What's Next, West Virginia?


What’s Next, West Virginia?

When I was in the third grade, my class got some pretty exciting news: We were going to Safety City! For those who didn’t grow up in Kanawha County, Safety City is a mock, scaled-down city that third graders in the county visit for a half-day field trip.

Kids learn about all kinds of safety, the most exciting of which (at least to me) was learning about traffic signs and laws. While there, once you pass a basic knowledge quiz, you get to drive a “car” (go-kart) around the town. It’s like you’re inside a live Mario Kart game … except you have to follow the traffic rules, or a real-life police officer makes you get out of the car and sit in shame while the rest of your class has fun.

When they sent us home with permission slips to participate in Safety City, I was so excited to ask my dad, “Can I drive a car at Safety City!?” With a perfect straight face, he pulled a classic Dad move: “I don’t know, can you?”

He was trying to illustrate the difference between “May I?” and “Can I?” It was the first time someone asked me to assess my ability to do something I’d never done before. Could I drive a car?

I did a quick mental run-down of my capabilities: I could drive my Barbie Jeep. I had seen my parents drive their cars. I was willing to learn about various traffic signals. So, yeah, maybe I could. But would I be able to learn the gas from the brake pedal? Would I be able to watch the road around me and the road in front of me? It was a lot of pressure to have to suddenly decide my capabilities.

When I was in the sixth grade, I broke my toe. There’s not much doctors can do. Mine just taped it to another toe. The doctor said it would heal in a couple weeks, but that it might look a little deformed. “DEFORMED?!” I cried. He laughed, and said it wouldn’t be a big deal. But my foot modeling days were over.

I was crushed. I had never really considered a foot modeling career, but for the first time it felt like no matter how hard I tried or worked, there would be limitations on what I could be or achieve — or at least, what other people said I could achieve.

As I’ve grown older, there have been more situations where I’ve had to decide what I’m capable of — sometimes defying what other people said I could or couldn’t do. I began to realize that I could determine my own future, not be a pawn of circumstance. I decided I could work hard and succeed in graduate school. I decided I could commit to cultivating a successful marriage with my husband. I decided I could make a life in West Virginia.

Perhaps that’s part of what has drawn me to my current work.

As part of the West Virginia Center for Civic Life’s team, I help lead an initiative called What’s Next, West Virginia? We help communities engage in a series of public dialogues, in which they work through three core questions:

1) Where are we now?
2) Where do we want to go?
3) How will we get there?

This three-step process provides ways for people to have deep, meaningful conversations about their future.

The questions seem simple enough, but community members face the same tough self-evaluation I did as a child: What do they want to become? What do the “doctors,” or experts, say might work? How do we balance different opinions of what’s best for a place, and how do we make a community that works for everyone?

In What’s Next, we stress the importance of bringing new ideas and people together with the goal of creating thriving, prosperous communities. In doing so, we also help citizens realize their own power. We help them understand that they can determine their own futures.

I love the quote, “If you don’t tell the world who you are, the world will tell you.” (Or something like that.)

I see our work with What’s Next as helping communities tell the world who they are and becoming the kind of place they want to be. As my supervisor says, “It’s people coming together to take their future in their hands.”

If you’d like to learn how to bring a What’s Next initiative to your community, join us for a workshop in Summersville, West Virginia on July 25. Learn more and register here.

This workshop will help you learn about organizing and moderating public discussions, so that people from varying walks of life can talk and work together to build the kind of community they want.

Brittany Means Carowick is an Appalachian Transition Fellow at the West Virginia Center for Civic Life.
She has a Golden Horseshoe and a degree in Appalachian Studies, so she’s pretty much here to stay. Brittany lives in Charleston with her husband, Joseph. Her current pastimes include lying in the sun, making spreadsheets, and challenging classist establishments while at the same time trying to join them. You can find her on Twitter.

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