YOUNG, GIFTED, & BLACK in West Virginia Policy
Meet Young WV policy leaders here and meet us on Zoom Feb.10, 2022.
Myya Helm’s Story (Q/A Interview) with Malik Q. Smith for Black By God
Who is Myya Helm?
West Virginia University Honors College Scholar and 2022 Marshall Scholar Winner, Myya Helm, is taking the state by storm and inspiring many in her thunder. Myya is a West Union, West Virginia native who has dedicated her undergraduate career as a double major in political science and international studies to serving and advocating for the Black students & community of Morgantown, West Virginia.
The late, yet unforgettable brilliance that is Gloria Watkins, or better known by her pen name: bell hooks, serves as one of Myya’s mentor(s) within academia. hooks was a queer Black feminist, professor, poet, social activist, and Appalachian who is most notable for her feminist theory : “ Ain’t I a Woman?: Black women and feminism ” and “Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place ” (a collection of poems that were inspired by hooks’ upbringing as a Black Appalachian in Hopkinsville, Kentucky). When asked, “How would you describe your connection to bell hooks ?” Myya responded by saying:
“I connected with bell hooks because I think we experienced the world very similarly. bell hooks often connected Appalachia to what she saw outside of the mountains. Like her, leaving my home state made me realize how capitalism and corruption has devastated West Virginia. So now I write about Appalachia to serve as a Black voice and speak on these issues in an effort to advocate for positive change, collective wellbeing, and liberation here.“
Myya hopes to continue hooks’ legacy by exploring the intersectionality between race, gender, and capitalism along with actively pushing for the reform of the “ ivory tower ” that is academia.
Recently, alongside four other amazing Black women in West Virginia, Myya has been featured by BBG’s own founder & publisher Crystal Good in Scalawag’s Newsletter “ Meet the 5 women uprooting white beauty standards and supremacy in West Virginia” “ West Virginia Student To Study Welsh and W.Va. Black Working Class Connections ” by Jessica Lilly, and Erin Beck’s “ Hair and history: As a bill to protect Confederate monuments advances in West Virginia, a bill to ban Black hair discrimination stalls.” In Beck’s piece, Myya voices her support for the CROWN Act and how a predominately white, West Virginia Senate continues to uphold white supremacy by prioritizing bills that generally do not favor Black Appalachians, such as the CROWN Act.
During this Q/A style interview, Malik Q. Smith (BBG Reporter), asked about her journey, aspirations, and accomplishments so far as a YOUNG, BLACK, GIFTED, woman in West Virginia policy.
Helm on her undergraduate career at WVU:
“While studying at West Virginia University, I have made a conscious effort to integrate the celebration of Black identity and history into everything I do. I serve as a board member for the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival, as a member of the NAACP and have interned for our state’s only Black, female delegate, West Virginia Delegate Danielle Walker, to advocate for race-conscious policy. In addition, I often write various articles for Black organizations, magazines, and newspapers throughout the state to challenge the myth of Appalachian whiteness and share aspects of Black culture. To foster diversity at home, I also helped design multifaceted anti-racism training through the University’s LGBTQ+ Center while simultaneously conducting interdisciplinary research to learn more about injustice, marginalization, and Black resistance.
What do you believe was your calling to take action against academia?
“I’ve mostly been involved in activism within academia and that was because I’ve firsthand experienced the disparities and inequalities faced by Black academics. Anti-Black racism is built into the bedrock of the United States, so naturally, it is going to manifest itself in various social and educational institutions. Academia is sometimes referred to as the “ivory tower”: a place mostly populated by white people that can be hard for others to access. Because of the struggles, I faced and because of the ways I saw PWIs continue to benefit from exploited Black labor in several different ways, I knew I had to take action to tell my story and be an advocate for my community.”
What change would you like to see happen in West Virginia for us, as Black Appalachians?
