Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Liberal in a Small Town

My first attempt at serious blogging

Well, as of late I have heard comments like:
“If you’re so liberal, why do you live in such a small town?”
“How can you be liberal living in such a ‘white’ city?”

And inferences reminiscent of:
‘Put your money where your mouth is’
‘You can’t be “all that liberal” if you live in such a “white bread” town’

Well, I really take offense to this. I consider myself to be very liberal.
Yes, I am a straight, married, white woman with three children, but that doesn’t automatically qualify me into any of the following categories:
Conservative, Christian, Republican, Elitist, Sexist, Racist, Homophobic, Small-minded, Red Neck, Separatist, Prejudice, Nut-case Psychos.

So, what’s it like to be a liberal in a small mid-western town?
Some myths prove to be true, but others… dispelled!
Viroqua, Wisconsin
Vernon County
Population of 28,702 (as of 2004)

Yes, I admit the area is very ‘White’ per-se and I really delight every time I see someone of darker shade, in town… but that doesn’t make it all bad.
The last census breakdown looked like this:
27,723 ~ “Whities”
62 ~ Black or African Americans
142 ~ American Indian
160 ~ Asian
18 ~ Native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander
186 ~ Hispanic or Latino
236 ~ Two or more races
175 ~ Other races

96.5% of people are white, but that’s not too bad when you have to consider the scary, insane amount of Norwegians you’ll find around here (picture me cringing). Westby (the next town North) is entirely inhabited by these Lutheran, Lefske, Lutefisk loving Norsemen; who claim to be a minority of their own. I don’t know about all that, but I do know they seriously skew any and all polls and unfortunately determine the all-over lack of any discernible flavor found in area restaurants.

This was a bit of culture shock for me, initially. I had visited my mom and siblings up here for the last twelve years and was accustom to the scenery, but didn’t really get the full feeling of “The Great White North” until moving here.

In the past six years I had lived in much more metropolitan areas and I dream of living in Madison, WI… it is the epicenter of acceptance and open-mindedness (in my mind’s eye).
In Indianapolis - the only Caucasian neighbor we had, was a middle aged gay man with many, many young (as in ½ his age, not illegal) boyfriends.
In the Chicago suburbs – we lived in a very diverse neighborhood, surrounded by large Hispanic, Asian and Indian populations; A Muslim, Indian woman watched my children, while I worked in an office filled almost entirely of Black and / or African American and Jewish co-workers.

I completely enjoyed all the benefits of urban diversity. I love learning about other cultures, spending time with people of other races, religions and opinions, being able to shop in cultural neighborhoods (Note: the choice of restaurants was outstanding) and so on.
But, with all those wonderful highlights, there comes the drawbacks of having to work full-time, not being able to stay home with my children, the high cost of living, the traffic and the crime.

So, we decide to move to ‘Rural Wisconsin.’ I am now able to stay home with our kids, we were able to have a third baby and I can work on my own business, instead of working for someone else. The lack of traffic is heavenly and the crime rate is also very low here. The 2004 Vernon County estimates looked like this:
0 ~ Murders
4 ~ Rapes
1 ~ Robbery
9 ~ Aggravated Assaults
45 ~ Burglaries
248 ~ Larceny / theft
17 ~ Motor Vehicle thefts

Politically speaking: Vernon County voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. According to unofficial vote totals for 2004, Bush received 6,773 votes and Kerry received 7,924 votes.
In the November 2000 race, Vernon County narrowly supported Al Gore. Countywide, 5,684 people voted for Bush and 6,577 voted for Gore. Nader received 676 votes.

There are a lot of local activists and people that should be admired. Here are a couple, that I have been able to personally talk to and have community dealings with (something that never happened in the cities):

Anthony Reuter, as a High School Junior at the time, lead students in a demonstration protesting the cancellation of “Diversity Day” in 2004 (an all time low for small towns), due to the 400 person petition to remove a local lesbian couple’s speaking engagement. The planned Diversity Day would have included sessions featuring the Hmong, Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Amish and Native Americans in addition to the gay speaker. The keynote speaker was to be UW-La Crosse professor Dr. Gregory Wegner, who was to address Nazi Germany’s use of racial stereotypes to manipulate public education.
In his rally speech, Anthony “outed” himself to hundreds and was quoted in national newspapers saying, "When someone leaves this almost entirely white, Christian town, they will encounter people who are different. Why not have that encounter happen in a safe environment? In school." The decision of the School Board was later overturned and Diversity Day continued, thanks to Anthony, a large group of students, teachers and local community members.

