Karen Williams’ father, Charles Price, was the first Black graduate of West Virginia University’s College of Law, one of two land grant institutions in the state. His office once sat on Court Street, in Charleston, West Virginia’s Triangle District. As a child during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s, Williams remembers her father’s friends and associates gathering in her family home.
“I remember they had big feet,” she says, “and they were in my living room.”
What lingers for her in those memories is a sense of purpose – the sharing of collective perspective and expertise that drove consensus and led to substantive systemic change through the political system.
She yearns for a return to informed consensus and political will. “Right now, I don’t see that,” she says of efforts to bring inclusive revitalization to the community where she grew up: Charleston’s West Side.
It’s not for a lack of effort on the community’s part. But the needs are many and the efforts to coordinate them are rarely well coordinated. West Side leaders say state government has done little to help.
For nearly two years, the Tuesday Morning Group, a grassroots organization largely based in the West Side, pressed Gov. Jim Justice and state legislators to direct a share of American Rescue Plan Act funds to the state’s poorest communities, including their own.
Signed into law by President Biden in March 2021, ARPA is a historic economic-stimulus package that gives state and local governments a wide range of choices for how the money can be spent. Since 2021, West Virginia has received a total of about $1.9 billion in ARPA funds.
According to guidelines released by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, ARPA funds can be spent on public infrastructure projects such as water and sewer lines and broadband. The guidelines also outline how the funds can be used to support communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The Tuesday Morning Group called for $300 million of the state’s remaining ARPA funds, about $678 million, to be allocated to counties based on poverty rates. Several groups supported the stance, including the West Virginia Council of Churches, NAACP and ACLU.
But instead, legislators granted Justice’s request by passing legislation allocating most of those funds – about $500 million – to the state’s economic-development office.
Republican legislators claimed that designating ARPA funds to economic development would benefit communities by attracting new jobs. Giving it directly to the communities, state Sen. Eric Tarr (R-Putnam) said, would not guarantee a return on the state’s investment.
“I think it’s a difference in philosophy of how you do it: directly grant it to communities versus teaching men to fish, so to speak, when we bring jobs into communities,” Tarr said.
But the Department of the Treasury’s final rule states that economic development “would generally not be eligible” for ARPA funds. Several community members and nonprofit leaders have argued the new law violates that rule.
From the displacement of the Black community during the 1970s to the allocation of ARPA funds now, Karen Williams worries that history is simply repeating itself.
Educating now and into the future
To get to the root of the problem, Rev. Matthew Watts, president of TMG and pastor of Grace Bible Church on the West Side, says “you’ve got to deal with historical, systematic racism and economic exploitation that is setting in motion a perpetual cycle of poverty in this neighborhood.
He calls the West Side of Charleston “an economic transfer center.”
Watts likens efforts to address this cycle of poverty to a computer with sophisticated hardware and software but no operating system. There’s no infrastructure that connects anything together.
“So how do you ever change this trajectory?” Watts asks. It begins, he believes, with an investment in education.
Research bears out, Watts says, that the number-one predictor of the educational attainment of children in schools in underserved communities is the concentration of poverty in that school.
“Westside Middle School was last of 169 middle schools statewide in their overall performance,” he says. “Until systemic generational poverty is addressed, nothing is going to change” on the West Side.
Any comprehensive program should include early-childhood intervention for those who have experienced systemic, generational trauma, says Shanequa Smith.
“In West Virginia, we have spent millions of dollars on the opioid crisis,” she says, “but there’s no intervention to stop people from [misusing] opioids to begin with.”
Smith earned her Ph.D. in human and community development from West Virginia University. She now works as a restorative-justice practitioner in Charleston.
Moving forward on the West Side, she says, means nurturing children and families, working with them to head off patterns of behavior borne through generations of systemic trauma.
Smith says another tool could be development centers in the West Side’s public housing projects. They could help kids who are struggling in school, providing them with mentoring and support, keeping them from being suspended to begin with.
“We know that if a child is acting up, it’s because of an issue,” she says. “And we penalize them for their behavior and never address the issue.” Development centers, she says, would disrupt those patterns.
But Watts emphasizes that there is no organized approach to incorporating ideas like Smith’s into a cohesive, coordinated response to change the trajectory of the West Side.
To remedy that, Watts and the Tuesday Morning Group have enlisted the assistance of the Hurricane, West Virginia-based Center for Rural Health Development, and together they’ve crafted a community health improvement plan called Wild, Wonderful and Healthy Charleston West Side.
The plan initially focuses on lifelong learning, which center advisor Sharon Lansdale says consistently rises to the top in state and national surveys as an issue in need of attention.
Lifelong learning, the plan states, is about ensuring that all community members “are provided a pathway to both career and college by engaging resources beyond school.”
“The purpose is to move the needle,” Lansdale says of the plan. “We’re never going to program and service our way out of this. There will never be enough money to do so. So what we focus on is bringing the community together.”
In order to address low performance in the schools, the community must consider the underlying causes, the plan reads, “including access to affordable housing and reliable transportation, opioid use, chronic diseases, food insecurity and more.”
