Reconnecting McDowell dedicates new housing

It’s been a long and winding road, but Renaissance Village—a sleek, union-built complex of teacher housing and retail shops—is open for business. More than a decade in the making and part of a massive AFT-led campaign called Reconnecting McDowell, the four-story building is a beacon of new enterprise and hope for its community in rural West Virginia.

Ribbon Cutting, McDowell County

A big crowd of dignitaries and residents of McDowell County turned out for an official ribbon-cutting June 10, with praise heaped on the Reconnecting McDowell partners for seeing it through. Not only have the 100-plus partners produced apartments and shops to anchor Welch, the county seat, but they also have drummed up grants to promote early literacy, mentor students through high school and college, provide internet access, hold health fairs and vaccine clinics, bolster the local economy and strengthen families.

In introducing AFT President Randi Weingarten, AFT West Virginia President Fred Albert expressed pride in his former students and admiration for Weingarten: “You talk about a proud heart,” he said.

Weingarten reflected on the hard times that overtook McDowell County as the region’s coal industry subsided. In some ways, the rest of the nation has caught up with McDowell’s tough circumstances, she said. But there’s hope, she added, describing how, through partnership, people who look, talk and think differently can band together to fulfill their dreams and aspirations. Renaissance Village, she said, is a symbol of renewal.

“We knew as we honored the old economy of coal—not abandoned it, not said it was useless but honored it—[that we could create] a new way, a new economy,” Weingarten said. She added her own hope that the partners would turn their collaboration into a way of life.

Gayle Manchin, the state’s former first lady and president of the state board of education, who is now co-chair of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, was the impetus behind Reconnecting McDowell and Renaissance Village.

“This is an important day,” she said. She described the terrible teacher attrition that motivated her: “You know, when you walk into a classroom of children, and you do a little roundtable with them, they ask: ‘Why do people not like us? Why do teachers not want to be at our school? We try to do what they ask us to do. We’re trying to be really good. We want to keep our teachers.’ But teachers don’t stay.” They leave for better pay and working conditions, she said, and the children feel the blame.

Manchin spoke of the student supports, enrichment activities and wraparound services that children need. She recalled someone asking her, “If it takes a village to raise a child, who raises the village?”

Hand over heart and choking up at times, Manchin simply said, “Thank you.”

‘No broken promises’

Federal, state and local officials joined in the celebration, as did students who graduated from Reconnecting McDowell’s mentoring and scholarship programs.

One such student was Nadia Johnson, who graduated from Mount View High School in 2017 and has returned to her school as a Communities in Schools facilitator. Part of her reason for coming back to McDowell was her gratitude for the Broader Horizons mentoring program for high school students.

“I’m very excited and eager to be a part of this journey,” Johnson said. “Now being a tenant of this new building, I am thankful for the vision that led to its being built. And I am thankful even more for the goal that was reached, that there were no broken promises along the way.”

Sometimes we only see the past, Johnson said. “This building right here provides us with a newness, a chance to rebuild and unite, not only in the city of Welch but in McDowell County as a whole.”

Welch Mayor Harold McBride honored the late Mayor Reba Honaker for envisioning the city’s revival. “This building is more than a building,” he said, thanking all those who contributed to it.

The AFT’s Bob Brown, who oversaw the construction of Renaissance Village, served as emcee for the event. He noted that when the Reconnecting McDowell board voted to build Renaissance Village, it had $40,000 in the bank to construct a $9 million building using all-union labor. He thanked the AFL-CIO for its years of commitment to the project. He also thanked the architect and builders. Constructed during the pandemic when some of the materials quadrupled in price, the project nonetheless came in on budget.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) described watching Renaissance Village evolve from dream to possibility to fruition. “Who says dreams don’t come true?” he asked. “This is truly a time for us to say thank you.”

The senator also had something to say about public education and teaching.

“Public education is threatened,” he said. “I’ve never seen it threatened more than I see it today.” Candidates for teaching have many career opportunities, he warned, while teacher pay remains low. “This should be the highest calling of all: education. And teachers should be held at the pinnacle of society.” Their pay should reflect that, he said.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice also thanked the partners of Reconnecting McDowell. “There’s many different people who put in lotsa, lotsa licks to make this happen,” he said. “At the end of the day, they got it done.”

Reading Opens the World

McDowell County, WV
After the thanks, the ribbon-cutting for Renaissance Village began, followed by lunch for all at its new café and a Reading Opens the World family literacy event, which kicked off a distribution of 40,000 new books for kids from birth through high school. Weingarten read to the children, joined by their school’s therapy dog, Coal. This event was just one of several Reading Opens the World activities happening this week as part of the AFT’s campaign to distribute 1 million free books, along with literacy resources, to families, educators, school staff and community groups.

The book distribution would continue through the weekend festivities, including Welch’s second annual barbecue cook-off, explained Reconnecting McDowell stalwart Debra Elmore. The books will power children’s reading through the summer, not only at home but with “book nooks” at city halls and health departments throughout the county.

Just before the ribbon-cutting, Weingarten addressed elected leaders who were not present that day. “Support our teachers,” she urged. “Look at what they did—don’t undermine them. Support them. They want to help all kids succeed.”

She then asked the partners of Reconnecting McDowell to plan for what’s next—for instance, pathways to technical education through internships and apprenticeships in fields like solar energy, tourism or cyber.

“This is a start, not an ending,” she said. “Public education is the way to heal, the way to create opportunity.”

[Annette Licitra / Alexandra Palombo photos]