One of the best parts about working for The Rockefeller Foundation is the amazing people I get to meet. I recently got to know Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, and Stephanie Tyree, executive director of The West Virginia Community Development Hub. We teamed up to bring together more than 25 of their colleagues from across the state to discuss common challenges—from a dearth of good jobs to access to affordable, healthy food—and how nonprofits, business, government, and communities are working together to make things better.
I was blown away by how innovative and bold the leaders I met were. While I couldn’t bring the whole Rockefeller Foundation network into our workshop, I asked Natalie and Stephanie to sit down with me for an interview so that I could share some of their great insights.
Rachel Korberg: You are both executive directors of leading nonprofits in West Virginia. Tell us a little bit about your work and what you’re trying to achieve.
Natalie Roper: Young people won’t stay in a place without a job or in a place that they don’t like. Generation West Virginia aims to create jobs, build quality of place, and educate lawmakers on policies that will help to attract and retain young talent.
Our “Impact West Virginia Fellowship” is one way we try to achieve this. We connect fellows to local companies where they work for four days a week, with the fifth day spent volunteering in the community. This is our first year doing the program, and it was oversubscribed by applicants and employers.
On the policy side, I’m excited to have recently helped pass our first piece of broadband legislation, allowing people to form cooperatives to bring affordable broadband internet to hard-to-reach places.
Rachel Korberg: I know brunch is also a policy priority…
Natalie: People want to live in places where they have fun things to do, and brunch—or restaurants being able to serve alcohol on Sundays—is part of that! It is going to take all of these things, brunch and broadband, to make West Virginia a great place for young people to live and work.
Stephanie Tyree: The West Virginia Community Development Hub was developed in response to the question: Why, despite substantial investments, does West Virginia continue to rank near the bottom in so many quality of life measurements?
Part of the answer is that we need to align our splintered community development efforts and better support community leaders. Since 2009, the Hub has been working with small communities to help them identify leaders, set goals—whether to develop a local food system or restore a historic downtown—and connect with the wide network of public, private, and nonprofit resources.
Rachel: I have to call out and celebrate the fact that you are both women and also both executive directors. How does gender play out in your work?
Stephanie: Interestingly, in the nonprofit world in West Virginia, I see a lot of female leadership. But I also see a lot of women leading either as volunteers or being paid very low wages for their work.
Legislative decision making in the State is overwhelmingly led by men. We have very low rates of female elected officials. This just means, like anywhere else, as a woman you have to show up and work harder.
Natalie: One of the reasons I love living and working in this state is that I feel incredibly surrounded by rock star young women who see this place as unfinished and are leading the charge to reach its full potential.
Rachel: Coal country, Appalachia, and really all of the rural United States have received a lot of media attention since the 2016 elections. Most of the stories are pretty negative, focusing on job loss, desperation, or addiction. How is this affecting your work? What are the stories you would like to see told?
Natalie: The opioid epidemic is real and devastating. However, it is only part of the story. By focusing narrowly on that, we risk leaving a whole lot out.
The narrative I want to see being told is about people coming together—sometimes over brunch—and asking: “What do you wish we had here?” And then going out and making it happen! The people here are doers and believe in the potential of this place.
Stephanie: The truth is that the challenges are real, massive, and critical—and they need to be covered. Many of them have root causes that are global in nature and cannot be solved at the local level alone. But at the Hub, we feel hopeful and positive about the work and progress happening locally.
Rachel: Stephanie, I would love for you to share a success story with us.
Stephanie: Of course! We’ve been working with a coal mining community in Grafton, West Virginia for four years. The community was facing significant population decline, and when we came in the majority of the main street was empty, the town was in a general state of dilapidation, and the community leaders were skeptical that anything could change.
Our role is often to serve as a community coach. We work to identify and support community teams and local leaders. In Grafton, the first major project was to tear down an abandoned building in the middle of the street and build a public space in its place. Today, in addition to hosting community events, it is a place where folks gather to discuss how to improve Grafton.
Learn more about Natalie and Stephanie’s work here: Generation West Virginia and The West Virginia Community Development Hub. A huge thank you to Kin Ship Goods for hosting our workshop in their beautiful space!
*Edited to reduce length.