Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Restoration Stewardship of People and Land by Local Cooperation

…he didn’t know it existed until he became involved in protecting the watershed.  And the heart of that gem is definitely the waterfalls, he said.

These words, quoted from the Fall, 2013 issue of my WVU Magazine describe the reaction of Tom Sopher, a city councilman and president of the Raleigh County Historical Society when he became involved in an effort to secure legal access to a 3-acre tract of public land for the City of Beckley, West Virginia.   Accomplishing this goal would not be easy because the land was being held under a private claim made 8 years earlier.  Sopher and other community leaders realized they needed help from outside the Beckley community.

In order to secure legal claim to the beautiful tract, Beckley officials followed the advisement of Jeremiah Johnson, general manager of the sanitary board, to contact the West Virginia University (WVU) College of Law’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic (LUSD Clinic).  According to the LUSD Clinic website, the clinic provides legal services to local governments, landowners and non-profit organizations to develop land conservation strategies and practices.  WVU law students who participate in the clinic gain practical experience in the field of land use law and policy  Guided by experienced attorneys and other land use professionals, students contribute to land and water conservation efforts throughout the state.

Remains of 1800’s gristmill on Piney Creek, Beckley, WV
Photo:  M.G. Ellis, WVU Magazine
The research by the WVU law students and their mentors led to the discovery that Beckley had owned and continued to own the 3-acre tract.  Furthermore, the parcel was home to a waterfall of beautiful Piney Creek which had powered a gristmill commissioned in the mid-1800’s by Alfred Beckley, founder of the city.  The WVU LUSD Clinic report made Beckley community leaders even more convinced of the importance of the Piney Creek property for its potential in watershed protection, aesthetic beauty, recreational value, and historic significance.   Details of this cooperative effort are recounted in the Fall, 2013 issue of WVU Magazine and the larger context of community development of Beckley, WV is presented at the attractive website of the City of Beckley.

Now, let’s travel an hour north of Beckley on I-77 to the West Side of Charleston, WV where Rev. Matthew J. Watts serves as pastor of Grace Bible Church.  According to an article by Jake Stump published in WVU Magazine entitled “West Virginia’s West Side Rising,” this part of the city of Charleston has a varied history.  The West Side community thrived after the abolition of slavery.  In fact, during the first half of the twentieth century, African-Americans owned a large percentage of the area’s businesses.  Washington Street is described as a bustling corridor and the educational system was in sturdy shape.

When well intended desegregation policies were instituted in the 1960’s, the West Side prosperity was decimated by the closure of black schools and black-owned businesses.  The departure of professionals robbed the community of entrepreneurs and spiritual role models, leading to poverty of body, soul, and spirit.  Rev. Watts arrived in the late 1970’s as the West Side was falling victim to the effects of crack cocaine and related violence.  After more than four decades, the community still suffers.  Forty percent of children live in poverty and the elementary schools rank among West Virginia worst.

Rev. Matthew Watts gives WVU officials a tour of the West Side.
Photo: Brian Persinger, WVU Magazine
West Virginia University Chief Diversity Officer, David M. Fryson, grew up on the West Side and earned his law degree from the WVU College of Law.   Fryson remembers the plight of his former community and therefore, was very receptive to partnering with Rev. Watts’ church and nonprofit groups like HOPE Community Development Corporation to “reinvent” the West Side of Charleston, WV.   The result is a partnership that recognizes the need for the professional interdisciplinary expertise and fresh perspective of a land-grant university combined with committed community leaders who can supply the vision of what they would like the community to become.  According to Fryson and Watts as cited in the WVU Magazine article,

Some possibilities include having Chancellor’s Scholars tutor children and involving the University’s urban design team in renovating buildings…  …the School of Public Health and the WVU Extension Service, specifically its Energy Express program, could also play effective roles in revitalizing the West Side. Energy Express is an eight-week summer reading and nutrition program for children...

Rev. Watts is optimistic about the partnership among community nonprofits, WVU, and other entities to revitalize the West Side.  He is particularly confident in David Fryson’s leadership, saying,

He knows that there’s tremendous potential in the population.  He always articulated about this mosaic quilt of humanity and how tapping into all of that diverse talent would make all of us better.

From my summary of the two WVU Magazine articles, we can see that Beckley and Charleston West Side are two very different communities with different histories and current needs.  But both are awakening to the awareness of their potential and are seeking ways to bring expertise and resources together to develop and strengthen their respective communities.  Whether it is watershed conservation, or preserving a historical site, or reviving a decimated human community, a common theme is restoration.  As the two accounts in WVU Magazine suggest, restoration starts with individuals in a community who identify elements that have great value – a beautiful stream and watershed, a historical site, a once bustling community, and the people living in strong families within community. 

Once a community realizes elements of value, a second theme should undergird restoration efforts; namely, stewardship. For example, the City of Beckley cannot go out and create a watershed or duplicate beautiful Piney Creek.  Instead, community leaders have worked with students and faculty of the WVU LUSD Clinic to resolve wastewater problems and develop land use planning consistent with good stewardship of the landscape as it exists. Likewise, the West Side case illustrates the importance of stewarding the sense of community by spiritual and educational renewal.  Instead of simply seeking a pipeline for state or federal monies, Rev. Watts, along with his church and the nonprofit organizations mentioned above, has partnered with Rev. James Ealy, a city councilman who helps oversee a local community center with his wife.  They, along with other West Side church leaders and laymen recognize the importance of stewardship of biblical principles and their transforming power in the human soul.  It is through redeemed human souls that God can bring about true human flourishing and community restoration.

At a time when many in Washington may be learning that hastily crafted federal programs costing billions can fall far short of their well intended goals, it is refreshing to read that my alma mater, WVU, is serving the state of West Virginia and local communities.  Furthermore, it is gratifying that WVU is doing so, not by prescribing an ivory tower vision of what communities should be.  Instead, energetic students and faculty come to a community with a willingness to listen to spiritual and civic leaders and to understand he vision of each community before offering ideas and resources needed to accomplish real change in individuals and community.

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