An art show at an Augusta County school prompts an emergency school board meeting

An art show at an Augusta County school prompts an emergency school board meeting

In the spring of 2023, the theater departments at Lynchburg’s two public high schools joined together to produce the popular, but often controversial, musical “The Prom,” which is loosely based on the true story of a gay couple banned from attending their high school prom.

Lynchburg City Council member Marty Misjuns blasted the choice: “It’s absolutely appalling to me that the publicly funded Lynchburg City Schools would put on a production with children that openly mocks the vast Judeo-Christian majority in our city … Lynchburg City Schools should immediately cancel the rest of these productions out of respect for those that believe in, prescribe to, and practice the Christian faith.”

The show went on — and became the best-attended show at Heritage High School in the post-COVID era. 

There may be several lessons from that episode, but one of them is surely this: Schools have become battlegrounds for conflicting cultural values, and anything dealing with LGBTQ+ issues is especially controversial. It’s probably no accident that many of the books that get pulled from school library shelves have LGBTQ+ themes or characters. Throw in a dash of religion — as “The Prom” did — and the mix becomes even more explosive.

One detail that was often overlooked at the time: It was students, not teachers, who picked the show. Some seniors had been pushing for it since they were freshmen, but the performance rights weren’t available then. The fact did nothing to lessen the objections to the show from those who found it offensive, but it does help illustrate the complexities of our diverse society: Even in a conservative Southern city best-known for its high-profile religious university, there are teenagers who identify with the characters in “The Prom” and adults who support them. And I’m sure in more liberal communities, there is a minority of conservatives who feel out of step with the prevailing culture around them.

This is why governing our society is so hard.

The latest example of this came early this month in Augusta County, where the school board went into an emergency closed session on a Saturday night to discuss what to do about a student’s piece of artwork that was set to be displayed the next afternoon at a high school art show.

The board wound up not doing anything, at least not right now. When it came out of closed session, board chair David Shifflett said the school system may look into creating new rules for student art shows in the future.

The student whose artwork set all this in motion is Abby Driscoll, a 17-year-old senior at Fort Defiance High School. She’s gay. She’s also a talented artist who hopes someday to own her own photography business. For the spring art show, she chose a series of works to exhibit. 

There was one piece she wondered whether to include, because it included Bible verses. Specifically, it showed a pair of hands, clasped in prayer and holding rosary beads, with Bible verses in the background and these words in the foreground: “God Loves You But Not Enough To Save You.” In a statement on the art website Artsonia, Abby says: “This piece is representative of the idea that growing up queer meant you couldn’t be saved by God. I grew up in a religious background and that influenced this project. The idea of the glowing red cross is to represent evil in the eyes of God and the bleeding rainbow represents devotion vs identity. Overall the piece gets across the message I want it to, even if it is a little in your face. I wish I had made the rosary more detailed but I’m glad I spent most of my time in the hands and drips. I think this was a successful piece and states what I want it to.”

She asked friends whether they thought the piece was too strong to include in the art show. They told her there might be some complaints but not to worry.

They were wrong.

The artwork went up after school on a Friday afternoon.

“By nighttime I had heard people disagreeing with it,” Abby told me. “A lot of things were going up on social media. It was mostly students Friday night.”

From the comments she saw, “there was a lot of backlash from students, a lot of students saying it was disrespectful and shouldn’t be allowed in school — but also a lot of support. … It wasn’t until Saturday night that I made it to Facebook and I saw adults commenting on it.”

On that Saturday afternoon at 4:28 p.m., one Augusta County School Board member, Timothy Simmons, posted this on Facebook:

Several people have reached out to me regarding the art show on Sunday at Fort Defiance High School and a specific piece of art that is slated to be in the show. This particular piece of art is seen as offensive to some, including myself. The School Board has called a special meeting tonight at 9:00 pm to discuss. The meeting will be held in closed session, however any vote on the matter will take place publicly. 

This is a sensitive topic with various dynamics at play and I will do my best to handle it as such. 

The School Board is working with our legal counsel and I am currently reviewing the Supreme Court rulings relevant to this situation. 

I will also be asking for a review on the process for approving pieces that are included in the art shows. Is there a process in place and, if so, how do we honor students’ free speech while also creating a culture of respect within our schools.

It’s since generated 572 comments, from all sides. Here’s a sampling:

  • This art doesn’t belong in a high school.
  • As someone who believes in God, I see nothing offensive or wrong about this artwork. The message is sincere, raw, and authentic. It’s powerful and this kid has every right to share it. Christians need to stop bullying everyone that doesn’t agree with them. Respect the youth and their right to use their voice! 
  • Would you say the same thing if a student created an art piece attacking gays? This piece is hate speech as it attacks Christianity. Can’t have it both ways. 
  • She’s just a kid expressing her trauma. Her trauma brought by adults. And this board is just perpetuating the trauma. 
  • This artwork is an attack on Christianity, it is hate speech. 
  • It seems to me that instead of trying to remove the student’s art you ask yourself what pain led them to create this instead of clutching your pearls claiming religious persecution. 

“There was a lot going up on social media,” Abby said. “It was discussed on Snapchat, Instagram, I saw it on pretty much all social media platforms.” 

The school board never contacted her or her family. The board meeting was held in closed session and resulted in no action. That Saturday at 11:11 p.m. Simmons, the school board member, posted on Facebook:

The Board met and agreed to work on a policy that will address issues like this going forward. As I mentioned previously, it is important that our students have freedom of speech but also that we maintain a culture of respect within our schools. This is a delicate balancing act but the Board is committed to finding a solution. For now, the art work in question will be removed by the time students arrive back at school on Monday as the art show ends on Sunday.

That post has since generated 503 comments, mostly in the vein of the comments above. 

The next day, the art show went on as planned, although “we had a few cops show up, they were just standing around making sure nobody was going to cause anything,” Abby said.

There were no problems. 

By day’s end, the art show was down, as planned, but then came a round of media attention. Abby said she was inundated with messages of support as the stories circulated. “Oh geez, directly probably like 30. I had a lot of people reach out to me.” The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted Abby and invited her to apply for a $1,500 scholarship. “There’s a lot more community supporting me than I thought,” Abby said. “The hate is lot more loud but there’s a lot more support than you think.”

Neither the Augusta school board chair nor the member who posted about the artwork responded to my inquiries, so I don’t know how they feel about all this now. I also contacted some of the larger school systems in the western part of Virginia to see if they’ve ever had an art show controversy. They have not.

Nationally, though, controversies arising out of student art shows are not unheard of. At the same time that Augusta County was dealing with artwork that some considered offensive to Christianity (and others, plainly, did not), a school system in New York was dealing with a piece of student artwork that was deemed racist for the way it depicted basketball star LeBron James with a comparison to a monkey. In that case, the superintendent issued a statement — “Superintendent addresses racist artwork at art show,” the school system’s website says — and said there was an investigation.

Just a few weeks earlier, two students in Phoenix said a school had banned their entries in a school art show because they depicted or suggested nudity. Both students were girls. “I think it also sends a message that women should be ashamed of their bodies,” one of them told a Phoenix TV station. “That is a horrible message to send to young girls.”

Last year, Inside Higher Education devoted an article to the challenges that colleges face when displaying art. Among the examples it cited: In 2019, what was then Mary Baldwin College (now Mary Baldwin University) removed artwork that depicted Confederate figures because some students found it offensive — “thinly veiled microaggressions,” one student called it. Others said it “verged on hate speech.” The irony is that the Richmond-based artists said they intended their work as a way to reimagine the spaces in Richmond where Confederate monuments had been removed. But that’s not how some viewers took it.

You’ll notice in these examples that some involve those on the right, other times those on the left. Here some said the art in question was offensive to Christians; at Hamline University in Minnesota some Muslim students said that artwork displayed in an art history class was offensive to their faith (and the instructor’s contract wasn’t renewed). Art is sometimes an equal-opportunity offender.

Through the centuries, artwork has often been controversial — even the great Michaelangelo ran afoul of church authorities because he included nude figures in one of his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. (After his death, the offending parts were painted over.) The artist known as Balthus — his full name was Balthasar Klossowski de Rola — has some works that are so disturbing that one particularly controversial piece hasn’t been shown in public since 1977.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that some student artwork also becomes controversial, and that what is offensive to some is artistic to others. Abby told me she’s gotten lots of requests for prints of her piece, and even one person who offered to buy the original. She’s not sure she wants to part with the original, but prints are available through Artsonia, a site of student artwork where 20% of the sales goes to the art program at each student’s school. The piece “But Not Enough To Save You” has generated 138 comments — all since the controversy first became public, and all in her favor.

The Smyth County Courthouse decorated for Memorial Day. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
The Smyth County Courthouse decorated for Memorial Day. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

In this week’s West of the Capital:

I write a free weekly political newsletter, West of the Capital, that goes out every Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. You can sign up here:

This week I’ll look at:
* The latest early voting trends in congressional primaries across the state.
* How Staunton almost became the state capital — twice.
* A reminder about the true purpose of Memorial Day.

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‘A dying art’: New moonshine trail to offer an intoxicating taste of the region’s storied history

Two men stand in a room filled with old moonshining equipment, including copper kettles and tubing.

Franklin County has long been known as the moonshine capital of the world. Neighboring Patrick and Floyd counties are now collaborating with Franklin County to celebrate Virginia’s moonshine heritage with the creation of the Mountain Spirit Trail. 

Visitors will be able to learn about the history of corn whiskey and its impact on the region, visit sites of destroyed stills and enjoy tastings of legally produced moonshine from local distilleries along Virginia’s newest tourism trail. 

The Mountain Spirit Trail brand was revealed at a public event last week. The trail is still under development, but visitors can expect to see complete trail information this fall.

“Moonshine heritage is more than just history; it’s a living testament to our Appalachian roots and the craftsmanship that defines us. Inspired by this rich legacy, the [Mountain Spirit Trail] beckons adventurers to immerse themselves in our storied tradition,” Kathleen Legg, Floyd County’s tourism director, said in a press release.

“Our moonshine heritage has deep roots tracing back to the region’s early settlers, who relied on the production of illicit distilled spirits as a means of survival and income,” Patrick County tourism director James Houchins said during an April 30 event celebrating the trail. 

“We’re so excited to be able to share it with the rest of the world and we hope … that you will work with us to develop the trail, to develop the stops, to tell those stories [and] to tell that history,” said Kevin Tosh, Franklin County’s director of tourism and marketing.

The tourism trail will promote 10 to 12 sites in each of the three counties, he said. Tosh and his Patrick and Floyd county counterparts began working on the trail two years ago, although the idea was first proposed by their predecessors prior to COVID.

The unveiling was held at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College, which will be a destination along the Mountain Spirit Trail, according to Bethany Worley, its executive director. 

“We have the largest moonshine collection in the world, including stills … photographs and documents,” she said, adding that the climate-controlled archive includes collections from multiple historians. 

Following the announcement, Worley led a group tour of the archives. Old distilling equipment fills a large back room; many of the items were donated to the museum, she said.

Henry Law of Law’s Choice Distillery, Moonshine Explosion museum owner Greg Graham and Living Proof Beer Company head brewer Rob Amos stood in the corner discussing the stills and other moonshining artifacts. 

Law noted the workmanship of a large copper worm, a coiled copper tube that would have been used in a still to condense steam back into liquid moonshine, according to BRIM.

A copper worm, a coiled copper tube that would have been used in a still to condense steam back into liquid moonshine. It's about knee high.
A copper worm crafted by Hansel Turner of Patrick County. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Law could tell that the worm had been handcrafted in the tradition of old-time coppersmiths. 

