August 24, 2015 by Kathy Jesperson, NRCCE
Morgantown, W.Va. – A few things Carrie Staton knows for sure—a love of community, a family that provided the vision, a job that allows her to live her dream. Other things are more unpredictable—like any given day on the job at the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative (WVRC). But that’s the way she likes it.
Staton leads the WVRC where she organizes teams of faculty and staff from many disciplines within West Virginia University (WVU) along with local community experts. These teams then go out into West Virginia communities to work on the ground with residents.
What the teams provide is the knowledge and guidance that maximizes the economic, environmental, and social benefit from the remediation and adaptive re-use of brownfields and other strategically located properties.
Brownfield is a term that urban planners use to describe land previously used for
commercial or industrial purposes that may be contaminated with hazardous waste or pollution. These properties are often in locations that will make good additions to the community, such as old glass factories that are turned into museums or storefronts.
“I’m officially in charge of redevelopment research and collaborations,” Staton said. “My role is to coordinate communications between all the team members.”
Communication is one of the most critical aspects of any team effort. And bringing people together is the role that Staton relishes. She believes she is one of the lucky people in life who love what they do. To say this a blessing is understatement. “I can’t believe that I get paid to do this. It’s worth a ton of money to love what you’re doing.”
Despite being on the job sometimes up to 60 hours per week—but usually not less than 45—Staton said that it doesn’t really feel like work. When you are passionate about what you are doing, it’s worth reveling.
“I think everything should be a celebration,” she said. “I love to have a reason to make cupcakes. Don’t you think that’s how it should be?”
An Optimistic Outlook
Without much deliberating, Staton used her optimistic outlook to build a future in public service. But to say that Staton always knew what she wanted to do would not be entirely true. She started out as an English major. But it wasn’t long until she felt the pull toward what she calls the “family business,” maintaining that her unerring instinct for doing the right thing was a genetic certainty.
“I come from a public service family,” she said. “We’ve always been involved in civil rights and public service. It’s just what we do.”
Staton’s father was a WV state legislator for 20 years before he became the director of the WV Division of Justice and Community Services at WV Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. Her mother, a family court judge, has a background in social work. So ending up in some kind of public service just seemed natural.
Staton leaned toward local government when she went to college and then graduate school at WVU. “I finished my BA in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus in Nonprofit Administration at Bethany College in 2008,” she said. “I finished my Master’s of Public Administration at WVU in 2011.
“I designed a major around my interests,” she said. Staton took classes in local government, community development, grant writing, and public engagement. Her education combined with her practical experience in working with nonprofits helped her build the necessary background for a future in public service.
“I’ve always worked for nonprofits. I started volunteering form early age,” she said. This experience made her realize that people who organize and work with nonprofits have a special calling.
“People start a nonprofit not because they know how, but because they care about something,” she said, adamant that these are the people who are willing to work against the odds to accomplish their goals.
Small Town Priorities
Coming from a small town, Staton saw first hand what happens when an outsider comes into a small, rural community with big ideas about how to change things. She grew up in Mullens, West Virginia, which has a population of around 1,559, according to the 2010 Census. It is an historic railroad and coal-mining town settled in Wyoming County. The town has a poverty rate of approximately 15 percent. Many times, people—whose intentions were good—would offer up plans that didn’t fit with the way of life the residents, too expensive or simply out of place.
“Most of the time, people who were unfamiliar with a community tried to guess what the community wanted but then didn’t really pay attention to what they community needed or said they wanted. Then, they didn’t get the response they wanted,” she said.
“Often those outside the community try to find solutions that fit with what works in a larger community or urban area. This doesn’t always work in small, rural areas.
“I think it goes along with the interest of the organization trying to help and not the community,” she said. “They didn’t listen and that really rubbed me the wrong way. I want to help people figure out what they want, not what we think they want.
“When I was hired to run the collaborative, we had originally proposed it as an agency collaborative, but then we realized that we needed to expand that idea,” she said. “We started out thinking it would be agencies, but then it morphed into collaborations between agencies, faculty members, and the private sector, as a result of a better understanding of community needs. But having the community involved as an equal partner/team member was always a part of the model because it doesn’t work without them involved.
“So we changed the focus,” she explained. “Now, we’re on the ground taking resources to the community. It’s become more and more nimble, and really shaped what the collaborative ended up being.”
This change allowed Staton to shine. Connecting resources from universities and colleges, industry or business, foundations, or other sources is a skill that she loves to use.
