Needed Most



Crossovers, Greenbrier Roller Vixens team practice, December 2013. Photo: Diana Clarke

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original here.

Follow the Greenbrier River down from its headwaters at the north end of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, where the East and West Forks merge at Durbin. Meander with it south, past Hosterman, Cass, Stony Bottom, and Clover Lick. This is the longest unblocked river east of the Mississippi. As it rolls lower, it skims the base of Droop Mountain, then crosses into Greenbrier County. Thirty road miles later, the Greenbrier takes a sharp left under the bridge at Ronceverte. This is where we bear right, and head into the brief grid of residential streets between the water and a steep slope.

Here, under fluorescent lights at the Lions Club gym on North Avenue, I spent September 2013 learning to fall down.

When I arrived at my first practice with the Greenbrier Roller Vixens (now the Greenbrier River Rollers), I was sick with heartbreak and couldn’t stay upright on a pair of skates. I didn’t speak about the heartbreak, but I couldn’t hide my lack of skill. In my first months on the track, I slammed over and over again into the floor of the basketball court, skates flying out from underneath me. “That’s alright,” my teammates told me, “the way you hit the ground is great. Minimum impact on your joints, a quick stop. The rest will come.”

It did. I practiced skating, falling, hitting. And from my first week on the team, I was included, radically and completely. The Roller Vixens assumed that if you wanted to be there, you belonged.

The New River, Hinton WV, shot while getting lost on the way to a derby event, December 2013. Photo: Diana Clarke

In a derby match, called a bout, the crucial thing is to land well and get up quickly, because a skater on the ground is, legally, an obstruction, no longer in play. If someone from the opposite team trips over the fallen skater, it’s a foul, and the fallen player will get sent to the penalty box for a low block. A bout lasts an hour and is composed of two-minute jams. In the course of those two minutes, each team’s jammer will try to bust through the pack of blockers first, then whip around the track as many times as they can. After the first loop around the track, a jammer’s team wins points based on the number of players from the opposite team that the jammer manages to pass.

Mostly I played blocker, settling into position with three of my teammates at the start of a jam, locking hip to hand to shoulder. Our main job was keeping the other team’s jammer from getting ahead of us while helping our own jammer through. Our secondary job was causing havoc, intentionally or by happenstance, for the blockers on the opposing team.

Often I blocked with Ziggy, or Jac, or Bombshell. Ziggy frequently played the informal role of lead blocker, wearing the pivot panty on her helmet to indicate her status, calling out plays and instructions to the rest of us, and skating backwards when necessary to act as the apex of an especially effective three-pointed block. Ziggy is a lawyer by day, and as a blocker she was a master strategist with a keen ability to shift tactics on the fly. Jac was the team’s anchor; off-court, she acted as its good-natured mayor, organizing us to skate in a Christmas parade and jump in the river at Blue Bend for the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Bombshell veered from enthusiasm to anxiety, bringing her full self to each bout. She was the one who levelled with me about how long it might take to skate well enough to play, and she cheered the hardest when I finally did.

But it was Peaches-n-Scream who gave me my player number when I became a bout-eligible member of the Roller Vixens. A nurse and parent of four children, Peaches had an easy, unflappable way with people – except for referees, who often sent her to the penalty box when she cussed them out for a bad call. Teasing me mercilessly and lovingly for my big chest (Is that why I was off balance all the time, so easily knocked over?), Peaches asked for my bra size when I passed my skills test. Soon after, the back of my brand new jersey read “30G.”

When he found out I was skating roller derby, my friend Harley fished dozens of pairs of old-fashioned skates out of a dumpster in Lewisburg and left them on the porch of my trailer, January 2014. Photo: Diana Clarke

Roller derby is primarily played by women (an identity I shared at the time I skated with the Vixens, though I no longer do), and it is visceral, violent, and very fast. Every week, my most skilled teammates pushed themselves to do better, to circle the track faster, to hit harder, to stay upright longer, and to get up quicker. Hard and soft, ambitious and welcoming – how can roller derby be all these things at once?

Skating fast on the track, to hurt someone or knock them over, you have to get right up next to them, toppling their body using the force of your own. It’s incredibly intimate, and freeing, to know that, on skates, your trajectory is bound up with your opponent: the momentum of taking down another skater might knock you over too.

Racing to knock a jammer out of play, I fell and I broke my coccyx twice. My teammates dug up a pair of padded shorts for me, and I kept skating, kept falling, obstructing the opposing team and clearing pathways for our jammers to get through. For a full year, my hips and thighs were covered in bruises. I never stopped falling, but I learned to get up faster, and once I had wheels underneath me, I knew how to move.