“You can’t get them [like that] anymore,” he said.

The worm Law was referring to, standing about knee-high and held up by a wooden frame, was fashioned by the late Hansel Turner of Patrick County, said Caleb Bailey, BRIM’s office manager and festival organizer. 

The worm shows seams in the tubing. Traditional coppersmiths would take sheets of copper, roll them into tubing and solder the edges together. They would then wind the tube into a hefty coil. 

“We don’t have to do all the soldering that they had to do. Every time you do a little bit of soldering you take more chances of a leak,” Law said.

Modern-day distillers can buy copper tubing to wind into worms. There’s little chance of having a leak with the new method, Law said. 

Law’s family continues to pass down the moonshining tradition, in a more legal fashion. His distillery is a couple of miles south of Rocky Mount; he said he prides himself on still doing everything in the traditional way.

“Everything we have, we built,” Law said, telling of a time that a federal Alcohol, Tax and Trade Bureau official asked him for serial numbers for the equipment. He said he didn’t have any serial numbers because they had built everything themselves.

“He couldn’t wrap his brain around it,” Law said.

“It’s a dying art. We don’t push stuff like this, it will all be lost. And we don’t want it to be lost,” Law said to the crowd during the event, mentioning that his son Austin would eventually take over Law’s Choice Distillery. 

“I never dreamed I’d be able to hand it down to my son. My grandfather, my father, me and now my son — it gives me chills to even talk about it,” he said.

* * *

Beth Graham, co-owner of the Moonshine Explosion museum in Rocky Mount, stands near the remains of one of three Model T's that crashed through the first floor and into the basement after a moonshine-fueled fire in 1930.
Beth Graham, co-owner of the Moonshine Explosion museum in Rocky Mount, stands near the remains of one of three Model Ts that crashed through the first floor and into the basement after a moonshine-fueled fire in 1930. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

The Mountain Spirit Trail’s roots are in the state’s “Virginia is for Moonshine Lovers” campaign, according to Houchins. 

On Jan. 16, 2019, the spinoff of the state’s larger “Virginia is for Lovers” brand was unveiled during a ceremony that also commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which ushered in Prohibition, according to The Smith Mountain Eagle

At the 2019 ceremony, then-Franklin County Tourism Director David Rotenizer said, “We need to own Prohibition from a tourism perspective and from a community pride perspective.”

“You might say that David passed off the baton,” Houchins said as he explained the history of the project to the crowd gathered last week.

Rotenizer pitched the idea of a moonshine trail shortly after Houchins took over the Patrick County tourism department. Houchins loved the idea, and decided to see how much information he could gather about moonshining in his county.

“The ball started rolling,” he said. Houchins brought Tosh on board, and then Floyd County Tourism Director Floyd Legg. 

Houchins and Patrick County tourism associate Noah Mabe began sifting through records at the Patrick County Historical Society. They sought out people like former Patrick County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Danny Martin, who now works as an interpretive ranger at Fairy Stone State Park.

Martin, 77, worked narcotics his first three years in the sheriff’s office, he said, and was involved in the investigations or raids of eight Patrick County moonshine stills. Most often, informants would report moonshine operations to Martin, or he would find them when he was walking through the woods, he said.

“I love to walk a little, to hike. I’ve been all over these mountains, all these woods. I’ve found the ruins of a number of stills. Probably a dozen or so,” Martin said. 

“I was told at a very early age, if I ever heard anything about moonshine, keep my mouth shut,” he said, explaining that he grew up in the region and understood all about the history of the trade.

Even today, he imagines that people are still making illicit liquor somewhere out there, maybe to keep up the tradition or the culture, or just because of greed.

Martin and his stories helped the team identify a number of Patrick County trail locations, Houchins said. 

One of those will be Fairy Stone State Park, where Martin leads a Moonshine Hollow Hike that winds past two historical still locations, only accessible by trailblazing through the woods, he said.


A still and worm at Fairy Stone State Park in Patrick County.
A still and worm at Fairy Stone State Park in Patrick County. The items have been on display since the 1960s, according to Danny Martin, a state park interpretive ranger and former investigator with the the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

The Patrick County section will also take in I.C. DeHart Park, No Business Mountain at the Reynolds Homestead, and the Patrick County Historical Museum, according to Mabe. 

Over in Floyd County, trail stops will include the Floyd County Historical Society, 5 Mile Mountain Distillery, Old Church Gallery, LUSH Lounge and the historical marker commemorating the birthplace of bootlegger-turned-NASCAR-driver Curtis Turner, among other places, according to Legg. 

Franklin County offers three distilleries with tasting rooms: Franklin County Distilleries, Twin Creeks Distillery and Roosters Rise N Shine Distillery; all three will be featured on the trail, Tosh said. While Law’s Choice Distillery does not have a tasting room, restaurants and bars serving its products will be listed as stops on the trail. Other stops in that county will include BRIM, the Franklin County Historical Society and the Moonshine Explosion museum, which opened May 1 in the basement of Rocky Mount’s Olde Towne Social House.

In terms of moonshine history, the building has housed both Turner Motor Company and Helms Farmer Exchange, the latter of which was the focus of a state and federal moonshine investigation and trial beginning in 1998. 

As for Turner Motor Company, the car dealership and repair shop’s legendary fire is the reason the museum exists. On July 11, 1930, three Model Ts dropped through the building’s wooden first floor and into the basement during a massive fire. 

The fire had started shortly after a car was pulled into a garage bay, full of fuel and full of moonshine, said museum co-owner Beth Graham. 

​”[The car] was running hot as it usually was, because it was running from the law,” she said. The mechanic left the car to cool down and he left the building, she said. 

The mechanic, Reedy Dillon, closed the garage door on his way out of the building, according to information provided by Linda Stanley at the Franklin County Historical Society. 

But the engine didn’t cool down. Instead, a leaking fuel pump sparked the fire, according to The Franklin News Post

“[The car] exploded with the two cars beside it and fell through to the basement,” Beth Graham said, noting that the wooden floor burned through. Burn marks can still be seen on the building’s first floor interior walls.

Three cars have remained in the basement ever since. In 2008 and again in 2015, they were discovered during building renovations, when contractors opened up the basement’s brick walls. Now, they are on display for public viewing. 

“That’s just great timing that it all happened that way,” said Greg Graham, regarding the museum’s opening coinciding with the announcement of the trail.

* * *

Tourism directors (from left) Kathleen Legg of Floyd County, James Houchins of Patrick County and Kevin Tosh of Franklin County stand in front of a display of moonshine-related photos and next to the logo of the new Mountain Spirit Trail.
Tourism directors (from left) Kathleen Legg of Floyd County, James Houchins of Patrick County and Kevin Tosh of Franklin County revealed the Mountain Spirit Trail brand at an event at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum on April 30. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

“I’m really anxious to see the whole lineup of what [the trail] has to offer and how that can be utilized by businesses and community partners,” said Kalen Hunter, senior destination development manager at Virginia Tourism Corporation, the state’s tourism agency.

“Our vision … is to take this to a regional and then also to a state level, to have a Moonshine Heritage Trail that retells the history of moonshine,” Houchins said during the event at BRIM.

The Mountain Spirit Trail received $5,500 in the spring of 2023 from the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Marketing Leverage Program. Patrick County partnered with Floyd County and Franklin County to supply $5,500 in matching funds. 

“It’s beneficial to see communities coming together to promote their assets,” Hunter said.

Marketing and managing the trail will be a collective effort between the three counties and the West Piedmont Planning District Commission. 

In 2022, tourism contributed $108.7 million in direct impact to Franklin, Patrick and Floyd counties, according to data from the Virginia Tourism Corporation. More than half of that, $67.9 million, was spent in Franklin County. That can probably be attributed to Franklin County’s location along Smith Mountain Lake, Tosh said, since the VTC data includes second-home spending. 

In 2022, Franklin County brought in $2.7 million in taxes attributable to visitor spending, according to the VTC data. Patrick and Floyd counties followed with $1.2 million and $700,000, respectively. 

According to Legg, she, Houchins and Tosh have drawn inspiration from the success of Kentucky’s Moonshine Trail. 

“It’s the perfect time because if you look [back] 10 to 15 years ago, it was still sort of taboo to talk about, but now more people are realizing that this is about their heritage,” Houchins said.

“We’re not promoting, per se, the consumption of moonshine. Although we know if you study something long enough, you’re going to want to see what it is,” he said.

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Here are the numbers that show why Russell County is looking at closing schools

A crowd of people fills chairs and stands against the walls at a public hearing before the Russell County School Board.

Every day, there are about 55 earthquakes around the world. Most are small, sometimes imperceptible except to seismic instruments, but the ground beneath our feet is always moving as the tectonic plates inside the earth shift back and forth.

Our demographics change in much the same way — usually slowly, in ways we barely notice, until the pressure builds up enough that there’s a big ground-shaker and earth-splitter.

Across Virginia, particularly the western part, we’re seeing the tremors caused by those changing demographics. Franklin County is closing two schools because there aren’t enough students. Bedford County and Lynchburg have looked at closing schools for the same reason, but so far elected officials there have managed to avoid that unpopular, although sometimes necessary, outcome.

Russell County is the latest to experience the demographic ground shifting enough that it, too, might have to close some schools. Superintendent Kimberly Cooper has recommended that the Copper Creek and Swords Creek elementary schools be closed; the school board is set to vote May 7. Cardinal’s Susan Cameron reported on a recent public hearing where parents and others implored the board not to close the schools. This isn’t new: Seven years ago, Russell County closed Givens Elementary.

Russell County has a declining population, declining school enrollment and faces a budget deficit that must be closed.

None of these things have come about suddenly, nor are many of these trends unique to Russell County — Russell’s just where the numbers have gotten to a point to force some action. With that in mind, let’s dive into the data to understand this better.

Bedford County and Lynchburg are interesting, and unusual, because their overall populations are growing, even though school enrollment isn’t — a dual consequence of aging populations and declining birth rates. Franklin County has been gaining population for a long time but only recently slipped into the population loss category even though more people are moving into the county than out of it — but those numbers are dwarfed by deaths outnumbering births and net in-migration.

Russell County fits into a different category because it’s been losing population in five of the last seven Census Bureau headcounts. Like many rural counties, it’s long seen an exodus of people — typically young adults — moving out. Russell also has another factor working against it: declining employment in the coal business.

To look at the specific numbers: Russell County’s population peaked at 26,818 in 1950 and then began declining as the coal industry became more mechanized and required fewer workers. By 1970, the county’s population had fallen to 24,533. The oil crises of the 1970s were an economic boom for coal counties — part of President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy was to dig more coal. During the 1970s, the populations in many coal counties surged. In Russell, it went up 29.5% to a record 31,761. By 2020, the county’s population was down to 25,781 (about what it had been sometime in the early 1970s).

Population changes by county between 2010 and 2020. Map courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.
Population changes by county between 2010 and 2020. Map courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, which handles the state’s demographic data, projects that Russell’s population will keep on declining — to 22,340 in 2030, to 19,781 in 2040, to 17,517 in 2050.

Projected population in Russell County.
Here’s how Russell County’s population is projected to fall. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Again, this isn’t unusual: Only one locality west of Montgomery County is projected to have a bigger population in 2050 than today, and that’s Washington County. The sharpest declines have been — and will likely continue to be — in Buchanan County. Buchanan peaked in 1980, just as Russell did, at 37,989. By 2020, it was down to 20,355. By 2050, it’s projected to be just 9,558.

