Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-chair Gayle Manchin has a lot to say, and very important people are listening.
When President Joe Biden appointed Gayle Connelly Manchin as the 13th federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, detractors scoffed that it was likely an attempt to curry favor with her husband and draw his much-needed vote in the U.S. Senate. But those who know Manchin best—her character, and the true width and breadth of her life’s work up to this point—weren’t surprised by the appointment. She’s been working toward it her whole life. Many supporters expounded a powerful argument that the position was both hard-won and well-deserved, and Manchin is eager to prove them right.
She’s no stranger to scrutiny, she says, and actually expects it, given the very public life she’s led for the past 40 years. “I am who I am, and over the years, I’ve learned a couple of things: First, these things aren’t personal; it’s just because of where you are at that point in time. Also, it’s smart to develop a thick skin. And, as long as you believe in what you’re doing, you can’t step back or give up when someone looks at you the wrong way.”
Manchin has also been chosen as this year’s recipient for the WV Living Wonder Women Warrior Award for Leadership and Wisdom.
Manchin was born in Beckley and earned not one, but two master’s degrees in education-related fields. She was a teacher for many years, giving her the time and space to focus on her young family at home. As the state’s first lady—from 2005 to 2010—Manchin established a platform that included bettering the lives of all of the state’s children. She served on the West Virginia Citizens’ Council on Children and Families, the West Virginia Commission for National and Community Service, the West Virginia Board of Education, and the Governor’s Healthy Lifestyle Coalition. She also served most recently as the state’s Secretary of Education and the Arts.
She and her husband’s priorities rarely intersect, she admits, but they usually run parallel to one another for the good of the state. “I guess throughout our lives, I’ve always seen Joe as the ultimate businessman and someone who sees the big picture of how to move the state forward. My focus has always been on children, education, and families.”
The ARC Appointment
The Appalachian Regional Commission is an economic development machine that represents portions of 13 states that fall within Appalachia. West Virginia is the only state entirely within those borders. Who better to lead this coalition than a woman who knows the people in the region better than most and one who is intimately familiar with the many challenges throughout its hills and hollers?
When the ARC was created in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy said its focus would be on building highways. Under Manchin’s leadership, the focus will involve so much more than highways, she says. She hit the ground running after her Senate confirmation in April 2021, with a goal of visiting as many of ARC’s 420 counties as possible. She’s also building consensus among the region’s 13 governors and hopes to develop a comprehensive project that the entire region can get behind. “It’s so important for me to listen and learn in these other states. Certainly, we have a lot in common, but every state has its own unique qualities and things that they’re trying to achieve. It’s so important that I get to know the people that are doing the work on the streets. We’re one Appalachia, and we’re going to make a difference in this area together.”
During her visits thus far, Manchin says she’s talked with leaders frequently about the unfairness that COVID-19 exposed in rural America. “When our children were sent home from school in 2020 for longer than any of us thought they would be, many of them couldn’t connect to the internet and continue their education online,” she says. “Their parents struggled to be home with them and still be able to work. Many rural Americans couldn’t access the web for telehealth appointments, leaving them sick and vulnerable to disease. We saw once again the inequities that are still raging between rural America/Appalachia and mainstream America.”
The Path Forward
Manchin believes her current role calls for her to be “leaderful.” She heard a speaker once define the word differently than, though related to, leadership. “‘Leadership’ is one person taking the lead and telling everyone else what to do. ‘Leaderful’ applies to a group of people with a common goal. Everyone in that group will at some point have the expertise, the knowledge, and the skill set that a particular moment demands. They will lead in that moment. It’s a form of shared leadership and I believe, with ARC, we’ll accomplish more together this way.”
Access to broadband will remain a top priority for the region and one Manchin expects to do much work on during her term as federal co-chair. She also foresees Commission efforts that foster education initiatives to benefit the region, like curriculum development, workforce preparedness, and the importance of early childhood education. And addiction—a heartbreaking reality for most of Appalachia—will continue demanding action. “Thirteen governors could probably easily agree to work on this together,” Manchin says with equal parts urgency and anguish. “This is something we’ve heard about everywhere we’ve been. Substance misuse is destroying families and communities, and we have to be really serious about how we work with families to offer help and support.”
She’s hoping to make a big impact and muses that the stars have aligned for Appalachia. Manchin hopes the Commission under her leadership will do something “major” that could change the face of the entire region. “We have a wonderful opportunity right now to do something big. Our president understands rural America and has expanded the budget of ARC. We have a real chance to sit at the table and think about ways to move us forward that build capacity and sustainability. If we don’t take advantage of it, shame on us.”