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‘A Partnership that Works’: An Interview with Gayle Manchin, Federal Co-Chair of the ARC

In May 2021, Gayle Conelly Manchin became the Thirteenth Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

By Ron Roach

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC, the Commission) is a regional economic development agency representing a unique partnership of federal, state, and local governments. Established by an act of Congress in 1965, the Commission is composed of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states and a federal co-chair, who is appointed by the president. ARC’s mission is to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia.

The legislation establishing the Appalachian Regional Commission defines Appalachia as a 206,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. The Appalachian Region includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Appalachia is home to 26 million people.

In May 2021 Gayle Conelly Manchin was sworn in as the Appalachian Regional Commission’s (ARC) thirteenth federal co-chair, becoming the first ARC federal co-chair from West Virginia. Nominated by President Biden, Manchin works directly with ARC’s 13 member governors, their state alternates and program managers, and a network of local development districts to continue to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth throughout Appalachia. 

An alumna of West Virginia University, Manchin worked as an educator in Marion County Schools and served on the faculty of Fairmont State University, where she was director of the university’s first Community Service Learning Program. She directed the AmeriCorps Promise Fellows in West Virginia between 2000-2004 and implemented a statewide initiative, WV Partnerships to Assure Student Success. Manchin served as West Virginia’s First Lady between 2005-2010 and was appointed to serve as a member of the State Board of Education, serving as president during her last two years on the board. She was the chair of the Board for Reconnecting McDowell, Inc., an AFT initiative serving rural West Virginia, is a past president of the Vandalia Rotary Club of Charleston and an emeritus member of The Education Alliance. She also served as cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Office of Education and the Arts.

Manchin has stated that her top priorities as she begins her role as ARC federal co-chair are to support the creation of economic opportunities in the Appalachian Region, improve broadband access and critical infrastructure in Appalachian communities, and address the Region’s opioid crisis.

Growing up in Appalachia, were there people who were major influences or role models in your life, who encouraged you to pursue education and the leadership roles you have taken on?

Obviously, one of the influences in my life was my mother, who was not from West Virginia but from Asheville, North Carolina, which is also part of the Appalachian region. I often talk about her as being a strong woman in her own right, and certainly an influence on me. I realize that I'm still talking about the resilient, resourceful people, women and men, that lived throughout Appalachia, and what a difference they have made in this part of the world. I will also tell you that going to school was an influence. I love school. And they do say that you tend to veer toward a profession that exemplifies something that you love, and I always loved being in school. I love learning. I love exploring new subjects. So, I think my whole interest around teaching certainly evolved from my love of school. And I look back on so many great teachers that I had, who I'm sure made a difference in decisions and choices that I made throughout my career, and certainly once I got into college.

You obviously spent much of your career as an educator, so could you reflect on your time as a teacher, whether in K-12 teaching or in postsecondary education?

I truly enjoyed my experiences in the K-12 education system. I got my master’s degree in Reading because what fascinated me, even as I was teaching in the schools, was how children learn to read, how they process reading, and how they comprehend reading. And so, that always fascinated me—how people learn to read—how for some it is so easy and for others, it's so very difficult. When I got my master’s, I was recruited to come to Fairmont State and teach reading and writing to those students who, because of their SAT test or ACT test, were not qualified to go into English 101. I was fascinated and also frustrated, that many of these students had been in an honors English program, and yet they could not qualify for English 101. I found that students were having a great deal of difficulty expressing themselves and in writing a five-paragraph essay. I thoroughly enjoyed working with these students, and many of them continued to come back to me as they went on through college. I would critique papers for them, or they would just come back to have a conversation, because one of the things that really impressed me about Fairmont State is that we were like a big family. We worked at building personal relationships with our students, getting to know them, working with them. And I found also that not all college freshmen are 18 years old, right? We have a lot of students that come back to school, anywhere from 18 to 28 or 30 years of age or more. So, these developmental programs, not only in reading and writing but also in math, are very beneficial to students who have been out of school for a few years and really need that refresher course to get them back up to speed to tackle college-level courses.

Now that you've had a little time to get acclimated to your new role, do you have any thoughts about your vision for the Appalachian Regional Commission or on particular areas of emphasis that you have in mind?

Living in West Virginia all of my life I had worked with ARC from the other side of the picture, writing grants and looking for ways that they might support projects that I was working in. It's just wonderful, the whole concept of the Appalachian Regional Commission, of this partnership between the local, the state, and the federal government. The fact that I'm called the Federal Co-chair and next to that position is the State Co-chair, who is a governor from one of the 13 states. Each year, the governors elect whom they would like to serve as their representative for that year. So, it's never been seen as a single entity or a single person. It's always been a partnership that works from the ground up and I think that's absolutely critical, and I think that has certainly been the success of the ARC. Now, what I have realized is that the states work very independently but I also keep telling them that all of the states must work together. We are not called the Thirteen States of Appalachia, we're called the Appalachian Regional Commission. I believe that we will be much more effective and successful if we work regionally, if our states reach out to each other and work together in multi-state projects and across state lines. This year, particularly, there is a greater influx of funding at all levels. Every agency has been given more money this year, with a real focus on coal-impacted communities, poverty, isolated areas — these regions of which ARC is one of the prime examples. If we work together to lift up the entire region, it will make all of our states better. So that is the message that I keep delivering. I think that as they have begun talking to each other more, they're beginning to see how much they have in common with some of the projects that they're working on, whether it's outdoor tourism or agriculture, that there's so many areas — How you're going to develop your abandoned mine sites? — all of these we share in common and we're all looking for ways to do it better. And so, why not work together? Why not share our ideas? Blend our money, make our projects bigger and then our outcomes will be bigger.

