Students Should Recognize Ohioans as Neighbors, Not Just Voters

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Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers and organizer of the Delano Grape Strikes, reminded a crying audience the day after the 2016 election, “This will not be the first time your country will break your heart.” Hearing that from the crowd, my heart pulled. And my heart sighed. And my heart grieved. But we picked ourselves up.

That election energized my generation. It made us eager to campaign harder next time, and it made those of us who didn’t campaign regret it. In the 2018 midterm elections, voter turnout of people ages 18-29 increased by 10 percent since the 2014 midterms. This has much to do with the rise in young campaign volunteers knocking on doors and ringing telephone lines, many of whom you can see on campus and can expect to see more of as 2020 rolls around. If the 2016 election is a bad break up, then civic engagement is how we’re getting through it.

My concern, however, is that we have allowed the urgency of this work to distract us from remembering what civic engagement is supposed to mean. Amidst the canvassing and the phone banking, when College campaign volunteers talk to Ohio voters instead of talking with them, we have to ask: What use is civic engagement if we forget to connect with people?

There is a problem when campaign volunteers from this rural Ohio liberal arts college — the most ardent of whom come from coastal-elite, liberal safe havens — invest triple-digit hours trying to swing districts blue while failing to show even the smallest amount of neighborly love to the people who make up these districts. There is a problem when College students spend column inches and Facebook posts preaching the importance of voting, but won’t acknowledge native Ohioans with a friendly “Good morning.” There is a problem when — and I have seen this far too often — volunteers walk through an entire neighborhood asking for people to promise their vote, but never stop to ask if they feel their voice is being heard.

I understand Ohio is a coveted arena in the national electoral imagination, and college transplants want to play their part in swinging this purple state blue. But this fixation prevents us from seeing the people of Ohio as neighbors we coexist with outside of an electoral context.

This attitude reduces Ohio to a political playground to be talked about in abstraction. I have heard many students excited at the prospect of Senator Sherrod Brown’s presidential bid for no reason other than wanting to see an Ohioan make this nation blue. Other students talk only about the dream of unseating current OH-4 Representative Jim Jordan — founder of the far-right Freedom Caucus — regardless of which Democrat is running.

Perhaps Ohio is more than 18 electoral votes and a couple of seats. Maybe Ohio is more than a place we will later remember for the times when we lived a block from cornfields. This is a place full of people who live rich and full lives, whose senator has more important work than vying for a seat in the executive. Ohioans are a people who deserve to be remembered outside of elections.

As the 2020 race comes into the limelight, I am calling for heightened neighborly love for Ohio. Put people and community over political fantasy. Root out our metropolitanism and throw away our detest for anything rural. Smile at passersby for no reason other than that’s just what Midwesterners do.

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