Answering the question we’re asked so often
For the first six years of Generation Citizen’s programming, all of our sites were located on the coasts: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and California. We realized though, that if we were serious about proving that Action Civics could work anywhere, we needed to expand to more diverse geographies. After engaging with stakeholders, and finding locations that provided a combination of local interest and support, we settled on piloting in Oklahoma and Central Texas.
In the months since opening our newest sites, whenever I list out our offices, a question inevitably follows. Almost every single time.
In turn, I wonder: why is the question so prevalent? The generous interpretation could be that Oklahoma is vastly different from our other sites. But no one ever asks why we expanded to Texas.
The reality is that, for many folks who ask me this question (read, people on the coasts), Oklahoma seems a little foreign. A road less (or never) traveled. The subtext of the question may actually be, “Why in the world would you go to Oklahoma?”
This week, I’m proud to report that Generation Citizen’s National Board of Directors will be holding a 3-day meeting in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. We’re going to a Thunder basketball game, visiting our programming at Northwest Classen High School, taking a tour of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and attending an event thrown by local supporters. As we get ready for the meeting, it’s worth trying to answer that question: Why Oklahoma?
First, it is worth noting that we made the decision to expand to the site well in advance of the 2016 presidential election. The aftermath of the election has, perhaps deservedly so, led to an acknowledgement of the deep divisions in our country. It’s also led to an exploration of the issues faced by a white working class that some allege has been ignored.
This new focus on the deep divisions can lead to a vigorous debate: are we focusing on the white working class at the expense of other less represented populations? Are we just satisfying a sociological interest in a different type of population?
While countless coastally-located book clubs have focused on “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in their Own Land” in the post-election months (for what it’s worth, I vastly prefer “Strangers in their Own Land,” in which Arlie Hochschild eloquently and empathetically relates her experiences with more conservative factions in Louisiana), we made the decision to expand to Oklahoma before those books were published.
We expanded to Oklahoma primarily because local citizens expressed that our work to engage young people was necessary in their state. And because we could not claim to be a national non-profit if our work only occurred on the coasts.
I was a little nervous when I first stepped foot in the state, about 18 months ago. I had never been. Would people treat me like a member of the the coastal elite (which I am)? In the midst of a tumultuous political environment, would I actually be able to have a civil conversation with people who did not share my party affiliation?
At each turn, I could not have been more welcomed. I visited the Memorial Museum, and saw the extent to which the City was still affected by the domestic act of terror, and how a common spirit of citizen civic engagement had inspired the city to new heights. I attended a Thunder game, and saw how the entire city came together behind a team (the game was won on a buzzer-beater by a player who can no longer be mentioned in the state).
I met with district officials who had already incorporated youth voice into their strategic plan. The dynamic Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora saw GC as a way to achieve the district’s goals, especially in the face of unprecedented budget cuts. I met Oklahomans, passionate about their state, and eager to explore solutions to a state fiscal crisis that has enveloped social services.
In the months since, when I enter classrooms in the Sooner State, I meet students who, just like young people in our other sites, are passionate about affecting change in a system that has too often left them behind, and failed to value their voice. I’ve met students who have determined their schools’ water levels to be unsafe, and are advocating for public solutions. Students advocating for legislation to address high incarceration rates in Oklahoma, which they found to disproportionately affect students of color and their parents. We have been welcomed into the state because Action Civics can work in a state like Oklahoma, where civic pride is strong, and public problems are many, just like in our other sites.
At the same time, we’ve learned a lot as a team. We’ve learned that, despite the fact that Oklahoma seems a world apart, it’s really not that different from our other sites. We’ve learned to talk about our work in a more inclusive way. For example, rather than saying we want to “rebuild” democracy, it better captures our work to say we want to “strengthen” it. We’ve learned that it’s probably not couth, or accurate, to assume that everyone in Oklahoma walks around with a gun on their hip (and I’ve learned that many in Oklahoma actually do want stronger gun control laws — but sometimes have trouble engaging in the concept with East Coasters who have never used one before…like myself).
To be honest, our Board of Directors was pretty skeptical when we first said we wanted to come to Oklahoma. They were asking the “Why Oklahoma” question. I’m proud that they’re now coming to see the civic pride I’ve discovered over the last 18 months.
I urge other non-profits to think about following suit. Fundraising in Oklahoma has not been easy — it’s a smaller state, and it is in the midst of a financial crisis. If you’re limiting expansion into states where you can fundraise robustly before opening up operations, you’re going to end up in the usual suspects — coastal cities, and maybe a Chicago or Atlanta if you’re feeling crazy.
Take a chance. Work in a place like Oklahoma. It’s been one of the most rewarding parts of the last year at Generation Citizen.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.