From West Virginia to New York, tri-sector collaborations reconnect communities to opportunity

blogimage_MassenaMcDowell County is the poorest in West Virginia, largely due to the loss of coal industry jobs. The County, in Central Appalachian West Virginia, faces many challenges in addition to poverty — underperforming schools, drug and alcohol abuse, housing shortages, limited medical services, and inadequate access to technology and transportation. In response to these challenges, partners formed Reconnecting McDowell in 2011, a long-term tri-sector effort currently bringing together more than 100 partners — state agencies, community and labor organizations, businesses, and foundations — to leverage each sector’s resources, products, and expertise to make educational, economic, healthcare, and social improvements in the community.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a key partner in Reconnecting McDowell, recently committed to support a similar initiative in Massena, New York. While Massena faces slightly different challenges, with companies like General Motors recently closing factories there, both areas are facing a similar economic downturn. When these industries and employers leave, so do jobs, and without new work opportunities, communities suffer. Many of McDowell County’s challenges are familiar to those living in Massena, including underfunded schools, mental illness, substance abuse, crime, and poverty. More than 50 percent of children live in poverty and many teachers spend their own money on supplies, Erin Covell, school guidance counselor and President of the Massena Federation of Teachers, noted in a recent article on the new initiative.

Covell was instrumental in bringing AFT support to Massena. She and representatives from the New York State United Teachers recently visited McDowell County to learn from individuals working on Reconnecting McDowell. “What they were able to do in five years is remarkable,” she explained. With so many partners involved and with many complicated issues to address, it was key for Reconnecting McDowell partners to align on their goals for the community. Exemplifying a tactic from our Toolkit, Share a Vision of Success, the initiative created a “Covenant of Commitment,” allowing partners to define a common purpose and create a mutual understanding of the benefits of success.

In areas facing economic downturn, young students feel the impact of poverty in a unique way. A recent SSIR article highlights that “if kids are hungry, sick, tired, or under stress, their ability to learn will suffer. According to an impressive array of research, such conditions lie at the forefront of parents’ and kids’ minds, and they strongly affect kids’ chances of success in school.” Community schools are one way to address this problem, bringing together cross-sector partners to provide social services within schools. One of Reconnecting McDowell’s successes was the creation of community schools: “The evidence is clear that community schools greatly improve disadvantaged children’s chances of success because the services and programs help overcome the ravages of poverty that affect academic achievement,” attests AFT President Randi Weingarten.

The Massena initiative is still in its early stages, with partners planning to visit Washington, D.C. next month to determine its next steps. But the collaboration holds promise, particularly if it continues to take lessons from Reconnecting McDowell, which has proven to be a successful, long-term partnership.