Roller derby challenged me to fail (fall) at a time when I was torn open with sadness and ignorant about asking for help. And it required me to see falling (failing) as an essential skill, a tactic necessary to win. My friend Laura later introduced me to the Jesuit theologian Richard Rohr, who writes about the idea of falling upward, of growth made possible only by reckoning with our shadow selves – with shame, hardship, and vulnerability. I’m Jewish and I’m from Massachusetts, but West Virginia roller derby saved my soul.

Skating in formation. Greenbrier Roller Vixens team practice, December 2013. Photo: Diana Clarke

When I joined the Roller Vixens, I was doing the ongoing work of recovery from an eating disorder, and I was newly naming my queerness. I was learning to appreciate my body for what it could do, instead of for how little space it could take up, and I imagined that I might find queer community on the team. There were some other queer and trans people on the teams I skated against, but on my home team I found something I didn’t even know I needed: a community of women where anger was permitted and explicit, where catharsis was collective, where violence was celebrated on the track and then left there. I watched a teammate break an ankle during a bout as she took a fast turn and got caught between skaters from the opposing team. I watched the game halt while every player took a knee so medics could get to her. (Revisiting this memory in 2018, I’m struck by the solidarity and the unanimity in this gesture, and the way a similar gesture in football, used to protest police brutality towards Black people, has been met with shame and exclusion.) A few months later, I watched the injured player step shakily back onto skates, then help us win a game. I hadn’t imagined that caring relationships could be so physical, that belonging could feel so implicit.

Off the court, the Roller Vixens held each other’s hardships both with intensity and a casual ease. They cared for each other’s children, vented about the ordinary and crushing pressures of making a living in West Virginia, and offered meals and couches when home was too far away after a long bout. They held a fundraiser when a teammate’s child was hospitalized, and they offered advice to a new mom who had recently graduated high school and whose mother also skated on the team. Every question of survival was welcome. To be perfectly honest, I found making conversation on that team really difficult, but conversation wasn’t the point. My body knew it was safe there, knew that I was safe.

If you live outside of Upper Appalachia, then you might not know that the state of West Virginia, with a population of just two million people, supports eight major roller derby teams.

When West Virginia is covered in the national media, it’s usually because of a “natural” disaster. The chemical spill on the Elk River, which originates in Pocahontas County; the flooding of the Greenbrier the following year. Coal mining, for which the state is best known, is a long slow disaster in its own way. In a place that’s been handed so much harm, roller derby matters because it provides a concentration of catharsis.

In the course of writing this piece, I spoke to a number of former teammates who described the ways, that roller derby provided community they didn’t have elsewhere, or a space to take out anger that was unacceptable in other areas of their lives. How it allowed them to address harm, loneliness, and trauma – a catharsis just as powerful, but more intimate in scope. The track gave trans woman players a space to claim their gender, and my friends who had experienced assault an opportunity to articulate power in their bodies. My friends who felt isolated got to work collectively, and my fat friends got to take up all the fucking space they wanted.

By the end of my year on the team, I had, finally, quit communicating with the former partner I was so heartbroken about. I was eating when I was hungry, and speaking my queerness in public. I was exploring sitting in silence on the bench because conversation wasn’t necessary. What would it mean to believe I was wanted without having to perform intelligence, without having to entertain? Why was playing this game, which I was never especially good at, so much more healing than telling stories to myself or my friends or in my journal, again? What good is it to try writing about this experience in which words failed me, where failure was what I needed most?

I’m scared to make this sound like I’m healed, or like I’ve figured anything out. Even when when my team had won a bout, there was always another one to play. With healing, too, there’s always more work to do, even if it’s not work as we’re taught to think of it. The work of healing, as I experienced it in roller derby, is the work of physical play, of holding each other, skating fast, knocking each other down on the track. It’s a way to learn that falling is safe and recovering from it is possible. Trauma lives in the body, in community, and healing must live there too.

What if the work of healing must be collective, and ongoing? What would it look like to build a community in which all our bodies are loved and necessary, in which the harm we’ve experienced can be turned into collective physical force that allows us to win? Roller derby allowed me to start asking questions, but it doesn’t answer them, or even finish the conversation. Whose body is safe on the track? Whose body is able to be there? Who gets to live on the land where harm happened? What harm does the land carry in its own body, and what do we risk when we let that land carry us?

