I used to say I’d never move to a red state. And then I did. And it’s changed my life for the better.
In July 2016, I moved from San Diego to Terre Haute when my husband received a job opportunity at a local university. At 41-years-old — at midlife — I moved from the blue, liberal left coast bubble to a rural, a Midwest, Rust Belt red state.
I was raised in California, where we like to believe diversity is applauded and opportunities abound. In many ways, California’s blue state bubble can be a very safe place to live if you subscribe to the popular liberal politics.
Over and over, I was questioned about why I would ever leave the Golden State for a “flyover” red state. This phrase alone troubled me, and the implied perception that one flies over the Midwest just to get to their East or West coast home.
As I settled into life in the Midwest, I heard the same assumptive questions: “Did everyone you know vote for Donald Trump?” “Are there African-American, Jewish, Asian, LGBTQ people in Indiana?” “Do people make fun of you for listening to National Public Radio?”
Never does one ask about Indiana’s history as a blue state (Indiana cast its electoral votes blue for President Barack Obama in 2008). Never does one ask how the Indiana public schools provide many opportunities that have been cut from California’s public schools because of one budget crisis after another. Never does one ask about the low cost of living that is allowing us to pay off the mountain of debt we accrued in California. And never does one ask about my fellow community members, who are running successful businesses, enriching the city’s arts and making a difference for the local environment.
As I got to know my new Midwest home, I realize how living in a bubble and subscribing to the Middle America stereotypes is truly damaging to this country.
While it is true there are far fewer African-Americans living in Terre Haute than San Diego, that doesn’t mean the city is a bastion of racism either. In fact, very few people know the Lost Creek community in Terre Haute was a stop on the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves enter the free state of Indiana before the Civil War. The diversity may not be as evident, but the city has a history of activism.
In Terre Haute, I witness a different kind of diversity: economic diversity. Here, 37 percent of residents are living below the poverty level (compared to 19 percent in all of Indiana). Nearly 54 percent of the students attending Vigo County public schools in Terre Haute receive free/reduced price meals. That means half the students and their families earn the equivalent or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
In Terre Haute, I witness a different kind of diversity: economic diversity. Here, 27% of residents are living below the poverty level (compared to 14% in all of Indiana). And 57% of the students attending Vigo County public schools in Terre Haute receive free or reduced price meals, meaning their families earn the equivalent or below 185% of the federal poverty level.
Southern California is diverse racially and religiously; it really is not with respect to class or working poor. This is especially the case in San Diego County, where it’s becoming more difficult for middle-class families to own a home or afford rent, with 41% of homeowners and 57% of renters spending 30% or more of income on housing, all while incomes stay stagnant, according to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
I’ve come to realize that my votes and actions can have a deeper impact away from the sea of blue where I previously lived. During the 2016 presidential election, so many California voters who didn’t like candidates Hillary Clinton or Trump chose not to vote at all, stating their vote won’t matter since California will certainly cast its electoral votes for Clinton. Here in Vigo County, where the difference between the candidates was only 6,002 votes, my vote does have an impact.
So many people travel frequently to Bali, Europe and exotic places across the globe to be well-cultured. Yet, how many of these people travel within their own country to get to know the “other?” Why travel the globe, but not make an effort to get to know your Midwest neighbor?
We ask politicians to reach across the aisle and work with their constituents. But are we doing the same and reaching out to our neighbors? If that’s our expectation for our leaders, why aren’t we doing the same as citizens?
To be sure, there are plenty of individuals living in the Midwest that would also benefit from getting to know their coastal neighbors. The bubbles do not just exist on the East and West coasts. And I’m certainly not suggesting that life in California is terrible, or living in the Midwest is the answer for everyone.
It’s easy to condemn people we don’t know on social media. It’s harder to take the time to step out of our own bubbles and understand each other.
Living in Indiana, I now have an understanding of America that I did not before. I wish more people living outside the middle took the time to get to know the others living a few states away. I did, and I am a better person because of it.
Originally published in the Indy Star on Sept. 10, 2017