Note: To gain a full overview of ARC priorities for the region, please see its 2022-2026 Strategic Plan: Appalachia Envisioned: A New Era of Opportunity.

In my years of working with ARC, I've seen the Commission seem to become more open to the idea of health issues in Appalachia as being central to economic and workforce development. Do you have any thoughts about ARC’s work in that area?

I have said from the get-go, and I'm sure this is because of my background in education, that when we talk about workforce development, we're talking about people, right? This is not a thing. It's individual people, and we have to look at people. Holistically, education is certainly the foundation in the framework with which you begin workforce development. But it is health, the physical and mental health of people, that determines how well they'll be able to do in training and in getting the education that they need to do the job. So, we have to look at all aspects, and certainly the epidemic with opioids and addiction. The issues around addiction have been overwhelming to the Appalachian region. It’s interesting that the poorer the area, the more isolated the area, it seems like the greater the addiction and opioid crisis is. And sometimes that makes it more difficult to deal with. But it is critical that we start creating these programs, and what we believe here at ARC is that it is a continuum. It's not just about rehabilitation. It is about supporting that person through rehabilitation, then training into a job, with continued counseling and support until that person is really established on a path to a career. So, what we have given that person is hope; we've given them a sense of purpose and they have become a contributing member of the community, when before they were a liability to the community. Now they are actually a productive force in that community. And they know that, and they appreciate that they have been able to grow with that support. But it takes not only the health care agencies; it takes judicial agencies, it takes our educational community, and our business community to understand that they need to give these people a second chance. And we also must support them as they are going through continued counseling and working through these issues. It's just amazing when you see these people — women who have lost their children and who are able to regain their children and support a family with a good job and feel purposeful and productive again. That is a great gift. They are part of our workforce — every time we say “workforce,” we are talking about these individuals that have been supported, not only in their educational efforts but also in any surrounding efforts, whether it's health, mental, whatever crisis they have faced in their lives, and that we have found ways to support them through it.

For some years I have had the privilege of directing the Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP), which is made possible by an ARC grant. I want to thank the ARC and especially Director of Research and Planning Kostas Skordas and his team for their support of the ATP. It is a wonderful program that gets college students into their communities, providing leadership experience, and also connecting our universities to communities and to the ARC. You were able to participate in part of our Student Research Forum last fall and I wonder if you have any thoughts about that program as you have learned more about it?

Yes, and above and beyond the connections from the project itself to our universities and communities, what a great way for young people to learn more about the history and culture of the heritage of the Appalachian region. When I speak at high school commencements, I talk to students about understanding and appreciating the strength of character that their forefathers, their great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents had to have in order to cross those mountains in western Virginia and actually establish a homestead in what was very rugged terrain. Yet they did that and survived and then, of course, built an industry around what was found in the mountains of West Virginia, which was coal. But they did — they worked hard, and they established communities and families, and I think that part of this culture for young people is to help them understand where they came from. And how that is a part of them, whether they feel like one of the old mountaineers or not. But that is part of their DNA: a strong sense of character, value systems, family being very important, gathering around a table eating together. It was all about these traditions and this culture that we don't want to lose. So, in the Appalachian Teaching Project, not only are we developing good leaders in many arenas, but we're also going back to that sense of who we are, where we've been, where we are now, and where we want to go in the future. Protecting and preserving the beauty of our culture yet attaining parity with the rest of the country in order to globally connect; having the technology and the entrepreneurship to compete in a global economy without losing the history and culture of who we are. You know, we have grown up in a world that has made fun of Appalachia and so kids sometimes have been embarrassed to say where they're from. Young people should never be embarrassed about coming from the Appalachian region because they come from strong stock, from good DNA.

Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for young people in the region, particularly young girls who may be looking up to you as a role model?

We have come a long way, but we have a ways to go. We stand on the shoulders of so many strong women that came before us, that really have opened doors and made the path wider. So, it has been much easier for us and we are gaining more parity. I mean, we obviously finally got the right to vote and now have celebrated 100 years of that. But when you look at pay, when you look at what women deal with in the workplace today in terms of childcare, there are still issues that we need to deal with. But I think women have a stronger sense of purpose and a stronger sense of what's fair and will stand up and be more independent about fighting for those things together. So, I'm very hopeful and feel very good about the young people coming up, that women realize they can be and do anything they set their mind to. And that there are many more people out there today who will support that and help them meet their goals and their dreams.

Is there anything that we haven't touched on that you would like our readers to know?

Well, I would like to say that particularly, again, for women but this goes across the board, that while we have all had great people to look up to and to follow in their path, that we need to always remember that there are people behind us that are looking to us to be that model. And we may not realize it sometimes, so in things that we're saying and doing it's important to know that there's somebody back there that thinks you're special, that if you think something, it must be great, and if you're doing something, it's the right thing to do. So, we need to continue to be mindful, as we are moving forward in our lives, that we are a good example to the young men and women that are coming behind us. In my life I've had what I feel are a series of adventures — my husband says that I didn't know it, but I was actually training for this job throughout my life. So, I said, “Well, I'm just very thankful that I have lived long enough to get to do this job.” I'm very proud and very appreciative to have the opportunity to work throughout the Appalachian region because I have always said that the most beautiful part of Appalachia is the beauty of the land and the beauty of the people. And I feel very fortunate to be a part of that community.

Ron Roach, is Chair and Professor of the Department of Appalachian Studies and Director of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University. He serves as Co-Editor of Appalachian Places.


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