In the past few years, Karen Dahl, who runs the county Democratic Women’s Club, organized supporters and helped Jin Gao, a local resident, gain her Green Card and avoid deportation to China. She also started The Flame of Hope Foundation.

There are also a lot of social and cultural policies / "schools of thought", that I deem important to my “liberalness.” A lot of these are fulfilled in this small town with a lot of surprises.

Organic Valley, the largest independent organic farmers' co-op in the nation, has lured people interested in alternative agriculture to this area. Some claim that our county has the most organic farmers per capita in the nation, and it's easy to believe, as I had the opportunity to work in O. V.’s Marketing Department during my last pregnancy. During local tornado disasters, this past summer, they donated days of food, drinks and man-power to rebuild the small town of Viola, Wisconsin. On a national scale, they are a large supporter of Farm Aid and helped with the Hurricane Katrina Relief effort. Along with Youth Initiative High School students and parents, they set-up the “New Waveland Café” and served thousands before FEMA arrived!

Youth Initiative High School is another example of free-thinking in the “Driftless Region.” The school was founded by a group of students (and their parents) in 1996 who wanted to take responsibility for their education (my younger brother, Ethan, was one of them). Students are full voting members of the school community, serving alongside parents and faculty on the Board of Directors and on many other committees. YIHS students also take responsibility for raising a significant part of the school's annual budget through a variety of independently organized fundraising activities. They are also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the school's facilities.

Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School, one of the only rural Waldorf schools in the country (and the first Wisconsin school to offer an organic hot lunch), just celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Prior to my two youngest siblings, Eric and Elizabeth, attending the school, I didn't know much about the Waldorf curriculum, but I've grown to value the school's commitment to art and creativity.

There are so many other examples of open-mindedness (too many to list), including: RadioDriftless a volunteer-based, listener sponsored, non-commercial, free-speech educational FM radio station. Community Conservation, a community-based conservation programs with a strong emphasis on voluntary local participation and respect for rural people as being the best stewards of their own lands.

Viroqua and Vernon County also have an annual ‘Green Home Show’, a monthly Video Salon showing political films with discussion and debate following, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and the thriving down town boasts such attractions as a seasonal farmer’s market, a dance studio, the restored Temple Theatre and artsy shops galore!

So, is the small town life of a liberal perfect? No! There are so many issues and problems that arise everywhere in this country of ours. The controversy over the gay speaker could happen anywhere… city dwellers wear blinders, just like the Amish horses. In fact, for all its diversity, the city's segmented society makes it easy to stay in your own circle and to dismiss those with whom you disagree. I heard a woman who grew up here, now in her late 40s, remarking that when "hippies" first started moving here in the 1970s, they were met with hostility and sometimes with baseball bats! Today's migrants, who often bring money and jobs into the community, are welcomed. Lives here become so intertwined that we're forced into deeper relationships and hopefully that means more acceptance for all! So, I will continue to get a “giddy, school girl grin” every time I see a new African American, Asian, Hispanic, Indian or family of mixed origins moving here. I might just start becoming more of an activist, as I see that there is room for anyone to make a BIG difference in this (or any) small town.

Thanks for reading ~ Alesha


Adalia said...

Wow, the way you write about your "giddy, school-girl grin" when you see Asians, Indians, etc is so awesome because it's people's skin colors which make them unique and please smile at them and single them out for treatment! I am soooo glad you accept migrants as well because if it weren't for people like you, where would we be without their labor??? You're such a nice white person...I wish we had more like you everywhere! As long as you continue to delight in seeing dark people, it means you're a real, honest-to-god liberal and you definitely value diversity. Hey, by chance, are you one of those awesome white people who can't see color and only see "a human being?" Because that's awesome! You're awesome!

I'm just kidding, but seriously, you should examine your beliefs more closely. Maybe might help you a little.

Anonymous said...

Adalia, what a snotty comment.

As for your post, I loved it. Viroqua, Wisconsin is, actually, the place I would like to live. I couldn't care less about the skin colors of those around me. As long as I'm not living around a bunch of redneck, uninformed, bigotted, religious fascists I am good. I love small liberal towns. The best one I've ever been to was Eureka Springs, AR. It's mostly white, but who cares? It's an awesome place to be. Vermont and Maine are also cool places to be and they're mostly white.
Anyway, that's not the point of this article. Viroqua is awesome. I can't wait to be a part of it.