The brain drain from America’s hinterlands to the cities has shaped American economics and politics this century as much as the tech revolution, the opioid epidemic and the war on terrorism. In the last 50 years, as manufacturing has dried up in rural America, millions of Americans have migrated toward brighter lights, an exodus chronicled in our Moundsville film, now playing on PBS. Any attempt at rebalancing the urban-rural split in America rests on the shoulders of people like Brianna Hickman. For Moundsville, WV, pop. 8,400, she’s an example of brain gain.
The 28-year-year-old moved to Moundsville two years ago after growing up in a different part of the state, around Grafton and Fairmont, south of Morgantown. Hickman works as the development director of the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley, a non-profit with over $55 million in assets that funds everything from arts programs to health centers. After serving at an appointee on city council this year, where, among other things, she helped the town make Juneteenth an official holiday, a progressive victory in a conservative town, she was defeated in November. She wants to stay involved. Politics at the local level are gentler, even between Republicans and Democrats. “We all want a thriving, growing Moundsville,” she told me.
The conversation over Hillbilly Elegy, a story about a man leaving his Rust Belt town behind for coastal wealth, has highlighted how this country’s biggest division is opportunity. For many in small towns, the choice boils down to staying behind with a bad job or leaving home and family for a good one. (It was only after he got rich elsewhere that J.D. Vance, the author of Elegy, moved back to Ohio to help run an investment firm focused on Appalachia and the Midwest. One of its projects is the Kentucky-based tomato grower AppHarvest, which employs hundreds.)
One reason Hickman decided to stay in West Virginia, she said, is that she found an affordable house in Moundsville. “The same property, probably without a yard, would have cost a sizeable chunk more in Wheeling.” You can easily find a nice three-bedroom house in Moundsville for around $100,000 or below. In Moundsville, Hickman’s favorite things to do are hiking at Grand Vue park and dining along the Ohio river. “Contrary to what some people like to say, there actually is something to do here,” she said.
The time it takes me to drive to work every morning is the same amount of time it took while I did live in Wheeling. If I want to go hiking on an unpaved trail, I can drive five minutes to Grand Vue and feel like I’m completely out of town. When I take my dog on a morning run, we run through the morning mist in front of the Penitentiary and think about all of the history there, only to turn to the other side of the road and see the tallest conical burial mound in the United States. Events like the Jefferson Avenue Saturday sidewalk sales and the free events that the Arts & Culture Commission puts on are exactly the type of things that young people are looking to do. We have so much potential in our community. We just need to make sure that we’re not the only ones who know that.
Unlike many who stay, Hickman has degrees, a JD, a master’s in public administration and a bachelor’s in political science.
Hickman doesn’t have cable and gets her news online. She doesn’t pay for anything but follow the “Associated Press, New York Times, Mountain State Spotlight, AFP News Agency, BBC, and several individual journalists and organizations.” Without strong local newspapers, people should rely on the city for local news by getting the City of Moundsville app and following its Facebook page, she said. More and more local governments are publishing their own news, a win for information flows but a loss for watchdog journalism.
In 2020, Hickman ran for county because she “wanted to give back to the community that welcomed me as its own.” She had been appointed in February 2020 to fill a seat for an unexpired term, “and I have loved every minute of serving since then.”
In the election in November, Hickman did not win a seat. She hopes to help Moundsville change with the times, a dynamic showed by the Moundsville movie on PBS, which “showed what a lot of small towns throughout the country look like – the recognition of a thriving industrial past, a stagnate present, and a desire to move forward.”
We have to be open-minded and adaptable. For so long, we’ve been focused on re-living the past and bringing Moundsville back to “the good ol’ days.” Well, in the good ol’ days, one person could work 40 hours a week and provide a living for a small family. Women weren’t encouraged to work, and when they did, they were paid drastically less than their male counterparts. That’s not the world we live in today. We have to look for new opportunities for Moundsville, ones that include all of our community. We also have to be more involved and engaged. We need regular town halls or community forums so that we’re hearing from everyone, not just those that attend council meetings.
Moundsville is currently struggling with Covid-19. “We’ve seen an increase in demand at the food pantries and food drives, too,” she said. “Everyone is worried, and justifiably so. We’re a resilient community though, and we will continue figuring this out, together.”
Hickman said her generation has a sense of realism about structural changes to the economy. Chain stores, for example, “are seen as a necessary evil” because they create jobs and “without Walmart, Kroger, or some of our other corporate chains, we would essentially live in a food desert.”
And millennials understand that factories aren’t coming back.
My generation dreams of being able to buy a home, to have a career, and to not be saddled with ridiculous debt. My generation is the first in American history to not be considered better off than their parents were at the same age. We want to see jobs come back to Moundsville, but we also want to see jobs that stay here. We see it all the time at the state level with corporations coming into the area, staying for a few years, and then leaving. If we want to see long-term prosperity, we need to invest in jobs that are here for the long haul and invest in our economy.
How to make that happen is a puzzle for 21st century American citizens and policymakers. But nobody doubts that small towns need people like Brianna Hickman to buy homes, and build something.
John W. Miller