Growing up in Pulaski, I considered myself to live in Southwest Virginia (SWVA). As I left the area and lived in Lynchburg, Richmond and Washington, DC, I struggled with how best to answer the question “where are you from?” Especially, living in DC, this was often accompanied by “what kind of accent is that? Are you from Texas?”
I would try to stress Southwest Virginia vs Southern West Virginia to those outside of the area, as it was a common area of confusion. When in doubt, I could mention I grew up near Virginia Tech and as a last-ditch effort “the skinny part of Virginia on the map.” A college friend from Richmond was perplexed when I disputed that the Shenandoah Valley was not Southwest Virginia, even if the equestrian district deemed it so.
My pharmacy school class in Richmond was predominantly Virginia residents and ran the gamut from those from Northern Virginia (NOVA) and those from Far Southwest Virginia. The Northern Virginia residents had difficulty imagining life outside the beltway and referred to Richmond as a small town (playing to the debate of Virginia as 2 separate areas – NOVA and ROVA “Rest of”). Other more urban Virginia residents assume that the state ends after Roanoke.
One vocal member of the Far Southwest contingent informed me that Pulaski was part of the New River Valley (NRV) that was distinctly different from Southwest Virginia. Her most valid point was “after I drive past Pulaski, I still have 3 hours of non-interstate driving to get home.” To a graduate student that lived on the highway, that was quite compelling. On top of that, Pulaski is part of the dividing line between the 540 and 276 area codes. For additional confusion, just where does Appalachia fit in? Does Appalachia equate to all or part of Southwest Virginia?
The debate of how to categorize Pulaski serves as an illustration of the difficulty in the size of the 9th congressional district. With an area larger than the size of the state of New Jersey, is it reasonable to expect agreement on what to call ourselves, much less share the same needs and priorities? As I analyzed my friend’s point that Pulaski was the NRV and not Southwest Virginia, I thought about our proximity to universities, accessibility to necessities such as grocery stores, physicians, hospitals, dentists and improved job opportunities (at least relative to more remote parts of SWVA). When analyzing SWVA, NRV or ROVA, this diversity should be taken into account as sections of the district have different needs.
But despite these differences, SWVA groups can unite over common interests to advocate more effectively such as the Coalfield Coalition, a group of 8 public school superintendents that joined forces to lobby for addressing school inequities and state funding. While a recent Roanoke Times editorial suggests in jest that SWVA secede from Virginia, perhaps less drastic measures can accomplish bettering the region whether we are viewed as a single entity or not.