By Always Free WV Advisory Committee Member, Kendra Fershee
I moved to West Virginia seven years ago, over the strenuous objections of pretty much everyone I know who has never lived in or visited West Virginia. I have to admit, the only things I’d ever heard about West Virginia -- news stories and bad jokes, mostly -- were pretty awful. But then I visited my future home for a job interview and I was struck, almost immediately, by how wrong that reputation is. It’s easy to see the beauty here, in the place and in the people. But perception is more important than reality, and the perception of West Virginia in other states is often about as bad as it gets. And after another round of horrible news stories coming out of Charleston last week, highlighting some West Virginians’ ignorant attacks on our Muslim neighbors, unfortunately, we’ve slipped farther from turning the tide on that reputation.
There are people who spew hatred everywhere in the United States, and there are people working harder and smarter at fighting injustice in West Virginia than anywhere else. So how did we become the butt of the awful jokes? How come the news we make is so often cringe-worthy? It’s not really fair that we are so often the poster child for negative publicity because we are not alone in our faults and we are uniquely magnificent in many ways. But as we stray further from our values of warmth and neighborliness toward division and fear, we sink deeper into the narrative of despair.
The good news is that we can change this narrative. In fact, we are the only ones who can change it. West Virginians, whether their family has been here for generations or they put down new roots yesterday, are the most knowledgeable, hardworking, and passionate people in America. We are West Virginians, and we condemn the hate, thank our Muslim neighbors who immediately went to Charleston to remind us who West Virginians really are, and we welcome new neighbors to our gorgeous state. Because we know how special this place is, and keeping it all to ourselves isn’t very neighborly, now is it?