Author’s Note: “With tremendous gratitude to all my teammates, who shared their stories with me for this piece many years after they taught me how to skate.”

Diana Clarke grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Haudenosaunee and Osage land. They are a doctoral student in History at the University of Pittsburgh, and a managing editor for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

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Who’s More Compassionate, Republicans or Democrats?



An anti-abortion advocate in Jackson, Mississippi, March 2018. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

It’s a common refrain of American voters: How can your party be so heartless?

Democrats want to know how Republicans can support President Trump’s policy of separating babies from refugee families. Republicans want to know how Democrats can sanction abortion. But does either party really care more about compassion?

In my research into the public’s support for a variety of government policies, I ask questions about how compassionate someone is, such as how concerned they are about others in need.

These questions are integral to understanding how people feel about who in America deserves government support.

Some people are more compassionate than others. But that doesn’t break simply along party lines.

I find that Democratic and Republican Party voters are similar, on average, busting up the cliché of bleeding heart liberals and uncaring conservatives.

And then there are Trump voters.

Supporters hold up signs before a rally with President Donald Trump in Tupelo, Mississippi, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Photo: Thomas Graning, AP.

Beyond partisan stereotypes

Compassion is defined by many psychology researchers as concern for others in need and a desire to see others’ welfare improved.

The similarity in compassion among voters of both parties contrasts with other measures of personality and worldview that increasingly divide Republicans and Democrats, such as values about race and morality.

Republicans are not less compassionate than Democrats, but my research also shows that there is a stark divide between parties in how relevant an individual’s compassion is to his or her politics.

Public opinion surveys show that you can predict what kind of policies a more compassionate person would like, such as more government assistance for the poor or opposition to the death penalty.

But for most political issues, the conclusion for Republicans is that their compassion does not predict what policies they favor. Support for more government assistance to the poor or sick, or opinions about the death penalty, for example, are unrelated to how compassionate a Republican voter is.

In my work, I find that the primary policy area where compassion is consistently correlated to specific policies for conservatives is abortion, where more compassionate conservatives are more likely to say they are pro-life.

Democrats predictable

When Democratic voters say they are compassionate, you can predict their views on policies.

They’re more supportive of immigration, in favor of social services to the poor and opposed to capital punishment.

Yet, while Democrats may be more likely to vote with their heart, there isn’t evidence that they’re more compassionate than Republicans in their daily life.

When it comes to volunteering or donating money, for example, compassion works the same way for Republicans and Democrats: More compassionate voters of either party donate and volunteer more.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000 made ‘compassionate conservatism’ a major campaign theme. Photo: Thomas Graning, AP.

The real difference

My research suggests that voter attitudes about the role of compassion in politics are shaped not only by personal philosophy, but by party leaders.

Political speeches by Republican and Democratic leaders vary in the amount of compassionate language they use.

For instance, political leaders can draw attention to the needs of others in their campaign speeches and speeches on the House or Senate floor. They may talk about the need to care for certain people in need or implore people to “have a heart” for the plight of others. Often, leaders allude to the deserving nature of the recipients of government help, outlining how circumstances are beyond their control.

Democratic politicians use compassionate rhetoric much more often than their Republican counterparts and for many more groups in American society than Republican leaders do.

Do citizens respond to such rhetoric differently depending on what party they affiliate with?

When their leaders use compassionate political language, such as drawing attention to other people’s suffering and unmet needs as well as the worthiness of the groups in need, Republicans in experiments are actually moved to be more welcoming to immigrants and to support state help for the disabled.

This explains how Republican voters responded positively to Republican Sen. Robert Dole’s campaign for the rights of the disabled in 1989. It also explains the success of presidential candidate George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000, which one Washington Post columnist wrote “won George W. Bush the White House in 2000.”

It also suggests that it’s not necessarily the public, but the party leaders, who differ so significantly in how relevant they believe compassion should be to politics.

Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a sit-in on July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Thomas Graning, AP.

Trump supporters the exception

Despite political rhetoric that places them at opposite ends of the spectrum, Republican and Democratic voters appear to be similarly compassionate.

Democrats view compassion as a political value while Republicans will integrate compassion into their politics when their leaders make it part of an explicit message.

There is a caveat to this: I asked these survey questions about personal feelings of compassion in a 2016 online survey that also asked about choice of president.

The survey was conducted a few days after Republican presidential primary candidates Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio had dropped out of the race, making Donald Trump the only viable Republican candidate for the nomination.

In their responses to the survey, a large percentage of Republican voters said they would rather vote for someone other than Trump, even though he was the unofficial nominee at that point.