“I see myself as a collaborator,” she said. “I love working for communities—I find the common thread in a project. Sometimes it’s finding ways the community and officials can work together. One thing I’ve found is that we may all be saying the same things but just using different words.”
Her leadership role also allows her to forge relationships throughout the university. “When you’re trying to build a relationship with others in the university, it takes a lot of personal relationship building,” she said. And that’s a role that delights Staton because it allows her to be a collaborator.
“We’ve helped faculty members at WVU get out into West Virginia communities. We’ve worked with professors trying to find ways to come up with better ways of reaching their students and providing them with real world experience.
“Through our work at the Brooke Glass site in Wellsburg, we connected the community with several resources both within and outside of WVU,” she said. “When we first started working with the city, they were in the process of establishing an Urban Redevelopment Authority to address issues of blight and abandoned buildings throughout the city.
“We connected them with Jared Anderson at the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic,” she explained. “Anderson helped them update their Comprehensive Plan through broad community engagement, and is now helping them complete the process of developing a redevelopment plan to further implement the goals of the URA.
“While this was happening, we worked with a Grants and Opportunities (GO) Team composed of some representatives from the city, as well as more local stakeholders. The GO Team stressed their interest in maintaining and celebrating the history of glass making in Wellsburg, and we worked with the WVU Department of History to create an oral history through a series of interviews with former plant workers, the family that owned the Brooke Glass Factory, and others. This work is being compiled into a mini-documentary, which will be screened in the community later this year.”
The successes that Staton has fostered within WVU have also enabled her to build new relationships through out the state.
“We work very closely with several state agencies on a regular basis, especially the WV Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and the WV Development Office (WVDO),” she explained.
“We coordinate regularly with the WVDEP’s Division of Land Restoration on a number of projects related to environmental remediation, often serving as a liaison between local communities and the Division, generally on the more technical aspects of remediation,” she said.
Connecting the Broader Population with WVU
“In 2012, in the first round of the WVRC, we matched the City of Parkersburg with a professor in the Landscape Architecture program at WVU to work on a riverfront redevelopment project,” Staton explained. “The professor brought in several students to work on the project for a year, and in the meantime built a strong relationship with the City. She ultimately took on a number of projects in Parkersburg, providing the City with conceptual designs, 3-D models, and other tools for helping implement priority projects.
“Also in 2012, we matched the community of Osage with a number of resources at WVU, including professors from the College of Creative Arts, School of Design & Merchandising, and the College of Law’s Entrepreneurship Law Clinic,” she continued. “During our work with this team, professors and students from WVU helped the community complete the asset mapping process, the first stage in creating a redevelopment plan; conduct a cleanup and painting project for the buildings on their main street; and research the history of the community’s loss of incorporation and potential options for re-establishing themselves as an incorporated community.
“Though our engagement with Osage has decreased due to the lack of brownfields priorities, some of those professors have stayed engaged in the community, brought on additional colleagues, and continue to help with community revitalization efforts,” she said.
Making Connections Where They Count
“We also try to connect colleges that are closer to the community,” she said. “For example, it’s a stronger relationship for Concord to work in Mullens than it is for WVU—but it also exemplifies how WVU is reaching out to other colleges and educational institutions in the state.
“I look to bring in resources based on the needs of the community as identified collaboratively between myself and their local stakeholders, and sometimes those are resources that are either nonacademic or that aren’t readily available from within the University,” Staton said.
What Will the Future Bring?
Beyond the collaborative, Staton would like to develop some research skills so she can demonstrate program effectiveness.
“Ultimately I would like to get a PhD,” she said. “I want to find ways to balance research with real-world experience. I love what I’m doing so much but I have shifted my focus from service to research. This allows me to live in both worlds. I get to use both sides of my brain.
“I want to figure out how to capture ripple effect of the projects that we do, and that’s hard. You have to put things in ways that your audience can understand them. People often think that their work should just speak for itself. But that’s not true. You have to show granters and communities how effective the project was.”
While Staton hopes that she can eventually figure out how to show the real impact of the projects she works on—she doesn’t want any fame or glory for herself. “I want these projects to turn into something people will use, and I really want the communities to remember that they did it. I want people to know what kind of impact they made on a project.
“It’s a great moment when people can realize what they have done and next time they can do it for themselves. I think that everybody is an expert in something,” she continued, stressing that it’s the people who bring a project together and ultimately determine its success. And that’s the case with just about everything in the world.
‘We can’t exist without impacting each other,” she concludes.