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West Virginians Draw from Within to Rebuild Communities

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Friday, September 9, 2022   

By Quincy Gray McMichael for Yes! Media. Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for West Virginia News Service, Reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration

West Virginia, rural and oft-forgotten, has become famous for rampant opioid addiction and the stubborn last gasps of coal-mining culture. My neighbors have some of the shortest life expectancies in the nation, a statistic solemnly tied to another brutal mantle: the highest rate of overdose per capita.

For more than 200 years, coal companies - like the one owned by our governor, like the one owned by my own great-grandfather - have seen West Virginia as a backwater packed with easy resources: thick seams of rich coal and a seemingly bottomless population of labor-ready, poverty-toughened workers.

In the early 2000s, the financial return on coal mining began to diminish thanks to both increased federal regulation and the decreasing caliber of accessible coal. Around that time, unethical pharmaceutical companies - notably, but not exclusively, Purdue Pharma - took the same tack as the coal barons before them, asking: How can we best use West Virginia, and the poverty of its kindhearted people, to our advantage?

The answer: bribe, prescribe, deny. Ship 780 million pills of hydrocodone and oxycodone to pharmacies statewide in the six slim years between 2007 and 2013 (amounting to 433 pills for every adult and child in the state). Claim prescription narcotics are not addictive. Drown West Virginians in this deadly medicine.

While coal mining and addiction are certainly not equivalent, they do overlap: Mining is hard, physical work-the type of labor that begets injuries that call for prescription painkillers. In 2015, Carl "Rolly" Sullivan, longtime director of West Virginia University Hospitals' addiction program, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that many West Virginians are "blue-collar workers who were in farming and timbering and coal mining and things that were likely to produce injuries."

Beverly Sharp, a former correctional officer, now directs the West Virginia Reentry Councils, a statewide group of 24 regional councils that collaborate to help people re-enter life and community after incarceration. "Coal mining is a difficult job, and you often end up with people injured, and that leads to prescription painkillers and that whole cycle begins," she says. "The inability to access affordable health care is another issue-you end up taking someone else's medication or taking another illegal drug instead."

Charleston-area business owners Charlotte and Kenny Webb understand that cycle well-and this experience helps them envision a solution. The couple, who are both in long-term recovery from addiction, have dedicated themselves to helping recovering people find a way forward. They readily hire these "fair-chance" employees at their company, Charleston Property Restoration, and offer other practical assistance through their nonprofit, Way Makers. As Charlotte Webb says, "We are in recovery [thanks to] a spiritual experience; we have a responsibility to pass it on."

As King Coal continues to decline, joblessness, poverty and addiction persevere in West Virginia's communities-the consequences of coal's collapse. Yet, West Virginians - both born and made - prize the value of a day's work. Mountaineers are hailed for their resilience and independent spirit, their innate inclination to bear up under hardship and make do with the resources at hand.

No surprise, then, that individuals, communities and organizations around the state are creating imaginative solutions by helping recovering and formerly incarcerated individuals gain access to worthwhile work. Practical visionaries like Beverly Sharp and Charlotte and Kenny Webb are partnering with state-run programs, such as Apprenticeship in Motion and Jobs & Hope, to find creative ways to regenerate more than just careers.

Sharp began volunteering as a lay pastor after she retired from the prison system, but she soon found herself itching to take action, thinking, "We need to do something other than sit around and talk." Part of the practical solution Sharp prescribes is a shift in perspective: What worked for granddaddy may not work today. A new understanding of how meaningful occupation can be a healing force, for the individual and for their community, is essential. "I think part of [the struggle] is that mentality of 'lock 'em up and throw away the key,'" says Sharp, the mindset that "you made that choice, you live with it."

Through her work with incarcerated people, both in and out of institutions, Sharp's experience decries the common viewpoint that "if we pile on more consequences, people will stop [using drugs, committing crimes to facilitate their habit]." Sharp's voice rises with emotion as she reminds us all not to lose sight that each one of these formerly incarcerated individuals "is a human being, is a person; something brought them to that point."

Charlotte and Kenny Webb can relate: "The whole reason we started the company was to create space for individuals in recovery and/or re-entry," says Charlotte Webb. Their construction workforce is comprised of 75% "fair-chance" employees-workers who have arrests or convictions that dissuade many businesses from hiring them, regardless of charisma or skill. Nearly two-thirds of the Webbs' employees have felonies stemming from addiction, which further limits their employment options. Charlotte Webb, who sees the consequences daily, says, "When people are in active addiction, they do things they would not do otherwise."

Sharp agrees. "If you are living in poverty your whole life and that's all you know, and you have no hope, no motivation to escape poverty, no role models, many times poverty leads to trauma that is inescapable. People in poverty need to do things that those with a living wage would not do, [like] stealing to feed their families."

What the Webbs and Sharp are advocating for - not only in word, but supported by their own benevolent deeds - is a return to neighborliness. Although drivers in West Virginia always seem to make room for one more car to merge into a line of traffic, the Appalachian tradition of common kindness has been burnished by the addiction epidemic, by years of pain in our communities.