None of these are happy numbers, but they are numbers that communities must contend with.

How Virginia's population has changed from 2000 to 2023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
How Virginia’s population has changed from 2000 to 2023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Some rural counties across Virginia have seen a demographic turnaround since the pandemic — they’re now seeing more people move in than out. I’ve called this a Zoom-era migration, although it’s hard to tell how much of that is truly driven by remote workers (although we have seen remote work increase in many places).

Russell County, though, has not benefited from this.

In the most recent population estimates, Russell is seen losing population two ways. It continues to experience out-migration — a net loss of 280 people via the moving van since 2020. And, like most places, it sees far more deaths than births — a deficit of 468, for a total population loss of 748.

There are two ways to look at this.

One way is this: Even if nobody moved out of the county, Russell County would keep losing population because the deaths-over-births rate is so high.

The other way is this: The county can’t do much about people dying, but it might be able to do something to make the county more attractive to newcomers. Not every county in that part of Southwest Virginia is seeing net out-migration. Lee County and Scott County are now both seeing more people move in than move out. Russell’s migration deficit isn’t unimaginably big. It seems something that, over time, could be turned around.

Having more people move in won’t necessarily help the county’s enrollment issues — witness Bedford County and Lynchburg.

Some of that has to do with the age of who’s moving in (which we can’t track precisely) and declining birth rates (which we can).

In the 2001-2002 school year, Russell County schools had an enrollment of 3,944. Last year that was down to 2,924. This year it’s back up to 3,178 but is projected to fall again to 2,929 by the 2028-2029 school year.

What Russell County schools need is a baby boom, but that doesn’t seem likely — not with birth rates declining, and not with the age structure of Russell’s population. Look at this Census Bureau population pyramid for Russell County:

Russell County population pyramid.
Here’s how the population in Russell County is distributed by age cohort. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Russell’s two biggest age cohorts are 55 to 59 and 65 to 69.

The smallest are ages 5 to 9 and under 5. The age cohort under age 5 is the smallest of any cohort under age 75 to 79.

Russell County is not that different from other counties in Southwest Virginia. Here’s the population pyramid for neighboring Washington County:

Washington County population pyramid.
Here’s how Washington County’s population is distributed. Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau.

As with Russell County, Washington County’s two biggest age cohorts are on the older side — ages 60 to 64 and 65 to 69. In Washington’s case, the age cohort under age 5 is the youngest of any age cohort under age 80 to 84.

Now notice how different Russell’s population pyramid is from Fairfax County:

Fairfax County population pyramid.
Here’s how the population in Fairfax County is distributed by age cohort. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

In Fairfax, the biggest age cohorts are ages 35 to 39 and 40 to 44. The age cohorts under age 10 are much larger than any of those age 65 and older.

Now let’s look at Arlington County:

Population pyramid for Arlington County.
Here’s how the population in Arlington County is distributed. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

This looks like a Christmas tree. The biggest age cohort is ages 25 to 29, with ages 30 to 34 being the next biggest. Athough those dwarf the age cohorts under age 20, the youngest age cohort is comparable to those ages 55 to 59 — and bigger than any age cohort older than that.

The short version: Fairfax and Arlington have younger populations than Russell County, which means they produce more children.

Having grown up in a rural area, and living in one now, I’m quite sympathetic to the idea of keeping rural schools open — they seem far more central to a rural community than an urban one. Closing a school also doesn’t make it easier to attract people to a community. At some point, though, the numbers are in charge. How much is Russell County willing to pay to keep all its schools open?

Russell County’s real estate tax rate is 63 cents per $100 of assessed value. That’s in line with what its neighbors charge (except for Buchanan County, where the rate is just 39 cents per $100). To raise the real estate tax rate would be unpopular, and put Russell County at a market disadvantage in its region. However, residents in more urban areas of the state won’t have much sympathy for Russell. People in Roanoke pay $1.22 per $100, those in Norfolk, $1.25; those in Falls Church, $1.32.

It’s not my place to tell Russell County what the county should do. But whatever it does, these are the numbers that will have to be part of that decision.  

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Parents, teachers beg Russell County not to close 2 elementary schools during emotional public hearing

A crowd of people fills chairs and stands against the walls at a public hearing before the Russell County School Board.

Parents, teachers and former students of two small elementary schools recommended for closing — many of them close to tears — begged the Russell County School Board on Thursday night to reject the plan.

All but one of the 17 people who spoke during a public hearing at the school board office in Lebanon opposed closing Swords Creek and Copper Creek elementary schools after this school year.

About 80 people, many of then standing because the chairs were full, attended the meeting.

Again and again, speakers talked about the schools as close-knit families where the students learn in a loving, nurturing environment that isn’t found at larger schools.

Josh Dye, a former student and now a teacher at Swords Creek Elementary, said the school is “exactly what you would want in a school. … The close relationships that faculty were able to have with colleagues and students, the close relationships that students have with their classmates, is something that cannot be denied.”

Josh Dye, a former student and now a teacher at Swords Creek Elementary, asks the Russell County School Board not to close the school. The board members are, from left, Jonathan Eaton, Kip Parsons and Bob Gibson. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Several parents said if the schools close, they will take their children out of Russell County schools and enroll them at a school in a neighboring county or a private school, or will homeschool them. One parent said about 200 students who live in Russell County already attend school in Wise County.

One threatened to move out of the county if the schools are shuttered.

Dye and several other speakers said they think the board has already decided to close the schools. After the meeting, Superintendent Kimberly Hooker said she did tell teachers and parents that she is recommending the change, and she and board Chairwoman Cynthia Compton said the decision will be made by the board during its May 7 meeting.

There are two reasons for the proposed closings, according to Hooker: declining enrollment and budget concerns stemming largely from a need to raise teacher salaries. 

Over the last two years, the school system has lost 51 teachers to surrounding counties that pay more, she said in an interview earlier this week. 

Russell County’s teacher salaries are the lowest in the state’s Region Seven, which includes 19 counties and cities in Southwest Virginia, and next to the bottom statewide, the superintendent said. 

According to the Virginia Department of Education’s teacher salary survey results for 2022-23, the latest figures available, the average teacher salary in Russell County was $43,101 in 2022, which was the lowest among nine counties in far Southwest Virginia. However, Russell County’s average teacher salary jumped 17% in 2023, when it was $50,430. The budgeted salary amount for 2024 decreased to $46,474, according to state figures. 

Neighboring Dickenson County had the second-lowest average teacher salary in 2022 — $43,131 — and the lowest the following year, $43,997. 

The plan is to boost teacher salaries so that the annual salary for a starting teacher with no experience would jump from $36,000 to $42,000.  

“It’s not getting us up there where we need to be, but it may get us up where we can at least be a little bit more competitive,” Hooker said in the interview. 

A number of those who spoke Thursday evening said that the county’s hardworking, dedicated teachers deserve raises, but they urged the board to find another way to pay for them. 

County school officials are working to close a deficit of about $1.9 million in the division’s budget, which currently totals about $58.23 million for the 2024-25 school year. Some improvements will have to be put off to move forward with the salary increases, Hooker said, including the purchase of three new school buses and new football stadium lights at one school. 

She said during a short presentation before the public hearing that closing the two elementary schools isn’t just about saving money — it’s also about “redirecting resources to improve the overall educational experience for our students by retaining high-quality teachers. It is about ensuring that every child has access to the opportunities and support they need to succeed.”

She added that a school is “not the building, the school is the people.”

Currently, the Russell school division has 3,143 students, which reflects a loss of nearly 400 students over the last four years, according to Hooker. 

Census Bureau numbers show that the county has seen a drop in population of about 12% since 2010.

But Sophie Chafin Vance, who is the parent of one child who should attend Copper Creek Elementary for the next two years and another child who graduated from the school, said if enrollment is a reason for the closing, Copper Creek should remain open. The school has grown in recent years, from nearly 100 students to a current enrollment of 144, she said.

Vance said her mother was a teacher at the school, and since learning that it might close, her whole family has been “distraught.”

The superintendent said that the decision to close the schools involved a lot of discussion, assessment and consideration for the well-being and future of students. It has been under discussion for the two years since she took the job, she added. 

“I do want people to know that this is a decision that was not taken lightly. And I do understand the passion that the community has for the schools,” she said. 

The move will save about $600,000, and because three or four teachers won’t return for the next school year, the teachers at the two schools would be moved to other schools so no one would lose jobs with the closings, Hooker said. 

Copper Creek Elementary, in Castlewood, was built in 1953 and has undergone three renovations. It now has pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. Its students would go to Castlewood Elementary this fall. 

Swords Creek Elementary, near Honaker, was built in 1954, with some additions in 1966. It houses pre-kindergarten through the seventh grade. Its 96 students would move to Honaker Elementary School if the closings are approved. 

The last time Russell County shuttered a school was in 2017, when Givens Elementary closed and combined with Swords Creek Elementary. 

Russell County is the latest locality in Southwest and Central Virginia to consider school closings to save money.  

Franklin County’s school board decided in February to close two elementary schools this summer after a change to its local funding formula left the division with a $3.7 million funding gap. The school division’s enrollment has dropped by about 20% over the past 15 years.  

Lynchburg decided in the fall to close two schools in 2025, and then briefly floated the idea of doing so earlier than anticipated if the city wasn’t willing to plug a budget deficit for the upcoming year. This week, city staff presented a budget option that would keep both schools open an additional year. 

Bedford County recently considered closing an elementary school to prepare for an upcoming change in the county’s local funding formula, but ultimately decided it wasn’t ready to do so. The school on the chopping block was Stewartsville Elementary, a 112-year-old building that’s only operating at about half capacity. 

In most places that are considering closing schools in the near future, declining enrollment is the primary driver.  

Virginia’s population has gotten smaller and older, particularly in rural areas. That decline has left some public schools operating with far fewer students than they were intended to hold.  

But even as student counts have dropped, the costs of running the schools they attend have gone up. From utility bills to costly repairs and renovations, every aspect of operating a school facility has become more expensive.  

And while changes to the local composite index that determines locality responsibility for school funding has put some places in an immediate bind, the reality statewide is that the funding formula underestimates the amount of funding school divisions truly need to educate their students. 

That leaves local officials on the hook to make some tough choices to keep their budgets balanced. 

Lisa Rowan contributed information to this story. 

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A lack of child care can be a barrier for community college students. Virginia is looking for answers.

Amirah uses a tablet in a pastel case while sitting in her mother's lap. Taneisha looks over her daughter's shoulder at the screen. Amirah talks animatedly with her mother and has pink and white beads in two braids that frame her face.

When Taneisha Mathews went back to school, her daughters went with her.

It was Mathews’ second attempt at working toward an associate degree. When she first enrolled at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg in 2014, she was a teen mom who felt that going to college was what she was supposed to do — but she didn’t know yet what she wanted her career to look like. 

“I ended up flunking out because I mentally was forcing myself to do it,” she said.

When Mathews returned to campus in summer 2022, she brought Aniyah, then 10, and Amirah, then 3, with her to her night class. Aniyah usually brought a book and hung out in the nearby student center. Amirah sat in the classroom near her mother.

It was an early childhood development course. Mathews had been working full time at a Head Start child care facility for about a year, but she needed to start earning credentials to advance there.

Mathews’ instructor signed off on the arrangement because there were only a handful of students in the summer class. 

Taneisha sits in a leather armchair with Amirah curled up in her lap. Amirah is holding her tablet while she talks with her mom.
Amirah Mathews sits with her mother, Taneisha Mathews, in a student lounge at Central Virginia Community College. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

But when it came time to plan ahead for the fall semester, the rules changed. Mathews’ next class would be more crowded, and Amirah couldn’t tag along. 

