I grew up in two different worlds, the Eastern Panhandle and Maryland. As a result, I learned that I am not attracted to the suburban or city lifestyles. There is too much traffic and not enough nature. People don’t make eye contact. Gleaming glass structures lock in car exhaust and block out the natural world. It feels like a life of isolation and desperation.
I prefer life in the Eastern Panhandle. People smile and say hello to each other while walking down the street. I can easily strike up a conversation with a random stranger. People are not too busy to lend a helping hand. I can spend hours wandering the forests, enjoying the smell of morning dew, surrounded by the trees. My time in here is synonymous with nature, kindness, and community.
Attending Shepherd College was a great experience for me. I enjoyed the small town antics and found myself with a decision to make after graduation. I could either move back to Maryland and find employment in DC or stay in West Virginia. I decided to stay because the Eastern Panhandle and the community won my heart.
Each day, however, I see the barrage of negative stereotypes about my community. Martinsburg has had the nickname “Dirty Burg” for as long as I can remember. Jokes about poor dentition, incest and ignorance run rampant among my friends from other states. They do not see the strong and vibrant community that I do. I sometimes worry that our community cannot see it either. One of the Miburg members recently said “I think Martinsburg suffers from low self-esteem.” Sometimes I think she is right. Articles about drug use, poverty, low employment and other issues make excellent headlines for newspapers, but they help deliver a slow death to the positivity and hope for a community. Stereotypes, generalizations, and ideologies about West Virginians and our community are prevalent in our minds and history.
Branding is the creation of a feeling, an idea or ideology. Martinsburg, the Eastern Panhandle and West Virginia have a brand whether we like it or not. ”Little Baltimore” is a brand. What does a statement like this mean for Baltimore or Martinsburg? Baltimore is a great city, rich with history, culture and diversity. How does that community feel about being used as the barometer against which we measure our problems? What does it say about us and how we view ourselves and neighboring communities? Who should be in control of our brand?
Asking a community to focus on the positive does not mean ignoring the negative. Sweeping our problems under the rug is not an option. An early reader of Miburg expressed concern that we would ignore our problems and focus only on the positive, looking at our communities through rose colored glasses. That is not our mission.
I liken a community’s image to lemonade. A balance has to be found between the sour lemon and the sweetness of the sugar. Too much of either ruins the experience. The best lemonade strikes a balance between both. Are we seeking this balance in our own community? I feel like our lemonade is plenty sour. Highlighting the positive aspects and the people who work hard to make our home great is necessary for our collective well being.
A group comprised of three different organizations are working towards re-branding all of West Virginia. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities and the Center for Health and Safety Culture of Montana State University have come together to help increase prevention of underage drinking and prescription drug misuse.
They are using the Partnerships for Success grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to build preventative measures in our communities. Community tool kits are being developed with two goals in mind:
- To confront the seriousness of underage drinking and the misuse of prescription drugs among our youth.
- Build hope that communities can work together to reduce risk and create positive change.
This video is part of the Community Building toolkit.
Building hope is necessary to combat negative stereotypes like the “Dirty Burg” and “Little Baltimore”. The re-branding in this project focuses on the words that West Virginians have labeled for themselves during interviews around the state: Proud, Hardworking, and Resilient. When the interviewees were asked what West Virginia means to them the consensus was “it’s who we are.” This example of positive community branding can help change the tone of our talks in the Eastern Panhandle and the state as a whole. What does the Eastern Panhandle mean to you?
For more information on this project, visit http://wearewv.org. There is contact information for ways to help out with this initiative.
We have eight of these sticker left. The first eight people to submit a small statement on ways to re-brand our communities for the positive can get one of these stickers to help re-brand their area. Please add an email address so that we can collect your information to send them to you.
(Cover Photo Credit: Nicholas Trietsch)