The Republican voters who didn’t support Trump were similar to Democrats on the survey with respect to their answers about compassion. Their average scores on the compassion items were the same. This is in line with the other survey data showing that liberals and conservatives, and Republicans and Democrats, are largely similar in these personality measures of compassion.

But Trump supporters’ answers were not in line with these findings.

Instead, their average responses to the broad compassion questions were significantly lower. These answers showed that Trump supporters were lower in personal compassion.

While a lot of the Republican voters in the sample may well have gone on to support Trump in the general election, the survey respondents who were early adopters of candidate Trump might continue to be his most steadfast supporters today.

We know that public officials’ rhetoric can influence public opinion on political issues. This leads to another important question: Can political messages influence how much people value compassion more generally? Or even how compassionate people consider themselves to be?

The research indicates that appeals to compassion – if made by trusted leaders – should work for voters of both parties.

But it also indicates that if such messages are absent, compassion is less likely to be seen as important in politics and the positions people and parties take.

Meri T. Long, is a Lecturer of American Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The ‘Hard Truths’ of Dismissing Rural Philanthropy



Independent libraries, like this one in New Mexico, are becoming anchors for new local economies built on food, culture and recreation. Photo: Shawn Poynter/The Daily Yonder

Rural communities are creative and resourceful when it comes to community development. They have to be. Foundations that avoid rural investment are missing opportunities for innovation and success.

Eduardo Porter’s recent New York Times piece, “The Hard Truths of Trying to Save the Rural Economy,” is misguided and patronizing, even if his intention is not. Unfortunately, he is not alone as an urban-based influencer who passes judgment on rural places from urban bubbles. Large national and regional urban-based philanthropy also can be misguided and patronizing.  

Just as Porter has no rural experience but somehow believes he has the answer for the poor rural folk, our experience in working and observing 25 years of philanthropy across the country has too often seen these large urban funders dismiss the relevance of rural America as places for philanthropic investment, or importantly, for advancing strategic thinking in the field. And like Porter’s admission of lack of context for his already formed rural perspective, big philanthropy continues to be influenced by staff and boards without rural experience or curiosity, but with already formed answers on why rural isn’t worth the investment. 

During the past summer and fall, our team embarked upon a journey around the country to take a look at how rural funders and rural communities were working hand-in-hand toward advancing solutions to the some of the most critical issues affecting their communities — childcare, obesity, immigration, community infrastructure, equity. What we found were examples from which city folk would be wise to learn.  

In rural New Hampshire, we saw early childhood educators from rural places working with state-level experts to build a stronger field and influence state policy for the better, with investment from the Endowment for Health. We learned how multiple nonprofit partners in the small city of Waterville, Maine, are using funds from Maine Health Access Foundation to transform the area’s food systems, replacing food insecurity with greater self-sufficiency. In Eastern Washington, we saw how Empire Health Foundation leverages more than $100 million in public and private funds to create regional networks that do everything from reducing obesity by replacing preprocessed school lunches with scratch-cooked ones, to helping families in the child welfare system heal faster, to ensuring that Native American tribes control their own pathways to better health.  

We also saw examples of how wise philanthropic investments in rural places led to increased economic activity. Throughout Northeast Iowa, small towns are using funding, connections and influence from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to create new markets for alternative energy systems and for cultural and environmental tourism. And in some of New Mexico’s smallest rural hamlets, independent community libraries – yes, libraries – are becoming anchors for new local economies built on food, culture and recreation: work in which Con Alma Health Foundation has chosen to invest.  

Underlying all these investments is the fact that rural communities, even those of just a few hundred people, are often intensely creative and resourceful when it comes to solving their own problems. They have to be. In every case, the biggest contribution by funders wasn’t the money so much as the belief in rural communities and the space and structure in which rural residents can put their heads together to develop new ideas and innovative approaches.   

What successful urban investors learn here in rural America is the power of true community, working side-by-side with those around you, despite physical, economic or ideological differences. Only here can a funder, a guy from the auto body shop, a kindergarten teacher, and the leader of the church auxiliary meet on equal footing and share power — preferably as they’re sharing Monday’s red beans and rice special at the local coffee shop. This is the root of deep community development and connection that urban-based funders can only dream about.  

Once we understand the drive, cooperation and commitment that is embedded in rural American life, it is impossible to hold Porter’s “truths.” Nor should we. In philanthropy – where urban funders so often talk of “community based strategies,” “systemic change,” and “equity” — dismissing rural is extremely short-sighted.  