Mathews understood. She was able to lean on her mother and a cousin for help watching the girls when she went to class after spending the day at work.

But her journey hasn’t been easy. As a single mother with two jobs, Mathews, 30, admitted she’s thought about taking a break from working on her degree as recently as last semester.

Virginia’s community colleges are hubs for addressing the state’s workforce demands, with students ranging from traditional associate degree-seekers preparing to transfer to four-year schools to those earning an increasing number of short-term credentials to be used in the workforce immediately.

But affordable access to child care can be a major barrier for community college students, many of whom are older and have families.

Only a handful of the state’s 23 community colleges offer on-campus child care centers. The schools primarily rely on community partnerships to help students find and pay for child care.

A pilot program at five Virginia community colleges that provides stipends to single parents has had positive outcomes thus far. And across the state, there’s an effort to train more child care workers to alleviate staffing shortages. 

But child care solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all, especially for student parents and their families.

[Read more about the wraparound services that community colleges are offering: Community colleges are helping with housing, gas and food to keep students in class.]

Shortage of openings makes finding care even harder

More than 1 in 5 undergraduate students in the U.S. are parents, but on-campus child care is unavailable for most who need it. 

Just 28% of public institutions and 7% of private nonprofit institutions offered on-campus child care as of 2022, according to federal data analyzed by the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank.

Virginia offers robust financial aid programs to students pursuing in-demand fields at community colleges. But state and federal grants usually can’t cover the cost of living. Full-time formal child care in Virginia costs an average of $100 to $440 per week, per child, according to a 2023 report from Virginia’s independent Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

Even if parents can afford care, it’s often hard to find a reliable source. The state would need 140,000 additional child care slots to properly accommodate the care needs for children under age 12, the JLARC study found. And fewer than half of the state’s licensed child care providers participate in a state subsidy program that reduces child care costs for low-income households.


Rural Realities: Education, Workforce, and Progress 

People are growing more skeptical about the value of higher education. More rural residents are graduating from high school, but people in those communities remain less likely than their suburban and urban peers to continue their education. This 10-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from Ascendium, explores how institutions and students are meeting their educational needs and the demands of today’s rural workforce. 


It’s even harder for parents in rural areas to find child care “because we’re so spread out,” said Bonnie Graham, head of the early childhood education program at New River Community College in Dublin. Most child care centers are operating at full capacity, she said, and centers that aren’t are limited by a lack of staff. 

“They cannot find providers to fill those vacancies or to teach in the classrooms,” Graham said, noting that the shortage existed before 2020 but was exacerbated by the pandemic.

The shortage is most profound for parents of infants and toddlers, Graham said. State regulations require more staff in classrooms for the youngest children, which drives up the cost for families.

In rural Southwest Virginia, where New River Community College is located, there are about 13,000 child care slots for kids under age 5. But about 6,000 more slots are needed to truly meet demand, based on data from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that works with the state to increase access to child care.

But child care can make a difference in a student parent’s success. 

A workforce training program in Oklahoma that works with families enrolled in Head Start found that participating parents were more likely to complete their certifications and be employed after one year. 

At Los Angeles Valley College, 26% of student parents who took advantage of the school’s Family Resource Center over a three-year period finished their associate degree or career program, compared to about 13% of those who didn’t use the center, according to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The Family Resource Center offers parenting workshops, play groups and a computer lab, while the nearby child development center provides daytime and evening care options.

A toddler looks at a book about frogs while sitting in a teacher's lap on the floor. The toddler is wearing a faux fur vest from a dress-up bin over their clothes.
A toddler sits in a teacher’s lap at Helping Hands Development Center at Danville Community College. Helping Hands reserves 25% of its slots for faculty and students. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Community colleges with child care offer wide range of service levels 

The child care centers affiliated with Virginia’s community colleges each have their own specialty.

New River Community College provides space for a Head Start classroom for 3- and 4-year-old children that’s open to both students and the wider community. Head Start is a free, federally funded early childhood program for low-income families.

Tidewater Community College recently opened two child care centers on its campuses in Portsmouth and Norfolk. The centers specialize in care for children ages 3 to 5, with after-school and drop-in care available for children up to age 12. 

In Southside Virginia, Danville Community College’s Helping Hands Child Development Center has four classrooms serving infants through pre-K.

There, owner Jessica Testerman has a wait list for all four rooms. Though she’s contracted for 78 slots, she only has capacity for about 55 children right now due to staffing constraints. 

When families tour Helping Hands, “I tell them to get on every wait list,” Testerman said. 

Danville’s students are among the luckier ones: A private child care center has operated on campus since 2001; Testerman took it over in 2019. The center also serves as a training lab for early childhood education students at the community college.

A small child wearing pink pants cradles a baby doll to their chest.
A toddler holds a baby doll at Helping Hands Child Development Center in Danville. The center has four classrooms for infants through pre-K; all have waiting lists. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Helping Hands reserves 25% of its slots for faculty and students. As of February, two part-time and six full-time students received financial assistance for their children to attend the center. The Danville Community College Educational Foundation offers grants that pay up to 40% of the weekly rate, which students can use in conjunction with the state child care subsidy.

Danville alumna Kaitlin Oldham had one child when she enrolled in 2019 to study nursing. The admissions office told her about the on-site child care and encouraged her to walk over to the center to learn more. 

For a while, Oldham didn’t have to pay anything for child care thanks to the grant she received from the school. “It was a big blessing to not have to pay for day care at an actual safe day care center where I was literally in the next building,” she said. Her nursing classes were held in a building that overlooks the Helping Hands playground.

Eventually, with three kids at Helping Hands — they’re now 6, 3 and 2 — she had to pay for care. But the grant kept her costs to half of what they would have been without it, Oldham said. 

While Oldham was in school, her family depended solely on her husband’s income as an engineer at an auto plant. “If it wasn’t for the grant, we financially could not have afforded for me to go to school,” she said. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she was able to use the child care center even though her classes were online. “You can’t do nursing and have people at home — or at least children at home,” she said. “You need the peace and quiet to study and do your schoolwork.” 

Oldham graduated in 2022 and is working as a registered nurse at a local hospital while she works on her bachelor of nursing degree online. 

Other on-campus child care facilities may be smaller but still play a significant role in their communities.

New River Community College previously had an on-campus early learning center that primarily served the children of faculty members. In 2016, New River Community Action, which oversees Head Start in the region, contacted the community college about opening an additional classroom there. 

New River Community Action uses the college’s space for free but hires its own staff and supervises New River students who are earning their early childhood education practical hours.

The center, located inside an academic building on campus, serves about 20 children who are 3 and 4 years old. It’s open to the community, with priority going to families with the greatest financial need and students at New River.

But usually, just a few of the college’s students have a child enrolled in the Head Start classroom. The age limitation is one factor, as are the daytime-only hours. 

“Sometimes it’s the right fit and sometimes it’s not, depending on where in our service region they live, where they’re attending classes … the time of day they need care and what days they need care,” said Sarah Tolbert-Hurysz, the dean of arts and sciences at the college. 

Despite its constraints, the relationship between Head Start and the college is mutually beneficial. “We attend events they’re having for new students coming to their programs so they’re aware of our services,” said Felicia Ba, site administrator for the Head Start classroom on campus. “It’s really great being located here because you have workforce development, all these different supports, that Head Start can help connect families to right here on campus.”

At the same time, Tolbert-Hurysz said the children in the Head Start classroom become familiar with the community college and the people who work there at a young age. That can help them recognize their local community college as a resource throughout their lives, she said.

A playground and part of a one-story building are seen in the foreground. A larger building with large windows overlooks the playground.
Helping Hands Child Development Center on the campus of Danville Community College is located next to Foundation Hall, where the health science departments are housed. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

New River is one of five community colleges participating in a pilot program called College Attainment for Parent Students, or CAPS. The program, funded for a two-year trial by the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, provides extra support to single parents, including a $2,000 stipend each semester to put toward child care. 

Each of the participating schools is on its third semester-long cohort of up to 20 students, with some students electing to stay in the program for more than one semester. At New River, all of the participants have been first-generation college students. The average student in the cohort is in their early 30s.

CAPS has also provided $45,000 in emergency funds across the five schools since launching in summer 2023. Those funds might go toward car repairs or helping a student make rent.

Though most of the participants in the pilot have been women, New River has had three men join its CAPS cohorts. “The dads have gravitated toward one another,” said Stephanie Addikis, who runs the program there.

CAPS students work with coaches who can connect them with resources on campus and beyond. Providing emotional support and encouragement is a part of that role.

Taneisha Mathews, center, hands the microphone to another community college student during a College Attainment for Parent Students event at the Virginia Community College System office in Richmond. The three answered questions about being student parents. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Additional programs in the works to increase child care access

Taneisha Mathews, who’s part of the CAPS program at Central Virginia, said her stipend has allowed her to cut back on her hours as a cashier at a grocery store, pay for babysitting and put a little money aside for emergencies. 

But she’s still working two jobs and caring for her daughters. She took four classes in the fall semester and felt so burned out by the end she waited to sign up for spring classes until the first day of the new semester. 

“I still have a voicemail from her,” Mathews said of her CAPS coach. “She kept calling and checking on me. And I was ignoring her. That’s how mentally checked out I was.” Mathews said she didn’t want to hear encouragement from her coach, “even though I think I did need it.” 

She had started taking classes toward her child development certification in 2022, and then she decided to keep working toward her associate degree. She’s enrolled in two classes now, which she said is far more manageable than four. She’ll graduate in August if she takes two summer classes, or in December if she spreads out her last few courses. She checks in with her CAPS coach weekly and sometimes stops by her office before class.

Across Virginia, there’s an effort underway to train more child care staffers like Mathews. The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation has started expanding its Fast Track Initiative to accelerate training and raise pay for child care workers into nine regions of the state, including Lynchburg and Danville. 

And a regional United Way is using grant funding from the U.S. Department of Labor to train workers as assistant teachers in 17 Southwest Virginia counties.

Taneisha walks through the empty student lounge away from the camera wearing a gray t-shirt, white sweatpants, and a black backpack. Amirah, in a white ruffled shirt and green skirt, holds her hand.
Taneisha Mathews walks through a student lounge with her daughter, Amirah, at Central Virginia Community College. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Nationwide, more than 950 Head Start programs are already located at career and technical education centers, and a five-year initiative is set to expand Head Start access at community colleges.

Funding from the Virginia General Assembly aims to further increase access to child care on college campuses. 

The state budget, which passed in early March and is awaiting Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s signature, allocates $10 million over two years for competitive grants for public and private colleges, local governments and state government agencies that want to expand access to child care. Applications to use available space on community college campuses will get prioritized, as will projects that will offer training to college students studying early childhood education. 

Applications for that grant will likely open in early 2025.

Meanwhile, Central Virginia has commissioned a feasibility study to look at offering on-campus child care, thanks to a grant obtained by the community college’s foundation. 

But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for on-campus child care, said Kim Gregory, head of the early childhood development program at the college. She’s also the instructor who let Mathews bring little Amirah to class a few summers ago — until it just didn’t work anymore.

“Eventually, I had to be like, I can’t. She’s adorable and sweet and fun,” Gregory said. But having a child in the class was a distraction. Gregory said most of her child development students are women who already work in child care. During the day, they can often take their children to work with them. “But all my classes are at night,” she said. 

