It’s a momentous time to be living in Berkeley County. The economy in this Eastern Panhandle community is growing and diversifying. So is the population, as people from the nearby cities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore migrate ever westward in search of a lower cost of living and more relaxed pace of life. Over half of residents now work outside the county, which sits at a crossroads of interstates and enjoys access to commuter rail to D.C.
An eighty-three percent rise in population over the past twenty-five years has put stress on certain services, particularly schools. But community ties are being stretched too, as people from all over the world learn to call Berkeley County home. The people there are challenged to find ways to relate to each other and find strength in their diversity.
At the forefront of these issues is “What’s Next, Berkeley County?”, a group of residents who are searching for opportunities to create a more diverse and vibrant local economy in the county.
In a classroom at the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg this past April, they met to discuss their community’s strengths, needs, and opportunities. And there was a lot to talk about.
“We have a lot going on. We’ve been going through this transition with growth, consistently, for quite some time. And I think we’re reaching a point where I think that’s even going to accelerate,” facilitator James Hersick told the group.
They covered a lot of ground--tourism, arts, better quality jobs. The challenge of connecting all the great work that’s going on in the community already.
Then talk turned to economic justice: how to ensure that no one’s left behind as the economy advances, rich and poor alike.
As the group explored ways to connect the community’s haves and have-nots, one participant observed that the room looked pretty white and middle class. She called for more racial, socioeconomic, and age diversity in future discussions.
That evening, Guadalupe Bustillos was busy ringing up customers at Lupita’s Grocery, her tiny Latino convenience store in the heart of downtown Martinsburg.
Originally from Ecuador, Bustillos moved to Martinsburg from Maryland eleven years ago because she could buy a big, beautiful house here at a fraction of the cost. When she couldn’t find a job, she created one herself.
Bustillos is one of about 4,000 Latinos living in Berkeley County. There used to be more, she says. But gradually, housing developments started replacing fruit orchards, where many Latinos found work. Then seven years ago, a surge in immigration raids deported and deterred undocumented workers in the area. Finally, the housing market crashed, meaning fewer construction jobs—another occupation traditionally held by Latino immigrants. Lupe’s business went down. She lost her home and now lives in a more modest dwelling, working harder than ever just to stay afloat.
Bustillos says she would love to be a part of groups like “What’s Next, Berkeley County?” In fact, she says her dream job is to work for her church and serve her community full time. So what’s stopping her?
In short, she’s working too hard. With no other employees, she's at the store twelve hours a day, every day. When work is over, she wants to go home and rest.
But when it comes to community engagement, a lack of time isn’t the only reason Bustillos might opt out. Sometimes she feels like she stands out too much in Berkeley County. Her son left the state to attend college in neighboring Maryland, because he felt that too often he was judged by the color of his skin. And someday Bustillos says she may join him in Maryland.
“I like more Maryland. Over there you no see the difference like here,” she says.
So what would it take to get her involved in shaping the future of this place? Ken Walker is a pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church and one of the organizers of What’s Next, Berkeley County? And he has an idea: bring the conversation to her.
“I think we need to start figuring out how to have the conversation in the neighborhoods where there is a difference in our socioeconomics and diversity,” he says.
Perhaps no neighborhood represents that diversity better than Burke Street, home to the most diverse school in West Virginia: Burke Street Elementary. Minority enrollment there is at 50 percent, and the school will double in size next year.
Its families come from all over the world, looking for a better life. But finding it can be a struggle when you’re new to town--86% of kids at Burke Street Elementary are eligible for free lunch. That’s where Charlotte Norris comes in.
Norris is a volunteer with the Burke Street Promise Neighborhood, which uses community engagement as one tactic to break the cycle of generational poverty that traps many in the neighborhood.
The Promise Neighborhood is a 40-block area modeled on the famous Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and supported by the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle. Their motto is “Building promising futures, from cradle to career.” The approach is long term, and based on the premise that the best chance these kids have of rising into the middle class is through a college education.
On a bright spring afternoon, Norris stands outside the school, chatting with parents and catching up on their latest—an upcoming U.S. citizenship ceremony, a bout with the flu.
The Promise Initiative provides a host of free programs for families—mentoring, a free produce market, preschool prep. In all kinds of ways, it connects parents and students with resources to meet basic needs.
But for all that to happen, people have to feel comfortable engaging with the program’s leaders, and with each other. They have to feel a part of the community. And too often, they’re isolated, separated by language barriers and lacking extended family to provide social support.
“If you’re a family that’s moved here from another country, it’s really important to create your own system of support,” says Norris. “Actually we create community and that’s what we’re doing here in the neighborhood.”
“It’s not always easy to get to know your neighbors. You speak different languages. You’re from different communities,” says Burke Street Elementary parent Shavaun Johnson, who grows food in the Garden of Promise, a community garden sponsored by the Promise Neighborhood.
“People here are from a lot of different places. So it’s just hard to find common ground. The school is one place that’s common ground for everybody, and one of the others is the community garden.”
Norris says she sees things changing as a result of all the engagement efforts. Shy mothers are learning to speak English and getting more involved in their kids’ education. Dishes at the potlucks represent an increasingly diverse mix of nationalities. And the awards ceremonies for parents who serve as community role models are increasing in size.
“Early on, we would beg members of our committee and volunteers to come just so there would be people here to give kids a pat on the back,” she says. “And now when you come to those awards assemblies it’s standing room only.”
As Berkeley County’s economy and demographics become more diverse, residents search for ways to make the parts feel whole.
“Part of prosperity is not just the idea of economic gains as it is the wellness and the wholeness of the community,” says Rev. Walker. “I believe that they’re tied together.”
If people don’t have economic power, says Walker, they can never be truly whole. And without a feeling of wholeness in the community, a truly healthy economy will remain out of reach.
The lack of socioeconomic diversity at the “What’s Next, Berkeley County?” community forum wasn’t for lack of want, or lack of effort on the organizers’ part, says Hersick. He thinks they just haven’t quite opened the right door yet. But they’re going to keep trying.
"It’s definitely been at top of mind as we’ve been having the conversations, and I’m glad it keeps coming up," he says.