As the world continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginians have persevered. We are responding, adapting and organizing. Yet economic and health crises continue to unequally impact our communities, families, women and children.
West Virginia University geography students, in collaboration with community leaders, are responding. The Listening Project is a partnership between WVU’s Center for Resilient Communities and West Virginia organizers, Amy Jo Hutchison and Jennifer Wells, that gathers stories of strength and struggle as West Virginians seek to find solidarity in uncertain times.
“At the onset of the pandemic, the Center was having conversations with partner organizations and collaborators about what was happening across the state in response to the health crisis – what people were doing, what their work looked like now, how it changed and how might we support each other,” said Valentina Muraleedharan, a second-year geography PhD student from Botswana. “We asked ourselves these questions and began to consult on what grassroots mutual aid networks look like and how solidarity is built in a time of crisis.”
The project has created a public archive of West Virginians’ collective experiences that is long-lasting and revisited. The conversations are recorded and shared through the project’s website.
“Through these conversations, we saw a collective narrative rise out of the stories being shared,” Muraleedharan said. “The website serves that purpose. It’s a home for all of these stories. When they are heard together, you gain a greater understanding of what West Virginia and its residents have been going through.”
The goal was simply to capture these individuals’ stories – no agenda, no ulterior motive.
“Stories can be requested and used in particular ways. They might be sought out for certain policy ventures or procured in extractive and exploitative ways. For us, the only purpose of people sharing their stories through the Listening Project is to be heard and to encourage us all to learn to listen.”
– Valentine Muraleedharan
“Stories can be requested and used in particular ways. They might be sought out for certain policy ventures or procured in extractive and exploitative ways,” Muraleedharan said. “For us, the only purpose of people sharing their stories through the Listening Project is to be heard and to encourage us all to learn to listen.”
The conversations covered three open-ended questions: What’s your strength? What’s your struggle? Where do you find solidarity?
“Storytelling is creative. It’s inspirational. It’s emotional,” said Emily Tingler, a second-year geography master’s student from Parkersburg. “In collaboration with our partners, we decided that stories centered around strength, struggle and solidarity would give listeners a full scope of what people were going through during this time, especially in West Virginia. The pandemic impacted different states and countries in drastically different ways, and we wanted to understand the unique lived experiences of West Virginians.”
Drawing from the stories, the project learned that West Virginians gained strength from family, friends and faith.
“For example, ‘I have to keep going for my family. I do it all for my children. God has another day for me,’” Tingler said.
The struggles were characterized more broadly, ranging from finances and food insecurity to mental health.
“Food insecurity was often mentioned. Some would say, ‘Where will I get my next meal? I lost my source of income. How am I going to provide for my family?’” Tingler said. “People voiced concerns over paying rent on time. Parents often spoke about their struggles with at-home and online learning, unsure of their capacity to provide their children with the same education they would otherwise receive at a school setting. Also, there were a lot of people struggling with money and overall fear of the pandemic. Some spoke about the pain of losing loved ones to the virus.”
“I would add challenges with mental health, as we all might imagine. Responses such as, ‘I don’t have time to think about my declining mental health,’” Muraleedharan said. “Or ‘I’m not sure how to move through this.’ Uncertainty in general has been a natural theme. At the time, no one knew how long the pandemic would go on for or what was going to happen next. The road ahead just seemed so foggy.”
Solidarity was a difficult concept for many participants to conceptualize, but it manifested through their stories nonetheless.
“Many participants said that they don’t see solidarity in their communities. Then their next story would be a beautiful demonstration of solidarity, whether that was a neighbor leaving a cooked meal on their doorstep or friends picking up groceries for them. But to them, that was just their way of life. They saw what they did as normal,” Tingler said. “To us, these acts are in solidarity. They are saying, ‘We’re in this together.’ But these everyday acts are not always viewed as solidarity.”
Yet solidarity is ingrained in the state’s culture.
“As someone who is not originally from West Virginia, I’ve seen that this is a state and a population that has really had to act in solidarity to be resilient and overcome a history of longtime oppression,” Muraleedharan said. “The essence of solidarity is already part of the culture of West Virginia – it’s part of the culture to care for one’s neighbors. ‘My neighbor brings food over.’ ‘We started a community garden.’ ‘My landlord decreased rent for the month.’ ‘I work at Walmart, and a customer in line couldn’t afford something, so I paid for it.’ Contributions like that were really meaningful and may have changed someone’s day or life.”
As the project team continues to grow the website as a platform for these stories, they aspire to create community through the project through Facebook groups, Zoom roundtables and more in-person conversations as the world begins to reopen.
“We’re not the only people who can have these conversations – anybody and everybody can. It’s just a matter of thinking about our posture, what it means to have a meaningful conversation and how we connect with people. We started to think about how we welcome more people into the project,” Muraleedharan said. “How does it move from our hands to those who are sharing their stories? To us, it belongs to the West Virginians who are sharing their stories. We’ve laid some groundwork and a system for having meaningful conversations so that others may take it on as it grows.”
They hope to continue to have significant, honest conversations that offer an authentic reflection of the state and its people.
“For this project, we are illuminating the voices of West Virginians with no filter. There are no hidden motives or agendas. It’s your story, not the story I want you to tell, not the story I’m going to twist and publish in certain ways. It’s your raw, unfiltered story we care about. We are highlighting voices of those who have been traditionally exploited. And no one needs to speak for them, they can tell their own stories of strength and solidarity.”