Gregory is a devoted mentor to Mathews and her other students. She likes getting to see Amirah on campus from time to time. But Gregory doesn’t have all the answers. She hopes the feasibility study on her campus will help close some of the gaps for her students who need care.

“There’s certainly not enough child care for people who need it during the day,” she said. “But then when you look at our students who need it at night, because they’re in a night class, or students who work second and third shift.” 

But the challenge, she said, will be determining how to focus child care services based on the greatest benefit for the entire student body. 

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and Cardinal News, KOSU, Mississippi Today, Shasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

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It was once his family’s farm — the largest Black-owned farm in Albemarle County — but now we all own part of it

Why are kids from Guatemala coming to Culpeper?

A sign for Culpeper, Virginia, is displayed on a road.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

CULPEPER, Virginia — For years, Angie’s parents resisted her pleas to bring her to the United States. There was no legal path to bring her here from Guatemala, and she was too young to travel by herself. 

But the pandemic changed everything. Two years ago, the family — parents, grandfather and uncle — put their savings together to pay a smuggler to bring the teen to the U.S.

“We were afraid that we would never see her again,” said Angie’s mother, Norma, 38. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Angie arrived in 2021. The federal government released the teen to her mother a few weeks after she was taken into custody by Border Patrol after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. She was finally home with the family that left her behind in Guatemala 10 years ago.

“What I like the most about the U.S. is being with my whole family for the first time,” said Angie, 16. “I missed them every day.” (The Center for Public Integrity is not publishing Angie’s and Norma’s full names to protect their identities.)

Angie is the third generation of her family from the town of Huehuetenango in the western highlands of Guatemala to come live here. She is also one of more than half-a-million immigrant children who have come to the U.S. alone in the past decade. Almost half came from Guatemala, federal data show.

While most of these children are more likely to live in major U.S. cities, hundreds are also arriving in rural counties and towns like Culpeper. At least 428 minors made Culpeper their home between 2014 and 2021 after crossing the border without a parent or guardian, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows.

Almost half, or 190, came in 2021 when the U.S. southern border was closed to most asylum seekers except a few, including unaccompanied minors, under a Centers for Disease Control emergency order known as Title 42. The order was enacted in March of 2020 and later lifted in May of 2023.

Culpeper was among the top three rural counties with the most unaccompanied children placements nationwide in 2021, according to department data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity and Scripps News.

The rural town of Culpeper, Virginia is home to some 20,000 people including multiple generations of immigrants from remote, mostly Indigenous communities in the western highlands of Guatemala. (Louis Ramirez / Scripps News)

Many of them came here to fill labor shortages caused after the border was closed while others, like Angie, came to be reunited with their loved ones, according to dozens of interviews with immigrant children, sponsors, community leaders, social service providers, law enforcement officials, attorneys and immigration experts by Public Integrity and Scripps.

For at least three decades, immigrants from Guatemala have found refuge and work in this rural town of some 20,000 people nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Virginia. Angie’s grandfather came here in the late 1980s fleeing persecution during the country’s 36-year-long civil war. Others came after droughts and floods uprooted their lives but most were driven out by extreme poverty and hunger.

Angie's mother, Norma, came with a temporary visa in 2011 to work at an industrial greenhouse in a neighboring county. She joined her husband who came to work here with his father in 2007, shortly after Angie was born. Norma said it was a hard decision to leave Angie in the care of her parents. She never thought they would be apart for so long.

Angie's father joined the family’s tree trimming business built by his father, where his brother also works. Angie’s mother overstayed her visa when she learned that they were pregnant with their second child.

“I knew she [Angie] was in good hands and that I could help her and my parents who were struggling financially,” Norma said.

Poverty, inequality and corruption

Guatemala has a population of more than 17 million people, and more than half of them live below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank.

To survive, millions of families across Guatemala rely on remittances or money sent by their loved ones living and working abroad. In 2023, remittances reached a record $19.8 billion, according to Guatemala’s Central Bank. That’s more than the government’s entire annual budget.

A 2022 study by the Migration Policy Institute found that 80% of migrants returned to Guatemala left the country for economic reasons, 10% were fleeing violence, and 7% left to reunify with their families.

The number one cause of migration in Latin America is inequality, according to a 2018 presentation from Alicia Bárcena, former executive director of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a United Nations research organization. Bárcena said the top 10% make up to 70 times more than the bottom 10% across Mexico and Central America.

In Guatemala, inequality is driven mainly by a handful of families that control most of the country's major industries, including cement, metal products, and sugar, according to Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, an economist and Guatemala’s former finance minister.

These powerful, wealthy families have “strangled the economy” and controlled the government to benefit themselves for over a century, he said. He blames low wages and a lack of social services on the greed of these families.

Knight said for many families in Guatemala, immigration is the only feasible way to escape poverty. He said it’s not uncommon for families to pitch in and invest to send someone north to work or go to school.

“With these children, it’s not that they’re just sending them irresponsibly,” Knight said. “They want them to have a better life and they are investing a lot of money to do that.” 

Family ties

Víctor Díaz Sánchez came to Culpeper in 2018 from Colotenango, a municipality in Huehuetenango. The same department or state Angie and her family came from. With a population of about 35,000, Colotenango consists of at least eight villages separated by mountains, each with its own Mayan dialect and traditions, according to Sánchez.

Sánchez drank a black coffee from the 7-Eleven across the street on a cool spring morning as he explained the different variations of Mam and K’iche’ spoken by the 50 or so men soaking up the sun and having breakfast at a regular Culpeper day-laborer pickup spot.

“I don’t think most of us want to be here,” said Sánchez, 27. “But because we were born poor in a country run by corrupt individuals, we are forced to leave.”

Migration from Guatemala to the U.S. has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Census data show the Guatemalan foreign-born population living in the U.S. more than tripled, from 320,000 in 2000 up to 1 million in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center.

Sánchez said day laborer sites here typically swell with workers during the spring and summer and subside with the cold weather. Most of the immigrants he’s seen were young men until 2021 when teenagers began to outnumber the adults. 

“Look, he came here a few weeks ago from Guatemala,” Sánchez said as he pointed towards a young man sitting a couple of feet away from him, wearing a black Venom sweatshirt and skinny jeans, outside the 7-Eleven. The 15-year-old who did not want to disclose his name said he’d crossed illegally into the U.S. through the Arizona desert. He came here from the western highlands of Guatemala to find work trimming trees like his brother and cousins did years ago.

About 200,000 Guatemalans turn 15 every year and enter the labor market, but there are few new jobs for them, according to Bárcena, who led the ECLAC from 2008 to 2022.

The majority of these Guatemalan children arriving in the U.S. alone are coming from the department or state of Huehuetenango, according to an ongoing study of deported Guatemalan unaccompanied minors by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The IOM works with the United Nations to advocate for safe and legal pathways for migrants worldwide.

Huehuetenango has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in Latin America. Guatemala is among the five most food-insecure countries in the world, according to a 2021 report by MPI and the World Food Program, an organization within the U.N. About 47% of children in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition compared to 1% in the U.S. and 13% in Mexico. In Huehuetenango, that number is 68%, according to the report.

Most communities in the western highlands also lack access to quality hospitals, schools and other public and social services, according to the study. 

But things have been this way for a long time for people in this region, according to Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz, director of Associacion Pop Noj, an organization that runs immigrant shelters for children in Guatemala. Paz y Paz co-authored a 2022 report with MPI and IOM titled, “Migration from Huehuetenango in Guatemala’s Western Highlands.”

For more than a century, Guatemalans from this region have migrated in great numbers to coffee plantations located near the country’s Pacific coast and across southern Mexico to find seasonal work. Others have migrated to Guatemala’s major cities looking for better job opportunities, according to the report.

In the 1960s, some communities in the region, including families from Huehuetenango, began immigrating to the U.S. These immigration patterns were accelerated in the 1980s when the region was ravaged by violence including multiple massacres during the country’s civil war, according to the report. 

Most migrants moved to California, Florida, Nebraska, Texas, and major metropolitan areas like New York and Washington, D.C. One of the first studies about migration conducted in this region in 2004 showed that up to one-third of families from Huehuetenango had a relative living in the U.S. 

“These networks and routes to the U.S. have facilitated and are a driving force behind the intense migration we’ve seen from this region,” said Paz y Paz.

Support from afar

While living in Huehuetenango, Angie received money from her parents in Culpeper every month. She used the money to pay for her school, food and clothing. 

A 2020 study by the Catholic Diocese of Huehuetenango found more than 80% of people living here had a close family member living in the U.S. Many families rely on money from relatives abroad to survive.

In 2022, the money sent from abroad to this country totaled $18 billion, nearly four times the amount of money sent in 2012, according to Guatemala’s Central Bank. Half of that money was spent on food, according to the MPI and Paz y Paz study.

Back in Culpeper, Angie was sitting on the front steps of her multi-generational home scrolling through her mom’s phone with her 10-year-old sister, who was born in the U.S. The two had not met in person until Angie came to the U.S. The elder sister said she thanks God each morning for her life in the U.S. and for her parents who fought so hard to bring her. 

Even so, Angie is anxious about her future. She checks the mailbox every day dreading a letter from immigration court summoning her to appear before an immigration judge who will decide her fate and possible future in the U.S. 

“I want to stay, but I know there’s a possibility that I get sent back,” she said. “Either way, I want to continue studying and I know my parents will support me as best they can from nearby or afar.”

The post Why are kids from Guatemala coming to Culpeper? appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

Roanoke is losing population two ways. What that means for the Evans Spring debate.

The Evans Spring area is the mostly undeveloped land across Interstate 581 from Valley View Mall. This is the view looking south, toward downtown Roanoke, as seen from the Lick Run Greenway. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the classic 1942 film “Casablanca”!

After Humphrey Bogart’s character shoots and kills a German major, the French captain who witnessed the murder diverts police by telling them: “Round up the usual suspects.” That wasn’t the first use of that phrase — it apparently originated in the world of New York police and criminals in the 1930s — but it was the usage that popularized the phrase.

It’s also a phrase that comes to mind when I rummage through the latest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. One way to understand what’s going on beneath the surface of population gains and losses is to look at the two ways localities are either gaining or losing: Do they have more births than deaths or the other way around? Do they have more people moving in than moving out or the other way around?

These localities are losing population two ways. This chart shows which category is driving most of the population loss. Data source: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the University of Virginia.
These localities are losing population two ways. This chart shows which category is driving most of the population loss. Data source: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the University of Virginia.

There are 19 localities that lost population both ways — “double losers,” I call them, not to be pejorative, just accurate. Of those 19 localities, 17 are what I’d call the usual suspects — mostly rural communities in Southwest and Southside that have been losing population for a long time. I’ll have more to say about those double losers in a future column — teaser: some of them actually have some positive trends going down deep in the numbers. Today, I’ll turn my attention to the two outliers: Radford and Roanoke.

Radford is the easiest to explain. Virtually all of its population decline is due to out-migration. The city saw 727 more people move out than move in, while deaths outnumbered births by 23. While the data doesn’t say who those people moving out were or what their motivations are, it’s hard not to conclude that this is simply a function of Radford being a university town. Of course, people are going to be moving out of town. Even Charlottesville had net out-migration and nobody says Charlottesville is a market failure of a city. I’m inclined not to be alarmed by Radford’s figures.

That leaves Roanoke, which is more curious. Roanoke, which dropped to a population of 94,911 in the 2000 census, has been very proud of gaining (more accurately, regaining) population in the two decades that followed. In the 2010 census, the city was counted at 97,032; in the 2020 census, Roanoke moved back over the 100,000 mark for the first time in 40 years with just 11 to spare: 100,011.

