I chose West Virginia, but she chose me too.
By Brittney Barlett
Those of you who have breathed and bathed in the West Virginia hills since birth have never experienced the utter majesty of traveling into this stunning state for the first time. I was 19 when I took a trip with my college friend and now-husband to celebrate the Fourth of July with his family outside of Weston. The fireflies, the fireworks, the freedom – it captured me to my very core. Years later and two months into our relationship in Columbus, Ohio, I told my now-husband that if he ever wanted to move to West Virginia I would be right there beside him. And three months later at the age of 24, we became residents of Lewis County and will remain so for the rest of our lives.
I’ve lived in Amish country, industrial booming northwestern Ohio, and electrifying downtown Columbus. But nothing holds my heart so much as these country roads. I may have grown up elsewhere, but I chose West Virginia as my home.
It didn’t take long for me to start engaging in the community in a way I had never done in my life. City council meetings, board of education hearings, volunteer groups, and service project after service project have occupy all of my free time. I help manage the 24-bed Jane Lew Community Garden, chair the annual National Night Out event at the Lewis County Park, clean and paint the curbs of Weston’s downtown streets, collect litter for the Bob Ramsey Memorial Adopt-a-Highway, build and stock Little Free Libraries…the list continues.
And I do it beside a team of amazing individuals as passionate and dedicated as myself. Our community is filled with selfless people who say hello to anyone they see, who ask you to come sit on their porch and give you sweet (and I mean SWEET) tea whether you want it or not, who dig for the last nickels in their pocket to donate when their neighbor’s house burns or floods or falls.
But West Virginia isn’t entirely idyllic. I learned this fact when I began teaching.
West Virginia schools are…well, there aren’t really words. They employ superheroes and superheroines, from bus drivers to custodians to aides to teachers to technology integration specialists to principals to secretaries to counselors to speech pathologists to psychologists to directors to superintendents.
The phrase “it takes a village” has never been more apt. “That’s Mandi, her mother died of cancer last week.” “Gavin has autism and lives in the group home so if he is sitting outside school afterwards let us know, he sometimes tries to hide here overnight.” “Heather was homeless living in a tent this summer and Greg made fun of her so that’s why she keeps throwing books at him.” “If you see any marks on Trent’s arms just be sure to bring it to our attention.” The reality of my students’ pain weighs so heavily on my soul it took me two years to stop crying each and every night on my drive home.
So when someone asks why a 28-year-old like me has been so “loud” during these teacher strikes, the answer is simple: because advocating for students is the right thing to do.
The GOP leadership took art lessons over the last year from some expensive messaging consultants and learned how to paint us in the media. Greedy. Selfish. Lazy. Afraid of competition. Afraid of being fired. Afraid of change. But when you’ve seen what’s at stake, those false narratives don’t stick. We aren’t afraid of anything except allowing our students to continue to suffer at the hands of the real greedy, selfish and lazy – those anti-education elected “leaders” sitting in the leather and wooden chairs on the Senate and House floors.
I have received countless messages of encouragement from my friends and family in Ohio, from long-lost friends across the continent or former foreign exchange students in Brazil and Germany and China. People I don’t even know in Charleston offered me a bed to sleep in free of charge, with breakfast in the morning and fresh coffee, and when we came home at night, a bottle of vodka set out on the counter just in case. The doorman at the House floor – James – let us slouch against the wall when the galleries were full and came to get us when the first spots opened up. The secretaries in Jim Justice’s office dutifully wrote down every word we asked them to relay and added it to theangry mountain that had already been filed. Tricky Fish turned on the live stream on the Senate floor as a room full of teachers listened as they hastily ate their food because there was no room at the Capitol’s cafeteria. The information desk gave us booklets that had a roster of our elected officials and we sat and studied them, Googling their voting records and sitting outside their offices, often for hours, just to have them brush past us on their way to another committee meeting with a “sorry you had to wait”. We handed out bandages, bottles of water, umbrellas, printed copies of SB451, helped people find their way to the bathroom as we had on our first day.
We learned. We learned that the West Virginia Senate Republicans do not truly care to advance education in the state. And they learned that we won’t give up.
I chose West Virginia as my home. I chose it because it is beautiful and welcoming and has the potential to grow into the most successful state in the union. But West Virginia has not yet chosen to reach that potential. Our political slate is fraught with corruption. From ALEC defunding public education, to pharmaceutical companies pumping millions of pills into tiny towns, to big energy convincing our leaders that our obesity allows us to tolerate higher toxicity levels in our water, to unpaid millions in taxes by the richest man in our state who also happens to be governor, to our flood relief money being embezzled as families devastated by this disaster flounder without a future…and yet I still choose West Virginia as my home.
My friends and family ask me why I haven’t moved back to Ohio, but the answer is simple: because staying is the right thing to do.
West Virginia needs people to expose the corruption. She needs people to stand up and stand together and stand on the right side of history. We teachers are those people. We started something. We ignited a fire in the working people across the country and across the world that hasn’t burned this bright since people lost their lives in these mountains to the mining barons of old. West Virginia teachers did that, beside department of highway employees and corrections officers and state policemen and the UMWA and AFL-CIO and the guy who dropped coffee off to us in the snow with a thumbs up and the tiny old lady who slowed down just to honk longer as we shivered and shouted on the corner of the street.
We learned. We learned that the legislators DON’T learn. But we also learned that the people of West Virginia can come together to create something universal and monumental, like a river shaping stone as the water flows to the sea.
But now with HB206 being signed into law by that same corrupt governor who promised us he would do no such thing, it feels like our shivering and shouting and choosing and learning was for nothing. It feels like a loss. A loss in a long game with referees bought and paid for with the blood of real West Virginians. A loss of hope for the future of our state. A loss of good teachers as they hang their heads, cross state borders and leave the most beautiful state in the union just to survive.
Yet I see this as a chance to choose again.
I chose West Virginia as my home, but what I didn’t realize is that she chose me, too. She gave me the fire to fight for my students and my community. Those same students and that same community are why I registered to run for the West Virginia House of Delegates in the 46th District. They’re why I’m meeting change makers from across the state and finding out that each and every one of us has the power to shape the course of West Virginia. We are the river and Capitol is the stone.
Addiction, poverty, joblessness, hopelessness, hopelessness – all are factors in educational outcomes. Our students can’t learn when they don’t have a bed, or a parent, or food, or the knowledge that they will survive the day. And while these factors might all impact education, they are also all symptoms of the stone-deep corruption pervading our West Virginia State Capitol. With pockets fully lined and serpent tongues freshly silvered our elected “leaders” continue painting, but the true leaders in this state know the truth. Montani Semper Liberi, no matter how hard those “leaders” may try to shackle us.
While everyone I have spoken to has been wholeheartedly supportive of my candidacy for the House of Delegates, I still get asked why I chose to run. As always, the answer is simple: because fighting corruption is the right thing to do.
Brittney Barlett is a resident of Lewis County and an English teacher at Buckhannon-Upshur High School. She is also President of Upshur County's AFT. She is a volunteer, advocate, activist and candidate for West Virginia's House of Delegates in the 46th District on the WV Can't Wait platform.