We’re the experts, West Virginia

Kelli Caseman, Executive Director

Who narrates the world? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I was first asked it in a workshop sponsored by The OpEd Project in December. It crept up in my thoughts again a few weeks ago when remembering the anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Disaster. I still think about whether Governor Arch Moore’s decision to ban journalists from the area– from one of the worst disasters in West Virginia history– was in the best interest of those families who suffered such sudden, catastrophic loss. And I continue to wonder: Who narrates West Virginia’s story?

Since we launched Think Kids last year, I’ve sat on a handful of committees and in workshops sponsored by national organizations to discuss the opioid epidemic. Specifically, we strategize how to reduce drug use and the rippling effect it has on children. Most of my fellow attendees are researchers. We often talk in terms of evidence-based interventions. To be honest, it’s sometimes surreal. It’s strange to talk about people– from a particular place, experiencing a particular problem– without talking with them. Often, those considered the most educated to speak to a crisis are people who had never experienced the problem themselves. They’ve studied it, not experienced it.

And so, is it their story to tell? To fix?

To be honest, I often wonder the same thing when I work with institutions here in our own state. Every so often, large bureaucratic systems like the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and the West Virginia Department of Education hold focus groups. The intent is to listen to the challenges community members face, then adapt work plans or policy priorities to better address community needs.

To be sure, their intent is good. But try and take an objective view of this dynamic for a moment. You’re a parent who struggles with addiction. You rely on WVDHHR for services. You have been called into the school for issues with your child before, maybe due to discipline issues or absenteeism. Now, you’ve been asked to come to a one-time, one-hour community meeting to discuss the challenges you face with these systems. Would you honestly share the details of your lived experiences, or would you be fearful that these very systems in which you rely will discredit your complaints, deny your services, or potentially work to have your children removed? Would you feel trusted and valued enough by these systems to take that risk?

Because of this power dynamic, can these systems accurately capture, reflect, and respond to the stories of West Virginia’s drug crisis?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because I believe that the ripple effect that this current drug crisis has had on younger generations of West Virginians far surpasses that of the Buffalo Creek Disaster. This is the disaster they are inheriting. While we have good reporters covering the story of the opioid epidemic in our state, many of our children and families directly experiencing the ravages of this crisis continue to go unheard. Without meaningfully listening to what they’re experiencing, how can we then meaningfully respond?

Over the last year, Think Kids has worked on a project to engage communities in a six-county region to listen, articulate, and elevate their thoughts in what we, as communities and a state, need to do to address the unmet needs of kids affected by the drug crisis. There’s something really admirable and beautiful in people wanting to bring the sense of community back to their communities.

These people are the experts— not national research institutions, not state bureaucracies, but those whose lived experiences can inform and illuminate our path out of this terrible disaster. They should be the voices that narrate the story of West Virginia’s drug crisis. Let’s give them the platform and safe space to tell their stories.

And then, let’s work to ensure they have the funding, expertise, and resources needed to take those critical next steps.

Kelli is the executive director of Think Kids.