WhatsNext

A series of community conversations aimed at improving life across West Virginia begins with three basic questions:

Where are we now?

Where do we want to go?

How do we get there?

The organizers behind “What’s Next, West Virginia?” say that conversations built around those questions “are designed to encourage talking, thinking, and actions based on West Virginians’ own ideas for building a more vibrant and diverse economy.”

Or, as an introductory video asks, “How can we as West Virginians play an active role in writing a future that ensures the economy isn’t something happening to us but something we can take an active role in creating?”

Those are important questions. Consider your typical small Southern town:

-- Many of the local mom-and-pop shops have been driven out of business by big-box retailers.

-- The factory on the outskirts of town is closed and the once-ample supply of manufacturing jobs has been shipped overseas.

-- A sagging tax base robs public schools of desperately needed funds.

-- The most talented high school graduates head off to college and never return due to a lack of good jobs back home.

It all adds up to a shrinking town.

It seems to me the central premise of “What’s Next, West Virginia?” is that it doesn’t pay to wait on a hotshot economic developer or state and local government to play savior. Instead, outsource part — if not all — of the work of solving these challenges to a diverse collection of citizens.

“We’re tired of waiting on the next factory or mine to open up,” a resident of Rupert, W. Va., said at one “What’s Next?” conversation, according to the organization’s Facebook page.  

At another conversation, one resident said, “I live in an area that is struggling economically, and we really have a crisis of hope. I think that’s the case in many other parts of the state as well. I want to see what we can do in my county and what we can learn from other places.”

Good for West Virginia, you might say, but what about here? The great news for Alabama, which has its share of struggles similar to those in West Virginia (see accompanying chart), is that a “What’s Next, Alabama?” is ramping up.

The David Mathews Center for Civic Life is leading the effort. It has already helped organize a “What’s Next, Alabama?” series of conversations in Cullman. Over 2017 and 2018, the center hopes to spur community conversations across the state. The goal is that by the end of 2019 the findings from various community chats will be combined, with common themes highlighted.

Cristin Brawner, executive director of the Mathews Center, makes clear the organization is there to join with local partners to start the conversation. Local communities, she added, will arrive at the answers to the big three questions that suit them best.

“The only sustainable action is when the community owns the problem and acts to resolve it as a community,” Brawner said during a conversation earlier this summer. “Each community has its own narrative and where it wants to go.”