– Emily Tingler
“We often see others speaking for West Virginia residents. We see Hollywood movies about West Virginia where someone – typically not from the state – comes in, extracts stories and romanticizes poverty when, essentially, that’s not the reality. For this project, we are illuminating the voices of West Virginians with no filter. There are no hidden motives or agendas. It’s your story, not the story I want you to tell, not the story I’m going to twist and publish in certain ways,” Tingler said. “It’s your raw, unfiltered story we care about. We are highlighting voices of those who have been traditionally exploited. And no one needs to speak for them, they can tell their own stories of strength and solidarity.”
Meet the Students Behind the Project
Geography is a major that teaches how the world works. Geographers examine problems that face communities around the world, such as protecting vulnerable landscapes and species, the local and global effects of climate change and the connections between people across the globe. Meet two WVU geography students who took different routes to graduate school but ultimately crossed paths through their research.
MA student, Geography
Parkersburg, West Virginia
PhD student, Geography
How did you choose to study geography?
Emily Tingler: Geography, specifically human geography, explores human-environment interactions and processes of power that shape one’s relationship to their surroundings. I was drawn to study geography because I like the open-ended critical thinking, interdisciplinary nature of the field.
I only came to geography late in my undergraduate studies, though. I had initially majored in international studies, with a focus in international environment, and added geography later. There were a few geography courses in the international studies degree, and I felt so drawn to them. One of the first geography courses I took was GEOG 412: Geography of Gender, and I thought, “This is what I’ve been looking for.” I felt more connected to geography as a discipline and was able to pick it up as a second major fairly easily.
Valentina Muraleedharan: Geography is all-encompassing. It provides an interesting and complex layer to the questions we have as people, emphasizing the elements of space and place to shape the ways in which we’re being and doing and moving.
What motivated you to continue on to graduate school?
ET: I was motivated by my desire to expand my skillset and work toward my future goals. I had just left Zambia where I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and wanted to return to West Virginia to give back to the place that has fostered so much growth within me. I was interested in issues of food security and sovereignty, social-environmental interactions and environmental and social justice, all things that can be viewed with a spatial lens and fit under a geographical umbrella. When the opportunity to go to graduate school presented itself, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next in life, but I knew that enrolling in WVU’s graduate program would be meaningful and rich in the long term.
VM: I’m from Botswana. I moved to the U.S. almost 12 years ago with the purpose of pursuing my education. I earned a bachelor’s degree in women’s and gender studies and communication studies from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, then I moved to Houston to work for an organization focusing on justice for immigrant women and girls. Afterward, I relocated to Washington, D.C. to pursue a master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution from American University. I continued working in D.C. for a few years with different nonprofit and international organizations after graduation.
I ultimately wanted to pursue a PhD to learn and to share my experience of learning with my community by contributing meaningfully to scholarship and public discourse. I also wanted to honor my parents, my family and my roots by accomplishing what may not have been an opportunity for them in their lives. They inspire and motivate me.
Why did you choose WVU for your graduate degree?
ET: I earned my undergraduate degree in geography at WVU, and when I wanted to come back for graduate school, I reconnected with Professor Bradley Wilson and the Food Justice Lab. I was familiar with the FJL in undergrad and really loved what the lab was doing – action research centered on food system inequalities in West Virginia. When I was offered a position with the Center for Resilient Communities, which houses the FJL, I was thrilled and eagerly accepted.
VM: While I was in D.C. serving at the neighborhood level engaging in community-building processes, I met Dr. Bradley Wilson. In our first conversation, I shared that I had been having conversations with young people who were navigating their neighborhoods in a time when there was rapid gentrification, cultural displacement and rising issues of environmental racism. I was curious where else this was happening and wanted to learn more about these lived experiences. And he said, ‘Well, that’s geography.’ Dr. Wilson warmly invited me to the American Association of Geographers conference that was coincidentally taking place in D.C. At AAG, I had influential conversations with geographers from all areas of the field. I also met several WVU faculty and students. The experience was like an introduction to the WVU geography program without ever stepping foot on campus. It was through those conversations and connections that I felt moved to apply.
What questions are you exploring in your research?
ET: My master’s research focuses on women’s lived experiences and understandings of C8 [perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA] water contamination in Parkersburg. I am investigating how women affected by water contamination experience and conceptualize risk, how their bodies and well-being have been impacted by these risks, and what they hope for the future of water quality. What are the costs and benefits to environmental change and pollution in this area? Who gains and who loses? What processes of power are at play in this community?
VM: I am interested in the creative ways in which young people express themselves and feel most empowered to do so. I am actively curious about what society can learn from youth but also how we learn from them and collaboratively produce knowledge with them in and for their communities.
What are your career goals? How is WVU helping you prepare for them?
ET: I’d like to continue on in academia as a scholar-activist centering on participatory action research rooted in political ecology. My professors at WVU have been pivotal in my journey to expand my knowledge and skillset and have encouraged me to continue on to PhD. For them, I am grateful.
VM: I’ve always had a desire to work with youth. Though there are various avenues to do so, I aspire to be in academia in the classroom. I see the classroom as a crucial space for young people to share themselves and their stories.