“Let’s say your elementary school has more resources but those kids are still hearing gunshots at home,” says Joe Solomon, a Charleston city council member and advocate for underserved communities in the city. “They can’t focus as much. They can’t succeed as much because they’re still being traumatized because you’re not doing the work downstream as well.”
Solomon has conducted research addressing the roots of gun violence that employs a cure violence model. It’s similar in approach to the outreach work on substance misuse of the City of Charleston’s Coordinated Addiction Response Effort, or CARE, team. In this case, you identify those most at risk of being subject to gun violence and deploy “violence interrupters” to offer conflict mediation and outreach workers to connect them with needed resources and services.
‘Unaware of systems and how they work’
Watts believes lifelong learning must include educating West Side residents in building political and civic power.
That means, he says, understanding “all the institutions influencing an individual’s life,” including “the political system, the educational system, the cultural systems and the economic system.”
“Marginalized people, Black and white, wherever they are, are often just simply unaware of systems and how they work.”
Like Watts, Smith sees the importance of the kind of lifelong learning that empowers the Black community to advocate for public policy that could transform the West Side. It’s a lesson she learned while conducting research on voting patterns in the neighborhood.
“I was first charged to get Black people out to vote,” she says. But as a community “we don’t understand how our voting is connected to our regular life.”
Building civic power, she says, is about more than voting. Marginalized groups, like the Black community, “aren’t taught how to run for office. We aren’t taught how to collectively come together, to turn our issues into policies.”
As a result, the benefits of initiatives like Elk City – an economic-development area of the West Side neighborhood largely populated with white-owned businesses – aren’t equally shared because the perspectives of the Black community and other marginalized people aren’t heard.
It also makes systemic change impossible, Watts says, and perpetuates a cycle of response that only scratches the surface of the West Side’s needs.
“The best ointment and the best lotion may soothe the pain and anesthetize a person for a while,” Watts says, “but it’s not getting to the root of the problem.”
‘A synergistic, comprehensive, cohesive response’
Everyone agrees that coordination of efforts is essential.
“I see a lot of competition within the organizations on the West Side, vying for the same resources,” Lansdale says. “These programs are essential, because people are suffering.” But she underscores the need for sustainable, coordinated solutions.
“If you keep starting over, you really don’t get anything done,” Watts says. “You just keep rediscovering the problem, or you keep rediscovering the symptoms of the problem. Homelessness on the West Side is a symptom of a problem. Substance misuse on the West Side is a symptom of a problem.”
Watts believes there’s a real opportunity to bring key groups in the city together to address the systemic challenges on the West Side.
And he says Charleston’s mayor, Amy Schuler Goodwin, has the cachet to do it. “I think if she would send out there a clear call, she may be able to get some of the right people together.”
The key stakeholders, Watts says, are the city of Charleston Planning Commission; the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority, or CURA; Kanawha County Schools; and the Charleston Police Department.
The city and CURA “deal with the built environment,” he says, maintaining streets, lighting and neighborhood infrastructure like sewer lines, while CURA coordinates with the city on development projects like the Elk City district and urban planning.
Watts points out that CURA has yet to complete a draft of an updated plan for community redevelopment on the West Side. “It’s sat in abeyance since 2020,” he says. A completed plan, he says, would be a welcome addition to any strategy to transform the West Side.
The county school system and police department are critical to building a safe and vibrant neighborhood that residents can trust, Watts says.
A foundational institution in decline
Few doubt that the work being done by faith communities on the West Side is vital. But even church leaders acknowledge it’s not enough.
Social-justice outreach – like weekly hot meals, food pantries, health care services – have long been part of the mission of many churches. But in Black communities, the church has historically been a foundational institution, where people build political identity and power to drive social change.
“The church was the epicenter of Black life. It cast a vision; it shaped the moral fiber of the community,” Watts says. “It held people to a transcendent value system.”
The sit-in movement of the 1950s and ’60s was organized in the Black church, as was the NAACP. But the Black church as the center of community life has declined as the prevalence of Black neighborhoods has decreased.
Neighborhoods, like the Triangle District, were places where Blacks of every socio-economic class lived, together helping build community and political engagement, says Watts. And everybody attended church together. While desegregation was an important step in creating racial equality, he suggests that it corroded community cohesion because it took away the Black church as a place of Black empowerment.
“That’s been lost,” Watts says.
But it’s important to remember, he emphasizes, that the intergenerational, systemic inequality of the West Side hurts everyone, Black and white alike. Watts and Williams agree that good policy helps both.
Rebuilding the kind of camaraderie and informed consensus Williams saw in her living room as a child will take time. “This didn’t happen overnight, what’s happening in West Virginia,” she says. “It’s going to take years and decades in order to change.”
Traumatized communities need time and space to heal, Shanequa Smith says. And healing is a critical first step toward putting more power in West Side residents’ hands.
“When people feel validated and loved and cared for, they can learn. And when people learn, they do better,” she says. “And when people do better, then they can sustain their own opportunities.”
This story is part of a four-part series The West Side: A Community Defining Its Future. Explore the entire series here.