However, the annual estimates since then have shown the city’s population declining and this latest round of data was no exception: Roanoke’s population is now put at 99,045, a drop of 966 people, or 1%, since the last census.

Why is this? Why has Roanoke’s growth suddenly stopped and gone in reverse?

Let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can find.

How Virginia's population has changed from 2000 to 20023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
How Virginia’s population has changed from 2000 to 2023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

As noted above, Roanoke is one of those double losers — it’s got both more deaths than births (683) and more people moving out than moving in (283).

The good news for Roanoke is that it’s a pretty explainable configuration.

Most localities in the state have more deaths than births, a consequence of both an aging population and declining birth rates. As cities go, Roanoke is on the older side of things, with a median age of 38.1, as compared to 34.4 for Richmond and 28.6 for Lynchburg. Yes, Lynchburg has the demographic advantage of being a college town, but the point is, Roanoke’s population skews older — which naturally means more deaths and fewer babies.

While it would be better to have more births than deaths, Roanoke shouldn’t be surprised by having more hearses than baby carriages; the localities in the state that have more births than deaths are almost entirely in the urban crescent. In demographic terms, no locality can stop people from dying and, realistically, localities aren’t going to reverse declining birth rates, either. That’s not just a national phenomenon, it’s one that we see across much of the world. That means the only thing a locality can do to make up that deaths-over-births deficit is to attract more young adults, who then proceed to have babies. Hold that thought.

The more worrisome figures are the out-migration numbers, because those do tend to reflect whether a community is a market success or a market failure — people really do vote with their feet.

Now here’s the curious thing: Through last year, Roanoke had net in-migration — 67 more people moving in than moving out from 2000 to 2022. Something has happened in the past year to turn that 67-person surplus into a 283-person deficit. What would suddenly cause such an outflow?

This data doesn’t tell us, so we’re left to surmise some things we know from other data. 

First, maybe we shouldn’t hang too much on a single year’s dataset. When we look year by year at the data from the previous decade, we see some years with net in-migration and some years with net out-migration. However, for the previous decade, Roanoke wound up on the plus side, with net in-migration of 342. In the first three years of the current decade, the city’s new net out-migration has almost wiped that out, so perhaps we ought to pay some attention.

Second, let’s think of the life cycle of a city. Often young adults start out in an apartment in a city, then graduate, so to speak, to a home. We know from migration reports from the Internal Revenue Service that the most common destination of those moving out of Roanoke is Roanoke County. It’s entirely possible that what we’re seeing here is the natural progression of things: A young couple moves into the city, has a kid or two, and then moves out to a house in Roanoke County or beyond. If that’s the case, then the question we don’t know the answer to is whether that family moved out of the city because they didn’t like the city or because they couldn’t find suitable housing in the city, but did find it elsewhere. Hold that thought, too.

This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

All we do know is this: Roanoke’s net out-migration from 2000 to 2023 is unusual when compared with other cities in the western part of the state. During that time, Martinsville had net in-migration of 226. Galax had net in-migration of 233. Salem had net in-migration of 246. Lynchburg had net in-migration of 293. Staunton had net in-migration of 434. Waynesboro had net in-migration of 580. Danville saw net in-migration of 815, a surge that puts it in the same neighborhood as Chesapeake, a city nearly six times its size. (I’ll look more closely at this in a future column.) In losing people through a net out-migration of 283, Roanoke is more akin to Hopewell, which had a net out-migration of 268.

Ultimately, I can’t tell you why Roanoke had this net out-migration; the data doesn’t speak to it. It seems odd to me because I see Roanoke as a quite appealing city. However, I can tell you what these numbers lead to. The Weldon Cooper Center projects that Roanoke will see its school enrollment fall by 4% over the next four years. That’s not the biggest decline in the state — some localities are in the double-digit range, with Buchanan County at -16% — but it is one of the bigger ones in the immediate area. Roanoke County’s enrollment is projected to fall by 2%, Botetourt County’s is projected to remain flat. Only Salem’s drop comes in larger, at -8%.

Now come the policy questions that Roanokers must deal with. First, are they OK with the city losing population again? If so, then there’s nothing they need to do — just keep in mind that a smaller population doesn’t necessarily mean fewer expenses, because some costs are fixed. It costs the same to keep Patrick Henry and William Fleming high schools open no matter how many students are in them, for instance. If Roanokers aren’t OK with losing population, then they need to decide what to do about that.

Demographically speaking, the city needs more young adults — that’s how you ultimately reverse declining school enrollment. The city also needs to figure out how to keep more people from moving out of the city than moving in. Is that a more robust economy? Is that more housing options, and maybe more affordable housing options? Is that something else? We could make a long list of possibilities.

What’s next on Evans Springs

The Roanoke Planning Commission will hear a presentation on the city’s master plan for Evans Spring on Monday, Feb. 12.

The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. in city council chambers.

I mention housing because that’s a problem we see cropping up in lots of communities, and it’s one that looming larger in Roanoke for one particular reason: the question of whether the 151-acre Evans Spring property should be developed. That’s the largest undeveloped tract of land in the city, and it’s in a prime developable location, beside Interstate 581 and across from Valley View Mall. It’s also next to a predominantly Black neighborhood with a long memory of being treated wrongly by the city, dating to urban renewal in the ’60s. We’ve seen a movement spring up to “Save Evans Spring” in the name of preserving woodland and green space. All this is complicated by the fact that the city doesn’t own the land in question; it’s divided into multiple tracts owned by multiple owners, all of whom already have the right to develop the property to some degree — they just haven’t.

It’s understandable why some believe Evans Spring should be developed: If you think the city needs new residents to reverse these population declines, then they need a place to live. If not here, where? The challenge is it’s not particularly popular to be in favor of cutting down lots of trees, especially when the city has declared this to be the Year of the Tree.

It’s also understandable why some want to leave Evans Spring untouched: You can’t really go out and create new green space. The challenge is that because the owners already have the right to engage in some development, if you really want to “Save Evans Spring,” then the city needs to buy the property and turn it into a nature preserve or park.

The fight over Evans Spring may seem political, or environmental, but it’s really demographics that are helping drive this — a declining population, and declining enrollment, and the desire to reverse both of those. If Evans Spring is spared, where should the city develop new housing? Or is that not something the city should worry about?

This is a good test of Roanoke’s priorities.

Open house in Martinsville

Cardinal is kicking off a series of open houses around our coverage area. On Monday, we’ll be in Martinsville at The Ground Floor from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. If you’re in the area, come by to meet some of the Cardinal team.

The post Roanoke is losing population two ways. What that means for the Evans Spring debate. appeared first on Cardinal News.

New population estimates show a rural renaissance while Fairfax County loses big

This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Fairfax County is losing population at a faster rate than some counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

People are moving out of parts of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads at rates not seen in our lifetimes — or sometimes ever.

Meanwhile, virtually every part of rural Virginia — with two clusters of exceptions — has seen an influx of newcomers over the past three years as pandemic-induced population trends reshape the state in sometimes unprecedented ways.

Those are three big takeaways from the annual population estimates released over the weekend by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. If some of them sound familiar to you, it’s likely because you’ve paid attention to our previous coverage of the state’s demographic trends that have shown all these trends coming at us, like a wave rolling toward the shore. What’s new is that these are new numbers — estimates of each locality’s population as of July 1, 2023 — and they paint a picture of the state’s population trends in even brighter colors than what we’ve had before.

I’ll mine several columns out of this data, but for now, here are some of the highlights:

How Virginia's population has changed from 2000 to 20023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
How Virginia’s population has changed from 2000 to 2023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Virginia’s population growth has slowed to almost nothing

Hamilton Lombard.
Hamilton Lombard.

From 2022 to 2023, the state’s population grew by less than half a percentage point, from 8,696,955 to 8,729,032. “For Virginia, this is the slowest it has grown since the Civil War,” says demographer Hamilton Lombard at the Weldon Cooper Center. Since the 2020 census, the state’s population is up 1%. At that rate, Virginia is on track for its slowest decade of population growth rate since the 1870 census put us at 0.5% — a figure that was skewed by the wartime loss of West Virginia. Since then, Virginia’s slowest-growing decade was the 1920s, when the population grew 4.9%.

So why is Virginia growing so slowly? Which set of politicians can we blame? Demographers don’t really look at the world that way. Instead, they look at trends that often defy political solutions. Among them:

Birth rates continue to decline

This isn’t just a Virginia trend, it’s a trend across much of the world. In statistical terms, births have to be measured against deaths — what demographics call either “natural increase” (more births than deaths) or “natural decrease” (more deaths than births). Virginia still has more births than deaths, just a lot fewer than it used to. In 2019, the state saw about 27,000 more births than deaths. In 2022, there were fewer than 13,000 more births than deaths. These are trends with long-term implications — for K-12 school enrollment, for college enrollment, for eventual labor pools. The worker shortage begins at home, with declining birth rates.

I’ll examine some of the specific numbers in a future column, but you can look at them now on your own on the Weldon Cooper Center website.

Keep in mind that births and deaths aren’t the only way populations change. The other driver of population is people moving either in or or out, and for many localities, that’s been a bigger factor in their population gains or losses than the birth rate.

This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out -- or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births -- and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

The pandemic years have seen people move out of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and into much of rural Virginia

That’s the simple version. The longer version is as complicated as each person’s individual story. We’ll aim for something in the middle. The two localities losing the most population since 2000 are Fairfax County (-10,911) and Virginia Beach (-5,865). Some rural counties in Southwest and Southside may be losing population at faster rates (Buchanan County has the steepest population loss on a percentage basis, at -5.7%) but the actual numbers are much smaller. The population declines that are doing the most to reshape the state are out of Fairfax County and many of the cities in Hampton Roads — and those population declines are driven by people moving out, not a declining birth rate.

In Fairfax County, births have outnumbered deaths over the past three years by 22,642. But 33,553 more people have moved out than moved in — which wipes out Fairfax’s birth rate and means the county has lost 10,911 people since the last census. Likewise, Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach have all seen more births than deaths — but the moving van has left those cities losing population.

These are population trends of historic proportions. Since Virginia Beach absorbed Princess Anne County in the early 1960s, the city has never seen its population decrease in a census. Maybe the city will turn things around and won’t post a decrease in the next headcount, but it’s headed that way now. Fairfax County hasn’t seen a population loss since the 1830 census, but it’s losing now. Here’s some more context: Over the past three years, Fairfax County has lost population at a faster rate (-0.9%) than some counties in Southwest and Southside, which historicially have seen the biggest declines. Some comparisons: Nottoway County lost population at a rate of -0.1%, Mecklenburg County at -0.3%, Washington County at -0.6%. Looking deeper into the numbers, Fairfax’s out-migration rate has been higher than most counties in Southwest and Southside; the only real difference between Fairfax County and those rural counties in these latest numbers is that Fairfax County has more births than deaths; those rural counties don’t.

These figures for Fairfax County should be the brightest of red flags: Northern Virginia is the state’s economic engine. This is where our single biggest chunk of tax revenue is produced. If the biggest locality in Northern Virginia (not to mention the state) is losing population, that has fiscal implications throughout the state.

Other localities in Northern Virginia are still seeing their populations increase — but that’s because of births still outnumbering deaths and everything else. Beneath the surface, Arlington, Alexandria, Manassas and Prince William County all saw more people moving out than moving in. (So did Fairfax city, which, like Fairfax County but unlike these other localities, lost population overall). Lombard calls our attention to an even more telling figure: Loudoun County not long ago was the state’s fastest-growing locality, “attracting close to 10,000 more residents than left each year.” Last year, Loudoun County saw only 11 more people move in than move out.

