Wicked Problems in West Virginia

I spent two days this week at Shepherd University in West Virginia. My colleagues  Lin Wells and Mike Hieb of George Mason University had been asked by Mary Hendrix, Shepherd’s new president to help her state deal with its well known cluster of wicked problems, including poverty, the dying coal industry, the opiate epidemic, widespread frustration, environmental decay, and more. We were asked because Lin is developing a global ;project he calls BROCADE (Building Resilient Opportunities in Culturally Aware, Diverse Environments). He had assumed it would start with pilot projects in the Global South, but President Hendrix convinced us to start with West Virginia. Even though my own expertise lies in peacebuilding and international politics, I tagged along.imgres

I was, frankly, amazed by the initiatives that are already under way there. Our small group of 20 or so worked through dozens of problems ranging from the lack of safe drinking water to the lack of broadband access in much of the state. Of the ideas we considered, two projects stand out.

First is the Martinsburg Initiative which brings together the police department, school officials, Shepherd University faculty, local clergy, and more to address the growing opiate crisis that is sweeping the state and much of rural and small town America. The project is an attempt to address the root causes of the opiate problem at one of its most important points–youth. As new Police Chief, Mayry Richards, put it just before he took office, “West Virginia’s really leading the way in a whole new holistic way to fight this drug problem,” So, he and his partners developed a protocol to help them identify middle school children whose families were at risk of opiate use and the other social problems that frequently come with it, including spousal abuse, alcoholism, smoking, lack of support for education, and so on. The project has only been underway  for a couple of months, but it already shows signs of engaging the entire community in dealing with a problem that has so far defied solution throughout the country.


Second is the West Virginia Hub and its dynamic young leader Stephanie Tyree. Like many West Virginians, Stephanie left the state to go to college and law school. After a few years away, she finally found a way to return–as so many young  West Virginians now want to do. She and the Hub are made for each other. As its web site says, “The WV Hub is a statewide, non-profit organization that helps communities come together to set goals for their future and connects them to the rich network of resources they need to meet those goals. In our network there are resources for convening community conversations, training community leaders, building infrastructure, fostering health life styles, and improving community life. Based in Charleston, the Hub raises money and trains people on the ground who can at least make a dent in the problems facing the southern part of the state which has been most deeply affected by the so-called “end of coal.”

I was struck, too, by the role Shepherd University hopes to play in its state’s revival. I’ve spent most of my career at high end academic institutions and enjoyed just about every minute of it. However, it will be schools like Shepherd that will be the vehicles that helps the next generation of less than privileged young people achieve the American dream–if they achieve it at all. Whether it is in the classroom with its new Appalachian studies major or in community service as in the Martinsburg Initiative, it is hard not to be impressed by what this cash-strapped college is hoping to accomplish.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

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