“I’d like to see West Virginia be a safer and more welcoming place for Black students in academics,who, like myself, are determined to push the boundaries of scholarship and are willing to critically examine topics like mainstream understandings of social identity groups such as race and class”
What do you believe your purpose is; what motivates you? A:“ Being a Black woman in academia is something much bigger than myself. My motivation towards my education goes much deeper than my interests. When I research Black history, I know that I’m conducting critical work to understand the legacy of my community, going far beyond the colonization of Africa, centuries of enslavement, and the subsequent discrimination and marginalization of people of African descent. Knowing that I’m contributing to the fair and accurate representation of Black voices in the mainstream historical record is more than enough motivation to push forward.”
Why is It Important for Black Appalachians, like ourselves, to have a voice in West Virginia?
“ Black Appalachians mined, loaded, and hauled the same coal that presently defines the cultural identity of West Virginia. Black West Virginians have always been here and we have a long, ancestral history with the region. Today, we serve as an example of the Black radical tradition, wherein we lead the fight in pushing for racial justice in areas where people of color are few and far between. We need to have a voice in this state because as Benjamin O’Keefe, a ‘Blacktivist’ located in Brooklyn, stated, ” It’s our turn to lead our own fight, to frame our own conversations.” The barriers that we face are structural and systemic, and it is time to pass the mic to Black West Virginians and support what we’d like to see change, especially as West Virginia moves into an increasingly progressive future.”
What are some of your recent accomplishments?
“I have been awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman and David L. Boren Scholarships to study Modern Standard Arabic, Jordanian Ammiya, and Moroccan Darija in the Middle East and Northern Africa. I co-authored the “ State of Working West Virginia 2021: Labor, Race, & Solidarity,” an in-depth report published by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. This covered the history of labor organizing in West Virginia with an emphasis on Black worker power and has been promoted by Black Voters Matter and the Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Analysis and Research Network. I am an Anti-Racist and Gender Inclusivity Training facilitator at West Virginia University, a program which I helped to create and is the first of its kind, and I have helped to train over 1000+ individuals on and off-campus. I also was recently awarded the Marshall Scholarship, one of the United States’ most prestigious scholarships which fully finances young Americans of high ability to study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom.”
Can you tell me about some of the things you will be doing as a Marshall Scholar?
“ As a Marshall Scholar, I will add to the enduring ties between the British and American peoples, their governments, and institutions. I plan to pursue a two-year research Master of Philosophy course in history at Cardiff University with a focus on the Welsh history of Black, working-class coal miners. The research I will undertake is interdisciplinary, combining sociological and historical methods to comparatively study 20th-century mining communities in Wales and West Virginia. My goal is to critically identify patterns of interracial labor organizing and working-class consciousness to benefit emancipatory movements today.”
…Since you mentioned focusing your research at Cardiff University on Black working-class coal miners, can you tell me more about the history of Black miners in Wales?
“ The narrative of Black miners in Wales is largely untold. Few historians have worked to fill this gap in existing Welsh studies and their invisibility mirrors that of Black miners in Appalachia whose identities are uncovered by researchers like myself. Black history is a subject that has been largely repressed, rewritten, and condensed, and I want to study Black history in its own right as opposed to accepting the fragmented account provided in broader overviews of American and British history.“
What are some of your professional goals and what are you hoping to accomplish as a Black Appalachian? A:
“My long-term professional goal is to earn my doctorate in sociology at Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historical Black universities. I will pursue a concentration in Social Inequality to analyze historic systems and structures of global capitalism and economic exploitation. I then hope to become a sociology professor at a historically Black college or university, motivated by a desire to research the interconnections of race and class throughout history while inspecting communities’ relationships to power and privilege.
I am pursuing this because my ultimate dream in life is to mentor young Black academics. I hope to be a culturally understanding advisor for Black students, providing a critical understanding of race and class to help them cultivate the resilience needed to pursue their own careers and combat the long legacy of anti-Blackness in academia.”
Meet our BBG Reporter, Malik: Hi, my name is Malik Q. Smith, I am a West Virginia native from Institute, West Virginia, and a recent graduate of Marshall University. I am interested in environmental policy (sustainability, climate change, clean water, conservation, environmental justice/racism, advocacy, etc.) and will be pursuing a M aster of Science degree in sustainable engineering water systems. Read more of my work: Sen. Capito’s Lack of Support for the Freedom to Vote Act & Spread of Misinformation to West Virginian Constituents