I know Gov. Glenn Youngkin pays attention to metrics like this; others should, too. Demographically speaking, our world has turned upside down. I’ll get to the “why” shortly but before that we have one more big trend to take notice of.

This chart shows net migration for different parts of Virginia. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This chart shows net migration for different parts of Virginia has changed over the past decade. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Most of rural Virginia is now seeing more people move in than move out

Most of Southwest and Southside is still losing population but that’s simply because these localities have aging populations and deaths outnumber births — and everything else. There’s not much that can be done about that. However, the trend that matters most is beneath the surface — a surge of people moving in.

There are still two regions of the state where more people are moving out than moving in — the Wise County, Dickenson County, Buchanan County, Russell County, Tazewell County part of Southwest and the region from Patrick County to Halifax County (with Danville and Martinsville as exceptions).

Some notable numbers

Bedford County is now estimated to be bigger than Lynchburg — with Bedford at 80,759 and Lynchburg at 80,736.

Roanoke, after gaining population in the previous decade, is losing population again. Its population, which hit 100,011 in the last census, is now put at 99,045. About 70% of that decline is because deaths are outnumbering births, although there is some net out-migration.

Suffolk has now passed the 100,000 mark, almost double the city’s population in 1990.

Death rates in aging rural counties often mask the population changes taking place. Lombard cites this example: “Middlesex, a small rural county located on the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay, has, in recent years, attracted new residents at a similar rate as Frederick County — one of Virginia’s fastest growing counties — yet Middlesex’s population has only grown by 1 percent since 2020 because it had 400 more deaths than births during the period.”

Almost everywhere else, more moving vans are coming in than going out. This is something we haven’t seen since a back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. “Virginia is experiencing a remarkable break from some of its longstanding demographic trends,” Lombard says. “In 2023, over three-quarters of Virginia’s rural counties outside metro areas had more people move into them than out, the highest share since 1975.”

In some localities, this net in-migration has been taking place for some years now. In others, it’s quite new. In last year’s estimates, for instance, Accomack County, Alleghany County, Lee County, Northampton County, Page County, Smyth County and Surry County were all registering net out-migration; now they’re registering net in-migration. Something has switched in the past year. Richmond isn’t rural, but it’s also seen net out-migration turn to net in-migration; more on Richmond to come.

This influx of new residents also has implications. “Since 2020, more people moving into Virginia’s rural localities has resulted in the fastest increases in home values in the state,” Lombard points out. “Earlier this month, the Weldon Cooper Center released school enrollment projections, which forecast that the ten fastest growing school divisions over the next five years will be mostly in rural counties. As death rates continue to fall during the 2020s, the surge in migration to Virginia’s rural counties should only become more obvious.”

Richmond is the new Northern Virginia

The biggest population gains — both in raw numbers and percentages — are in and around the Richmond metro. The biggest growth rate in the state is in New Kent County, east of Richmond, at 11.9% over the past four years, followed by Goochland County at 7.7% and Louisa County at 7.5%. In terms of actual numbers, the biggest population increase is in Chesterfield County, which has added 23,155 people since 2000. About 85% of that has come through people moving in, not births. That’s the equivalent of adding the city of Waynesboro to Chesterfield in just four years. We used to see these kinds of population increases in and around Northern Virginia; now they’ve shifted to the center of the state.

Here’s how profound this growth in the greater Richmond area has been, Lombard says: “Decades of migration into the Richmond Metro Area and weak growth in western Virginia has meant that at some point early this year, the size of the population in the Richmond Metro Area will have surpassed Virginia’s total population living west of the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time since before the American Revolution.”

Remember that the next time we have redistricting and we see even more legislative seats depart the western part of the state. Now, for the big question, why is this happening?

We were seeing some of these trends before the pandemic, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has sent them into overdrive. What we’re seeing here is a Zoom-era migration. Last week, I wrote about how most localities have seen a sharp increase in the number of remote workers; here’s another measure. Rural areas and small metros have been the demographic beneficiaries. “So far this decade, among metro areas in Virginia, Northern Virginia has had the highest per capita out-migration rate, while the Bristol Metro Area has had the highest per capita in-migration rate,” Lombard said.

This chart shows population changes by parts  of the country. Courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This chart shows population changes by parts of the country. Courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

The politics of population

You’ll notice that all the drivers I’ve cited so far are demographic ones, not political ones – birth rates, migration. But ultimately politics do come into play. They’ll come into play in the state budget, if Northern Virginia starts producing less tax revenue, which means less money to get redistributed to rural counties whose schools are subsidized by the state. Just last week, we saw state Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, pushing a casino for Fairfax County; we used to think that only economically distressed localities needed casinos. Now we see Danville experiencing net in-migration but Fairfax is seeing net out-migration — and overall population declines. Those rising school enrollments will be welcome in many rural areas — until somebody has to come up with money to build a new school.

I also feel certain that the governor will seize on these numbers to make his case for why the state needs to reduce its income tax — because not everyone leaving Northern Virginia is moving to rural Virginia, some are moving out of state. (He’s probably already stopped reading this column and instructed one of his press aides to draft a statement.) Nationally, we’ve seen a general migration from northern and Midwestern states to southern ones. Or, as some prefer to see it, from blue states to red states — or from high-tax states to low-tax ones. That’s certainly true, although what we don’t know is how much taxes really play a role in those migrations. Are people moving to the Southeast because taxes are lower or because it’s warmer? Some have pointed out that, yes, people are moving to red states, but they’re moving to blue cities in red states. This is not the place today to delve into the nuances of that but, big-picture, these latest estimates do give the governor fodder to make his case. Of course, they may also give others fodder that something else should be done. With the General Assembly in session, they can hash all that out.

For now, what we know is this: We’re seeing an exodus out of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while the central part of the state booms, and much of rural Virginia is much like Shrodinger’s cat — losing population overall even as it sees more people moving in.

The post New population estimates show a rural renaissance while Fairfax County loses big appeared first on Cardinal News.

Inside the last-ditch effort to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline

As day broke over the small mountain town of Elliston, Virginia one Monday in October, masked figures in thick coats emerged from the woods surrounding a construction site. Three of them approached three excavators and, one by one, locked themselves to the machines, bringing the day’s work to a halt. As they did so, several dozen of their fellow protesters gathered around them, unfurling banners and chanting amidst the groaning and beeping of construction equipment.

They made their way across the field, over patches of bare earth, around sections of rusty pipe meant for burial beneath the mountain. Eventually the metal tubes  will form yet another section of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will soon carry 2 billion cubic feet of fracked methane from the shalefields of West Virginia to North Carolina each day. Their breath billowed in the crisp air. Beyond them stretched a bright blue sky, and mountains tinged with yellow. The past night’s rain pooled on the muddy and compacted soil beneath their feet.

Workers in highlighter-yellow vests and hard hats milled around, some looking amused, others frustrated. One or two engaged with the protesters, only to be told off by an irate site manager. A few miles away at the West Virginia state line, another three dozen or so activists did much the same atop Peters Mountain. One even managed to crawl under an excavator and lock herself in place, despite the cold. The others rallied around, enclosing her in a tight, protective circle.

Some might wonder why they bothered. After all, the project is, by the Mountain Valley Pipeline company’s estimate, 94 percent complete and will be wrapped up before summer. It  stalled for several years amid legal fights over various permits, but Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West VIrginia, almost single-handedly revived it in 2022 in exchange for his support of key Democratic priorities. Since then, the Biden administration and the Supreme Court have all but assured its completion. With the approximately 303-mile pipeline approaching the final stretch after almost a decade’s work, it might seem hardly worth fighting at this point.

A large contingent of steadfast opposition begs to differ, and will enthusiastically explain why. The pipeline is six years behind schedule, about half a billion dollars over budget, and, despite promises that it would be done by the end of last year, delayed once again. The remaining construction is over rugged terrain, with hundreds of water crossings left to bridge. The company recently postponed, shortened, and rerouted its planned extension into North Carolina, a proposal long stymied by permitting problems with the main line. And, just last month, Equitrans, which owns the pipeline and many others across the country, was said to be considering selling itself. The road to the pipeline’s completion remains rocky, its opponents argue, with many opportunities to make finishing it as difficult as possible.

“We cannot let them destroy our land and water,” said a young woman named Ericka. Like many interviewed for this story, she gave only her first name out of fear of reprisal from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, which has begun suing protesters in a bid to silence them. She had brought her three children to occupy the land that day. “What are we going to drink? Where are we going to live? People have to come here and stop this.”

A protestor is chained to a piece of heavy construction equipment beneath a banner reading "Land Back."
A protestor locked herself to an excavator, bringing work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline to a halt. Photo courtesy Appalachians Against Pipelines

Killing the project is their ideal outcome. Barring that, those who have for almost a decade packed public hearings, spent weeks at sit-ins and even lived high in trees for 932 days want to make building pipelines so time consuming, so expensive, so plain annoying, that fossil fuel companies and the politicians who support them think twice about greenlighting any more.

Even as pipeline crews continue steadily boring under rivers and felling trees, activists say each day they can delay construction is another day humanity delays the worst impacts of climate change. The increasingly grave personal and legal risks they face are, they say, worth it, if only for that.

“For  five f****** years, we’ve fought you without fear,” sang the masked figures on Peters Mountain, and “we’ll fight you for five f****** more.”

Morning ripened over the ridge, and the fog rolled in, then out. The pipeline workers retreated, mostly without complaint — followed by the protestors’ calls of “Paid time off! Paid time off!” Some of those gathered began to sing: John Prine songs about beautiful landscapes stripped for coal, union songs, and striking miners’ ballads that reverberated through the same ridges long ago. When their voices grew weary, someone blared dance music through a loudspeaker as police cars rumbled up the gravel access road. They tried not to be afraid as the sirens grew louder, knowing the risk they had taken in coming here and knowing, as many said, that the time of act is now.


As the nation’s fracking boom reached coal country about a decade ago, pipelines carrying methane began to snake across the landscape. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, met instant fury when Mountain Valley LLC proposed it in 2014. Opposition to the project drew a wide range of people, from farmers in West Virginia to Indigenous tribes in North Carolina, together in a united front. Some were alarmed by what it would mean for their land: Razed trees, disturbed landscapes, water running brown from the tap, and, in the end, a frightening risk of leaks and explosions. A pipeline in Pennsylvania run by one of the companies involved in MVP blew up late last year; a couple and their child suffered severe burns and barely escaped with their lives. Then there’s the longer term, irreversible danger of the 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that will come from producing, transporting, and burning all that methane over the 40 to 50 years the pipeline is expected to operate.

Residents along the project’s path joined academics, local organizations, and environmental nonprofits in filing lawsuits, seeking injunctions, and packing hearings. As they worked the legal system, other activists staged equipment lockdowns, organized rallies, and took to the trees for months-long sit-ins. The efforts led to some wins. Opponents repeatedly delayed construction, got various permits thrown out, and leveled allegations of water quality violations and illegal work on national forest land. In late 2018, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a series of rulings annulling the pipeline’s access to federal land and striking down a key permit. The next year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered an end to almost all construction.

The project languished until the summer of 2022, when Manchin, a key Democratic senate vote who often challenges his party, made his support of Biden’s climate agenda contingent upon the pipeline’s completion. Last summer, he included a provision in the debt ceiling deal that effectively cleared away any remaining hurdles. A short time later, the Supreme Court lifted a stay on construction through a 3.5-mile stretch through Jefferson National Forest. Crews returned to work with renewed vigor.

