In late September, Virginia Western Community College hosted a two-part presentation on Beth Macy’s Dopesick. The local and best-selling author again filled the room. There were readers and neighbors, family members of the sick and dead. Some of those who were present are living a constant personal struggle. For others, the struggle is professional, and a good portion of the audience was already part of the conversation of what to do. What to do. What to do?
There are options. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), safe use spaces, needle exchange, abstinence, 12-step support systems. But opinions differ on the approaches and those opposing opinions risk paralyzing us. Does it have to be either/or as we work toward help for the ill? Or is it possible that there’s a comprehensive “yes, and” approach to this complex public health issue? Can we imagine a menu of help that maximizes alternatives to keep more people living and off of the drugs in the first place?
Perhaps there’s a path to it by working together. The second part of the evening featured panelists from the newly formed Roanoke Valley Collective Response to Opioid and Addiction Crisis. By getting and keeping a conversation going — disparate voices in the same room, the group of community health agencies, governments, elected officials, schools, prevention and recovery groups, law enforcement and others thinks that it just might be possible. They announced their work on September 26, and Virginia Western Community College Coordinator of Development Carole Tarrant put together an event to raise awareness of the effort while providing the community with avenues for involvement.
To go deeper in how we might take action together, Carole worked through some questions with us.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Western Virginia Community College seems an especially well suited convener for the conversation held around Beth Macy’s Dopesick, and the community’s work in addressing the issue. How do you describe the role of the school in the community?
Carole Tarrant: I’m so happy that you recognize what we’re trying to do — to be a convener of ideas and people. Our campus, whether through our students or faculty, really represents a cross-section of the entire region. What better place to open the doors and invite this discussion? There was a time Virginia Western was seen as that detached “little college up on the hill.” But today we’re embracing the mission of being the community’s college.
BCR: Well said. Whether it’s responding to workforce needs of a region, kickstarting post-secondary education for young people, or offering mid-life opportunities to reboot, the college plays a critical role. You came to the college from another critical institution — the newspaper. And as Beth Macy’s editor during her early reporting on the impact of opioids on our region, you told her, “You don’t have to solve the problem. You just have to make them care.” How did she achieve that?
CT: All good writers know that you achieve that by humanizing your story. Beth always does this instinctively, but she stands out because she does this exceptionally well. She zones in on the one telling detail that makes you feel like you know that person. And once you know them, you’re committed to them in the story — you’re rooting for them to succeed, or at least survive. That’s why “Dopesick” is so crushing. As a reader, you get to know so many people affected by this crisis — but not all of them survive.
BCR: What other writing has made you care more about a subject?
CT: The last book that really made me get up off my duff was If Not Me, Then Who?, which was written by the late Salem businessman and philanthropist, Cabell Brand. Cabell was dubbed a “liberal lion” in a profile Beth wrote about him once. But he was so much more — I’ve never met a person more committed to solving the world’s problems. This is a really simple book where Cabell tells his story — how he was raised in affluence but was changed by what he saw after World War II in service of the Marshall Plan. In his charmingly demanding way, he asks the reader, “When are you going to step up?” Cabell suggests we think of it like tithing — wouldn’t the world be better place if we all just gave up 10 percent of our life to a cause we believed in?
BCR: Okay. That one’s moving to the top of my list. There are causes worthy of the effort, no matter how tough the obstacles. Abating the devastation brought on by opioids is surely one. Taking action together requires hope. What makes you hopeful about the region?
CT. We may yell at each other on Facebook or the editorial page, but ultimately, Roanoke gets it done. It may be slower than I’d like, but I haven’t seen the kind of hardened entrenchment that cripples other communities. And now I’m especially hopeful about the Collective Response coalition that formed over the summer in response to the opioid crisis. So often, you see so many good people working in their respective silos on an issue. They all mean well, but they can get possessive and cause slights where none are intended. The result can be the people they’re trying to help falling through the cracks. The Collective Response recognizes that the community will be stronger by working together — even if that means they all don’t agree on how to approach this issue. What’s most important is they’re all in the same room, still talking.
BCR: I agree. We need to cheer on that approach, as well as participate where we can. There are ways we can encourage and promote this response. Hosting the book event in combination with the Collective Response discussion was a way of doing that. What other meaningful impact is the Community College having in our community?
Our President, Dr. Robert Sandel, will say the community college is about getting people jobs, plain and simple. To that end, we’re about economic development — we ask employers what jobs they have to fill, then shuffle our offerings to provide the trained employees to fill those jobs. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, but that’s our intent — connecting people with jobs and, in the end, a better position in life. Right now, we’re one of three partners in the RAMP business accelerator in downtown Roanoke. That’s a tangible example of Virginia Western directly assisting in the region’s job growth. We could sit back and say, “We’re just about churning out degrees.” But there’s a ton of evidence that shows that’s not the future of higher education. You have to jump in the stream and be an active participant in shaping your community.
BCR: There’s a theme here: do our part. What encourages your ongoing work in creating a world in which you want to live?
CT: I’m so fortunate to work at a place whose mission I support 100 percent. I mean, my primary job at Virginia Western is to raise money for scholarships. How good is that, right? I say this with the utmost sincerity — we change lives, education changes lives. I’ve watched students walk in here, maybe a little insecure and unfocused. But then you see them blossom before your eyes, and you feel proud that you were a small part of that happening. That’s what always keeps me going, whether I was a manager at a newspaper or working at the community college. Open doors, get out of the way and watch what happens!
BCR: Thanks, Carole. Keep opening doors!
What you can do:
★ Volunteer or learn more about the Collective Response by contacting Janine Underwood at 540-344-5156.
★ Contribute to scholarships and the work of Virginia Western Community College.
★ Better understand the issues and what our neighbors are going through by reading Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America.