When I met with an editor this summer, she asked me to write about a school counselor for the cover of her community magazine. Another writer had already refused the subject. It didn’t sound like much of a story to her.
This counselor had emigrated from South Africa and pioneered a new position in Georgia public schools: a counselor for special-needs students. I took the assignment because stories come in clusters—an even more compelling narrative always shadows the one you hear first. As we met, the soft-spoken counselor spread a packet of letters and cards on the table in front of her. These hand-scrawled notes burst with gratitude from students, parents, and colleagues.
National news outlets might snub her story, but one local magazine shared it because it deserved telling in our community. Many millennials think the way to make a difference is to change the whole world: Move to a bustling metropolis and do something that revolutionizes the country and earns national attention. But spending a summer in my Atlanta suburb taught me otherwise. After graduation, college seniors like me should consider moving home.
During my first three years of college, I thought I needed to intern in New York City and Washington, D.C., to do something worthwhile. I did both, but when I stayed home last summer, I found an opportunity to tell valuable stories that no one else was telling.
According to Politico, seventy-three percent of internet publishing jobs cluster around a few East- and West-coast hubs. The Chicago area snags five percent, but only twenty-two percent of the remaining jobs run through the country’s heartland. Who will tell the stories of these communities?
Migrating from smaller communities to larger cities isn’t just a problem for journalism. Take J. D. Vance, author of the New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir describing his struggle to rise above family breakdown, social dysfunction, and drug abuse in the Appalachian culture of rural Ohio. His bestselling memoir exploded into the national conversation after the election of President Trump and growing awareness of the opioid crisis, which Trump just declared a public health emergency.
After fleeing the town of his upbringing, Vance graduated from Yale Law School and moved to Silicon Valley. This spring, however, he moved back home. Part of what Vance argues in his book is that government is insufficient to promote social change. Now he’s stepping into the role of civil society, combating the opioid crisis not through more government programming but by founding a nonprofit and investing—literally—in his community.
Vance often laments the “brain drain” that drags talented young people from their small communities toward big cities. Could he have continued to complain had he stayed in Silicon Valley? Would anyone have listened? In Silicon Valley, Vance is just another tech whiz. In Ohio, he could be a lifesaver.
Promoting community matters. But does it matter enough to leave the economic climate of Silicon Valley for the bitter winters of central Ohio? At one point, I would’ve said no. But thanks to Vance, I began to reconsider. Two months after the New York Times published his op-ed explaining his decision, amid a growing conversation about the importance of local communities, I moved home for the summer with few plans beyond finding a way to connect with my hometown.
The counselor I wrote about this summer didn’t have click-bait accomplishments. She wasn’t primed for prime-time television. But what she did mattered, if only to the dozens of students she helped over the years. She found friends for foreign students. She helped an autistic student figure out how to ask someone to go to the prom. She tailored a class schedule for a student who was previously home-bound. After the magazine published the article, all her grateful recipients, the ones who wrote her the letters she’d spilled on the table, had the opportunity to express their appreciation once more.
Instead of telling the story of the world, I chose to tell the story of my community. I did that by working for the local magazine, and I will never regret skipping another D.C. internship to do so. I had the chance to write about the leaders in the place where I grew up, the city I might—after graduation this May—once again decide to call home.
Image: Karen Arnold (CC)