So too did the protestors. Morning after morning, week after week, pipeline workers clocked in only to find their work impeded. Grannies locked to rocking chairs in the pipeline path, teenagers glued to construction equipment, worksites crowded by 20 to 30 people intent on stopping the day’s progress, more often than not, successfully. The campaign drew college students from nearby Roanoke, neighbors from across the mountains, seasoned organizers and newer activists with little experience, all part of a near decade-long coalition, all activated by the pipeline’s anticipated completion, and many ready to face legal consequences for opposing it.

Jammie Hale joined the movement to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline more than 5 years ago.
Photo by Katie Myers / Grist

Jammie Hale is a bespectacled and bearded 51-year-old from Giles County, Virginia. Before he joined the campaign to stop the pipeline five and a half years ago, he was depressed and struggling with addiction. It didn’t help that the ruckus of construction invaded his waking and sleeping hours as it got closer and closer to his home, which lies within the 500-foot blast zone that could level his house in an explosion. “After a while, you hear all that, it kind of gets under your skin,” he said with a gentle intensity. “You build these angers up inside you, and how do you release these angers? Through self harm?” He became sleepless, consumed with visions of his family, and the land he plans to deed to his children, going up in flames.

When people began to organize, he and others in the community joined in. He found a will to live in the work. “I’m five years sober because of this project,”  Hale said. “Because, you know, I wanted to be useful.”

Hale attended permit hearings, tested water, and, when people started sitting in trees, hiked up the mountain to support them. He brought home-cooked meals, blankets, and supplies, and rallied on the forest floor to boost their morale. “I instantly fell in love with these people because they were just so badass,” Hale said. He and his neighbors began to take more concerted action, filming and peacefully confronting pipeline company surveyors who came unannounced to survey their land for construction. Eventually, he found himself engaging in civil disobedience, fully aware of the risks he faces.

Hale is among a growing number of protesters the Mountain Valley Pipeline company has targeted with injunctions, a potentially costly legal hassle that could lead to jail time for anyone found on a construction site. Local authorities are taking an increasingly dim view of folks like Hale and show little hesitation in pursuing them for even minor infractions as the company continues to seize their land through eminent domain. These days, Hale supports protestors from afar by making signs and sharing food, among other things. There’s still some risk, he says, but if he lands in a cell or a courtroom, so be it.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “It’s kind of strange that they’re trying to get people for trespassing when they are the ones that have been trespassing.”

Another longtime pipeline fighter who goes by Larkin is no stranger to arrests, or to supporting people whose civil disobedience has landed them in court time and again. A soft-spoken health care worker from nearby Blacksburg, Virginia, Larkin, who is in her late 30s, has been fighting resource extraction in Appalachia since she was a teenager. She spent the better part of a decade marching onto dusty strip mines, locking herself to equipment, and demanding a federal ban on mountaintop removal coal mining. Ten years ago, that energy shifted toward the region’s multiplying pipelines. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was proposed alongside the MVP; it met with similarly vehement opposition, and eventually died amid mounting legal costs and project delays. In short, protest worked, Larkin said.

A crowd of protesters with Stop Mountain Valley Pipeline rally and wave pickets in front of the White House.
Protesters with Stop Mountain Valley Pipeline rally in front of the White House in Washington D.C. on June 8, 2023. Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With the  Supreme Court greenlighting the MVP, it seems to Larkin and others that there’s only one thing left to do. That is, throw their bodies upon the gears, in hopes of at least slowing things down for one more day, every day, for as long as possible, by force if nothing else.

“We knew from the get-go that a chapter of the fight requiring an escalated level of resistance is going to come if folks have any hope in pushing back,” Larkin said.

Despite the risks, Larkin, and many others, feel they are taking ownership of their future and their dignity. When we fight, they say, we win, and it’s better that fossil fuel companies know their encroachments won’t go unchallenged. Larkin also feels it will deter future projects like the MVP. Without organized opposition, she feels the whole regulatory system will continue to rubber-stamp permits until the ocean overtakes Washington.

“Old men with no thought to the future are ruining things for all of us,” Larkin said. “It really is down to us to just be mad. And do it with our bodies and be in the way.”

She  knows she’s never far from becoming a target of the Mountain Valley Pipeline company’s ire. Over the years, she’s seen friends locked up and beaten down at various protests, and sometimes it makes her feel old. After so long in the fight, her knees and back ache, and she can’t spend hours sitting on the floor painting banners like she used to. When she began this work, she burned herself out quickly, believing that the world would end if she didn’t give everything she had.

 “When it’s so obvious that the world is on fire, it does feel like you have to put it out on the table all at once,” she said. “Just like, why think about the future, we have no future, kind of thing. And here we are, eight years later in this fight.”

Yet there are moments, even now, when the pipeline seems inevitable, when she feels the joy of having taken a stand, of having made lifelong friends, of having done the right thing.

“I freaking love to have daybreak on a new blockade that has gone up in the night,” Larkin said, smiling. “And I think the other thing that I love is that I have really met and built real relationships of trust and solidarity with neighbors, people in my community who I wouldn’t have otherwise known.”

The pace is fast and the emotions run hot right now, but the stakes have felt high for a long time, Larkin said. She’s watched friends get sick, both from burnout and from the environmental risks of living near extraction, and watched some die of environmental illnesses and illnesses of stress and poverty. When trying to pinpoint exactly how the fight has lasted so long, Larkin points to the constant influx of new activists, particularly energized young people from nearby towns and colleges, and from other, similar campaigns.

One activist who goes by Gator had only just turned 18 and drifted north after a working-class childhood on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. He felt disconnected and adrift at a military high school, beset by a gnawing sense of climate apocalypse and a bleak future. “My home is disappearing,” he said bluntly.

Gator found his way to the Weelaunee “Stop Cop City” occupation in Atlanta last summer. The connections he made there led him to the woods of Virginia and West Virginia, where he camped in the pipeline’s path and met people who shared his feelings of desperation and urgency.

He felt himself cross a Rubicon of sorts during a stint in jail after his arrest at another demonstration. He spent several days locked up, not knowing how much time had passed and listening to guards mock the people around him. As he sat there on the cold concrete bed, he knew there was no return to regular life, to regular expectations for himself.

“It used to be that you’d be like, ‘I want to keep my nose clean, because I have a chance of having a career and  having, at least for me, and the people I love, a comfortable life,’” Gator said. “But even that is disappearing.”

Protestors head toward a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in the mountains near Elliston, Virginia, in October 2023.
Protestors head toward a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in the mountains near Elliston, Virginia, in October 2023.
Photo by Katie Myers / Grist

The atmosphere in Elliston was, like the movement itself, at once nervous and defiant. Like environmental justice advocates most everywhere, those standing up to the Mountain Valley Pipeline are facing ever greater restrictions on their protests and increasingly harsh punishment for their actions.

In September, Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC filed a lawsuit against more than 40 individuals and two organizations — Appalachians Against Pipelines and Rising Tide North America. The suit  seeks more than $4 million in damages and a ruling prohibiting the defendants from accessing construction sites, planning demonstrations, or raising funds for protest activities. The company said it decided to sue because protestors endanger themselves and workers, and because they’re breaking the law.

“If opponents were truly interested in environmental protection,” said MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox, “they would have engaged with us to address their concerns through honest, open dialogue, which we respectfully offered on numerous occasions, rather than wasting agency resources and burdening the courts to support their myopic agendas.” Cox also blamed protesters for disrupting landowners and limiting the region’s economic opportunities.

Such lawsuits — which activists and their attorneys often call a strategic action against public participation — are usually filed by corporate or government entities against people who speak out on a matter of public concern. Those fighting the pipeline say the suit is intended to chill protest and intimidate them. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC has been regularly adding defendants to the suit, often after identifying them near protests or reading their names in the news. Many protesters have been charged with felonies in recent months, all for blocking construction.

Despite a relative lack of trouble at the Peters Mountain lockdown – authorities arrested two people and quickly released them – the arraignment later that week proved more contentious. The two young activists were unexpectedly re-arrested and prosecutors slapped each of them with a felony kidnapping charge – presumably, protesters say, for asking construction workers to leave their vehicles – and held without bond.

According to Appalachians Against Pipelines, another protester, who goes by Pine, turned themself in on a felony warrant; they were charged with kidnapping and theft for holding up a work vehicle. A judge set bail at $25,000. Another protester was sentenced to six months, with three of them suspended, for similar charges. They are free pending an appeal.

“This system is seeking to doom us to a future that will not even exist,” Pine said in a statement. “However, there is solidarity everywhere … these ridiculous charges that I received do not make me afraid, since I know I do not stand alone.”

Fear of arrest and imprisonment remains a restless undercurrent for many activists, said a young organizer who gave only her first name, Coral. She stepped away from fighting pipelines on tribal land to answer a call for support in central Appalachia..

A crowed of protestors gathers behind a banner reading "Respect existence or expect resistance" at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in the mountains of Virginia.
Protestors gather at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in rural Virginia in October, 2023, an effort to delay its completion.
Photo courtesy Appalachians Against Pipelines

“I’ve been grappling with the repression piece a lot because it is working,” said Coral, who identifies as Indigenous but would not state her affiliation for fear that it might help identify her. For her, and many of those fighting alongside her, the effort to stop the pipeline is a commitment to protecting unceded Indigenous land, and to building a world free from old, colonial, and extractive social structures. That obligation weighs heavily on her, though. The killing of an environmental activist at an ongoing forest blockade in Atlanta and the ceaseless violence against Native land defenders worldwide is never far from her mind. “Our people were persecuted and killed for fighting for our land,” she said.

And yet, despite it all, the pace of protest has increased since construction resumed. Few weeks go by without people locking themselves to equipment, blocking the pipeline route, or picketing banks that support the project and the company building it. Despite several frightening incidents, including one in which crews reportedly felled trees dangerously close to an activist, the blockades and lockdowns continue. The hope, many activists said, is to draw a critical mass of supporters to the region. The fight, they said, is far from over, and they hope to bring the same kind of energy sparked by the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

In Elliston, as the crisp October day warmed, the crowd was as energized and raucous as ever, echoing demands that have evolved over decades of environmental organizing in central Appalachia. Many hands unfurled colorful banners connecting the fight against climate change to movements opposing war, genocide, incarceration, and the theft of Indigenous land. Before long, though, several police cars slowly rolled up the road from the main highway, blocking the group’s exit. As officers stepped from their cars and made their way up the hill, some protesters with children in tow began to worry about their safety but remained for the moment.

As the police amassed, a young person of about 20, bundled in warm clothing and locked to an excavator, called down to the crowd. Their face couldn’t be seen, but their voice sounded small and very young. “I’m here because…these mountains are beautiful,” they called, laughing. “Appalachia is beautiful. This planet is beautiful!” Some in the crowd, though anxious, smiled at the voice speaking for them. The crowd held one another and swayed in the breeze as the drums started up again.

“The judge has had it up to here with y’all,” one exasperated police officer remarked as some in the group talked him down from arresting everyone in sight, mothers and children and all. Other officers took photos of license plates and threatened to increase their retaliation if they saw any of the cars at another protest.

When the group moved on to a neighboring plot owned by someone sympathetic to their cause, the police followed them, threatening to cite anyone who stuck around. Everyone knew that probably meant being added to MVP’s lawsuit. They decided to move along, but vowed to return another day.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Inside the last-ditch effort to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Jan 16, 2024.