When we view people only as resources-as a monolith, as equipment-we close off access to empathy, making way for abuses like those exacted by the coal companies and pharmaceutical giants. In an environment where human kindness is missing, the divisive "us" and "them" replace the unity of "we"-a limitation that makes it too easy to take advantage of another's humanity. When that happens, we miss the beauty of offering a hand up, a fair chance.

This shift in perspective can begin with language, as Charlotte Webb exemplifies in her explanation of why she prefers the term "fair-chance" employees over the more commonly used "second chance." With an insider's chuckle, she says, "The guys we have [working for us], probably most of them are past their second chance... [but] as long as people are willing to work on their recovery, they ought to have a chance at gainful employment."

After three years of hiring fair-chance employees, Charlotte Webb identified another gap that needed attention: "There's a lot of space in between starting your recovery and being ready for employment, so we started a nonprofit [Way Makers] that works alongside the for-profit... making sure they have IDs, clothing, housing, SNAP food benefits, Medicaid. Then, when they are referred for employment, they are ready to come in and give it their all."

Sharp's comments support this notion: "The philosophy always was that once you came out of prison, you've paid the price. That's no longer true." She says there are 851 collateral consequences of having a criminal record in West Virginia-from the understood (difficulty finding work and housing) to the unexpected (from West Virginia Code: "Suspend/revoke cigarette vending machine license" or "Ineligible to serve as employee of nonintoxicating beer retailer"). All of these consequences make re-entry troublesome to navigate, even for citizens with education or other privileges. Sharp started the West Virginia Reentry Councils to help employers better understand the incentives and opportunities inherent in hiring fair-chance employees.

Charlotte and Kenny Webb were already working with fair-chance employees when they heard about the bonding, payroll, and tax incentives available to companies willing to take that chance: "West Virginia [has] really made an effort to help employers become willing to hire," Charlotte Webb says. "We didn't start the company for this purpose, but it has given us the courage to hire new people."

Beginning with an employee's first day on the job, West Virginia businesses are granted a $10,000 bond via Workforce West Virginia-a state-run partner of Jobs & Hope-to insure their tools and other equipment. In addition, if a fair-chance worker is eligible, employers can receive up to 100% reimbursement on wages paid during the first six months, through a state program called Empowered Employment.

After the first six months, employees may be eligible for another state program-On-the-Job Training-which reimburses employers for up to 50% of wages. Companies that hire fair-chance employees are also considered for tax credits up to $6,200 annually. And nonprofit organizations are there to help: "Part of what we do is help employers to understand that these aren't bad people, they just made bad decisions... sometimes, they make the best employees," Sharp says.

Dave Lavender, the apprenticeship program coordinator at the West Virginia Department of Economic Development, is quick to identify reasons why some employers are shy about hiring employees with complicated histories: "Companies got burned by folks who they employed ... in active addiction, [causing] wounds that are hard to heal." Now, Lavender says, "The recovery ecosystem is more developed and more successful. ... Jobs & Hope [offers] generous wage reimbursements and bonding so that a company can't be burned if an employee doesn't work out."

Kenny Webb notes the magnifying effect so much neighborliness has on his employees: "They're paying it forward, too," and helping each other with the basics of recovery, parole etiquette, and passing word about the healthiest recovery houses and friendliest employers.

Participants in such programs are taking college courses and receiving practical retraining in manufacturing, the nonprofit sector, agriculture, addiction treatment, and other constructive types of work. In rural West Virginia, where generations of corporate abuse have damaged the human landscape as much as they have compromised the ecology of mountains and waterways, word-of-mouth is often considered the most credible source of information. If a neighbor, or a cousin, secures a stable, high-paying career despite her felony record, the route she took - whether via apprenticeship or college classes - will serve as a shining beacon for others in her community.

West Virginians are establishing a replicable template that enables people to start again and to give back-to begin to nourish the communities where they live. Determined citizens continue to band together with nonprofits, charitable corporations, and state and local governments, seeking out solutions to uplift recovering and formerly incarcerated people seeking a fair chance at a career.

As they look ahead, the Webbs are keeping their sights simple: one employee at a time. Kenny Webb articulates success as giving workers a fair chance to "get their associate degree and contractor license; we are hoping they will go out and launch their own business, and maybe be fair-chance employers themselves."

For Sharp, the measure of success includes a grander scope. Her hope is "to remove the collateral consequences related to employment of justice-impacted people to work in certain professions, making an easier path for justice-impacted individuals to earn a living wage."

Charlotte Webb recognizes West Virginians as "the kindest, most gracious, authentic people," yet feels that a "poverty mindset" - an "acceptance of meager existence: 'this is as good as it gets'" - sometimes interferes with opportunity. She says, "People in West Virginia have what it takes, but they don't see that. I feel like they are looking for an industry, politician, the right company-someone to make it all right. I don't think they need that, I think they have it in them." West Virginians do have what it takes to redefine what good work means in a state long ravaged by corporate abuse-and the shift away from that pain has already begun.

Quincy Gray McMichael wrote this article for YES! Magazine. McMichael stewards her farm, Vernal Vibe Rise, on Moneton ancestral land in the mountains of West Virginia.

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