Bekah Bolser

I’m Staying In My Small Town

Instead of moving to a big city, I’m going to make a difference at home

I grew up in Butler County, Ohio, in the type of town you're born wanting to leave. It's small and comfortable. The people here do manual labor, and everyone is related to someone who worked at the paper mills and factories that our local economy once relied on. Most of us come from low-income backgrounds, and all of us are just trying to do what we can for ourselves and our families. Growing up, my town itself felt stagnant. Like everyone was stuck in the same place, and no one was quite sure how to move forward. I spent most of my childhood reading about the peacekeepers, adventurers, and heroes of our world and yearning to be one of them. I always felt much too big compared to my town, which always seemed much too small.

And yet I chose to attend college just 20 minutes away, to live at home and save money — a decision that surprised a lot of people. As a teen, I'd become very involved with the United Nations and a slew of other national and international organizations. Anyone who knew me growing up knew that I intended to do meaningful progressive work in incredible places. I was expected to go far. I was expected to leave home.

A few weeks ago, the opportunity to do just that was handed to me: I found out I had been awarded a full scholarship to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., studying the American presidency and interning in a city filled with the peacekeepers, adventurers, and heroes I had always dreamed of becoming.

At first, accepting the scholarship seemed like a no-brainer. The thought of living in D.C. made my heart start beating a little faster. I've always dreamed of interning on the Hill, being right in the center of everything I've loved as a young activist. For so long, I have wanted to wait anxiously in front of the Supreme Court for opinions to be handed down, to volunteer at organizations like the nonprofit Generation Progress. Last November I sat with one of my close friends on the Lincoln Memorial, eating cupcakes and wondering how I could ever exist anywhere else.

And yet, something didn't feel right.

I have always had a love for the power of local government, for contributing directly to the communities in which I live, work, and study. In high school, I served on my town's youth commission; I was never a strange face at local council meetings, and I still know all my city councilmembers and fellow commissioners by name. These connections have helped shape my relationship with my community. When I moved to a neighboring town for college, I quickly got involved in and eventually became a member of the Community Relations Commission, which investigates and addresses instances of discrimination. Leaving for D.C. would mean giving up this seat.

If it was only that, I would give it up in a heartbeat. But it's not. It never is.

Butler County is the heart of the district that elected former Speaker of the House John Boehner. The biggest tie people here have to D.C. is the pride they feel when someone mentions that the Constitution is protected by a Mosler vault — a company that once helped bring prosperity to the area. Prosperity that left when the factories did.

On November 8, Butler County went red, like we always do. But this time, the whole state of Ohio went with us. Unlike in previous elections, the effects of this outcome were felt immediately in the form of numerous local civil rights complaints. Within days, our mayor had reached out to my commission, and the next city council meeting was the most crowded I have ever seen. The knowledge that I could potentially do something on this commission to help change my community gave me an immense sense of honor — especially given what we now are beginning to understand about the country we live in.

I found out about the scholarship two weeks later. I was and remain excited and proud, but I realized that in this defining moment for our country, I don't belong in D.C. I belong in my red state, where people know me and where the work I do matters to people who live in areas that are often ignored.

Beyond serving my local community, I know there will be battles I can help fight only by staying in Ohio. On December 6, the state House and Senate passed the so-called Heartbeat Bill, which would ban abortion six weeks after conception. When I learned that the bill was on its way to Governor John Kasich’s desk, any lingering doubt I had about my decision to stay in Ohio was replaced by an immense feeling of purpose. I cannot describe my relief when Governor Kasich vetoed the bill. I credit his decision the countless Ohio protesters and their vocal opposition to it.

Of course, my relief was short-lived: He instead signed a 20-week abortion ban, with no exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Bills like these are just the beginning of what is bound to be a long four years of similarly discouraging policies, not only in Ohio but across the country. We can’t settle for small victories or be relieved by bills just because they aren’t as completely oppressive as they could be.

I don't know if I'll stay in Ohio indefinitely, but I know that I'm needed here right now. I will work to make sure women and girls in my state have access to reproductive healthcare, and I will fight against oppressive voter ID laws. I will try my best to make sure that everyone feels safe and welcome in the state that raised me, no matter where they're originally from. I have no delusions of grandeur: I know this work is going to be hard and under-appreciated. But I’m excited to serve as a commissioner in the town in which I go to school — to work to address discrimination in a legal capacity, as well as to start important conversations about our community climate. My title may not be as flashy as it would have been in DC, but ultimately I'm less concerned with titles on my resume than I am with contributing to tangible, meaningful progress.

Robert Kennedy once said, "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." My small portion of the world is Butler County, Ohio, and I know if I work very hard to do whatever I can here, I can create a path that I will be proud of down the road.

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