Allen Smart spent more than two decades in leadership roles with rural funders in the Southeastern U.S. before launching RuralwoRx, a national consultancy aimed at increasing and improving rural philanthropy across the country.   

Betsey Russell is a writer and philanthropy consultant. She has written a novel, Other People’s Money, which she describes as a “philanthropic thriller.”

This commentary was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Beyond ‘Trump Country’: An Excerpt from 55 Strong, Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike



Photo: Provided by Belt Publishing

This essay is excerpted from 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, published by Belt Publishing.

The national media is obsessed with the idea of West Virginia as “Trump Country.” In countless interviews during and after the West Virginia teachers’ strike this past year, I was asked the question, “How could this have happened in a state that voted for Trump?” I was initially puzzled at the question; my state has a rich, militant labor history—I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and great-grandfather by taking part in the strike. Surely reporters had done their research? But more importantly, the years of disillusionment with the status quo that led to Trump’s popularity laid the groundwork for the strike itself. The shallow narrative of Appalachians voting against our own self-interest completely fails to grapple with our long history of neglect and exploitation by out-of-state interests and our own political class.

It’s true that West Virginia has voted red in the last five presidential elections, and that Republicans swept our state legislature in 2014, for the first time in eighty-two years. Yet it’s also true that the number of registered independents in our state has soared; Democrats are changing their voter registration, but not to Republican. When I talk to my friends and colleagues, many express distrust in our political parties and institutions of government. Prior to the strike, many had stopped taking part in the democratic process entirely, refusing to vote.

West Virginians have been left with a sense of desperation and hopelessness that comes from years of broken promises by those in charge. The coal industry has left us high and dry, we have rising poverty, our population is declining, and an opioid crisis is ravaging our communities. Teachers and school service personnel, in particular, have a unique window into these effects of the economy when we step into school every day. We have students experiencing homelessness, living in an under-funded foster care system, and facing hunger. Lack of funding for education and healthcare is just one of many failures of leadership that have led to school employees—and the voters of our state—saying enough is enough.

We have seen enough to know that simply voting for Democrats won’t fix our problems. Prior to 2016, the so-called party of working people held power in our state for decades and failed to deliver. Throughout their eighty-two years of legislative control, the Democratic Party never granted collective bargaining rights to public employees. In 2007, under Governor Joe Manchin’s Democratic leadership, our state government lowered the corporate net income tax from 9 percent to 6.5 percent and began phasing out the business franchise tax entirely, leaving a budget hole of more than $200 million annually. Rather than investing in our schools, public employees, or any number of measures that would help the people of our state, Democrats chose to give millions of dollars in handouts to corporations. These tax breaks were supposed to bring in jobs, but we’re still waiting.

Teachers and school employees have been organizing around our healthcare benefits for years because of this bipartisan manufactured emergency, but it’s only grown worse. Year after year, we voted, we showed up to hearings, we lobbied, and we asked nicely. This year, we finally decided we were tired of going through the proper channels only to reach a dead end. Our desperation turned into determination, and we took matters into our own hands by leading a historic nine-day statewide strike. The solidarity that made this strike possible was not built along party lines; we were united around a set of shared grievances and people came together with little concern for party affiliation. We had a common goal: to win material gains that we deserved, to make our lives better as workers.

This unity happened so naturally in the lead-up to the strike that it took some time for me to make sense of the question “How did this happen in Trump Country?” It didn’t happen in Trump Country, it happened in West Virginia, and of course it did. Many well-meaning liberal and progressive folks around the country are so focused on party politics that they lose sight of real people and what’s actually important to us. Petty partisan bickering about Donald Trump’s tweets and weekly cabinet rotations played zero role in this fight. People cannot afford healthcare—that’s do or die. If these same observers are paying attention, they’ll note that, save for a handful, Democrats nationwide aren’t fighting for healthcare either. Healthcare inflation is a national crisis that won’t truly be fixed until we have a universal system like Medicare for All and politicians who are willing to take on the entrenched power of pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

Critically, Democrats in our state legislature sided with public employees during our fight for a raise and healthcare funding this year, but they didn’t come to our rescue. We exerted pressure and they responded quickly. Republicans stood in staunch opposition against us until the bitter end. There’s no doubt the voters of West Virginia will remember who stood for us and who stood against us come November. However, if workers had not led the charge, we may have never heard a sound from Democratic lawmakers about the need for these measures. If working people are going to keep winning, we can’t wait on politicians to save us. We must lead the fight and take our demands straight to those in power. 

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100 Days