Student Activism in Small-Town America

by Brendan Kennedy

Across the nation, a divide has been exposed between urban and rural America. This split between the small town and the big city has been used to explain everything from Donald Trump’s election to growing partisanship to the shifting labor markets. Both sides are portrayed as profoundly out of touch with one another, ignorant of what makes the “other side” so important to the success of the country.

But what about the places where those two worlds overlap? This dynamic may be most obvious at colleges and universities that call small towns home. These schools, often private liberal arts institutions that value engagement and diversity, stand in stark contrast to the surrounding communities, where people value tradition and keep to themselves. With this division being used to explain nearly all facets of American politics, it is worth looking at the political realities in the towns where those two cultures are forced to interact.

Sherman, Texas is one such town. In many ways, it embodies the stereotypical rural town that has come into focus recently. Sherman is surrounded by the big manufacturing plants that have employed many of the city’s citizens for years. The old town center is made up of quaint brick buildings peeking up along the highway. You may also see a number of churches, where lifelong Shermanites meet to worship and share the latest scuttlebutt. Everyone there knows one another, which means that everyone is exceedingly polite. Shermanites always say “thank you” with a cheery, singsong cadence, and if you say something remotely negative about someone, you must be sure to add a quick “bless their heart”. My grandparents raised their families there, and it is during visits to see them that I have come to know this cozy town.

Under a different set of circumstances, Sherman may have also been my home during the last four years. Austin College, a small liberal-arts school, sits on the eastern edge of town. During my college search, I applied to Austin College (or “AC”, as locals often call it) and came very close to attending to study political science.

Instead, I went to Trinity University, where my interest in politics drew me into San Antonio. Activism in the city is a huge draw. This year, the city’s MLK March involved more than a quarter million people, one of the nation’s largest. The city also boasted sizable crowds for recent protests such as the Women’s March. San Antonio has also served as a proving ground for figures with national ambitions. Getting involved in local politics means having the opportunity to rub elbows with the ascendant Castro brothers or Donald Trump’s young marketing guru. For college students in the city, finding the best opportunities for political involvement often means looking off campus.

Activism has become a hot topic as those on the left take to the streets and flood town halls in opposition to the new administration. In San Antonio, I have experienced this up close. But what if I had ended up as a student in Sherman? What is political activism like for students in America’s small and mid-sized towns?

With this question in mind, I spoke with students from AC and similar schools across the country. In my conversations, I found that students recognized that a lack of big city opportunities also meant that their voices had a greater effect on their communities. Instead of feeling that they miss out, they relish the chance to use their activism to steer local conversations.

“It seems that students become involved in politics whenever possible.”

No matter where you go to school, students with an interest in politics find a way to be active. On small-town campuses, students pursue similar forms of activism as students elsewhere. Hope Di Paolo, a senior at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, told me that “when Colgate students are passionate about an issue, they organize events to raise awareness and make action plans,” mentioning that students regularly participated in forums or protests. This was the case with everyone I spoke to. “Most of the students body attends events, talks, protests, or rallies,” said Caitlin McCormick, a senior at Muhlenburg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It seems that students become involved in politics whenever possible.”

When it comes to organizing, as at any school, social media and campus organizations play a major role. Anne Fried, a senior at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, said that students “check social media, talk to each other, (and) reach out to adults who are active in the community to see how they think we should proceed” to organize around important issues. And Aimi Hardy, a sophomore at Austin College in Sherman, played up the role of on-campus organizations. Hardy is quite familiar with these groups: she is Op/Ed editor for AC’s campus paper, The Observer, Vice President of the Student Democrats, and a member of the Gender-Sexuality Alliance, Psychology Club, and the Iota Eta sorority. Groups like these have driven political involvement for students at AC, with Hardy noting that “most political organization takes place in the context up clubs which are concerned with the issue at hand.”

Small-town students did seem to be somewhat less involved with local politicians or candidates. McCormick, a Spanish and Elementary Education double major, observed that “only a small percentage of students actually volunteer or intern” for local offices and campaigns. Hardy noted that local politics simply wasn’t as exciting to many students, telling me that “students are generally more interested in national than local politics.” Still, that interest in national politics can drive students to engage in the local political scene. Fried told me that “this fall, we had students driving shuttles and carpooling to take other students to go vote, signing people up to register to vote, (and) carpooling to protests.” All in all, forms of activism at small-town schools do not seem to differ significantly from schools elsewhere.

“It’s almost like there are two cultures.”

Universities tend to be more liberal than the general population, with their young, highly-educated, and diverse populations producing a natural tendency to the left of other Americans. This distinction is less evident in cities, but in small towns, the divide can be stark. Fried told me that “the city of Wooster is conservative. Statistically, many of the citizens are white, blue collar workers with low income… the difference is pretty obvious within the city.” Hardy said that the same dynamic existed in Sherman, as well. “Austin College is fairly isolated from the larger culture of Sherman, as the student body is substantially more liberal than the general population of Sherman. It’s almost like there are two cultures in Sherman: the college culture and the small town culture, which do not overlap much.”

This rule of thumb is not universal, as McCormick reminded me. “Allentown is a very culturally diverse city,” she told me. “There are people from all over the world. The OCE (Office of Community Engagement)  has worked hard to create more of a partnership and an ‘engagement’ between students and the community, and the result has been stronger connections with our community partners as well as those living in Allentown.”

Still, conventional wisdom on political affiliation tends to hold true for small-town colleges. The young student population skews liberal, while the older small town community is more conservative. With students eager to make their political views known, the biggest question that emerges from this divide is how politically active students interact with the community at large.

“We are very powerful- maybe too powerful.”

This dynamic was the subject of the senior thesis for Di Paolo, an Anthropology and Spanish double major, who analyzed the relationship that Colgate students have with the people of Hamilton. “The consensus from student responses is Trump signs in the yards of residents shows they ‘don’t know what’s good for them’.” She related this dismissiveness with a gulf in lived experiences. “We feel we have the power to label, categorize, and completely understand the residents of Hamilton. We also view these ideological differences as a result of our life experiences. And we judge these ideological differences and life experiences reluctantly.”

Di Paolo worried that the effect of these divisions was magnified by the outsized influence that the school has on the city. “A weird, potential disadvantage that I’ve seen is that we are powerful- maybe too powerful here… We think we know what is best for these people in this small town and we make their political decisions for them since we can all register to vote here.”

Fried noticed that the division in Wooster had bred antagonism as well, only in the opposite direction. “Many of the citizens believe that the students are very entitled and don’t ever get to know the city.” Fried has worked to bridge these gaps through on-campus groups, including an interfaith dialogue group and an intergenerational discussion group called Worthy Questions. Still, the relationships between students and townspeople can be tense “There have been problems with citizens harassing students, because one of the city’s main roads goes through campus,” she told me. A lack of understanding can breed hostility, and that hostility often flows both ways.

“The main advantage is the opportunity to make an impact.”

Despite the gulf in ideology between colleges and townspeople, small towns also provide a unique opportunity for politically active students. Rather than having their voices drowned out by the politics of a big city, students at small-town schools find that their voices can have a much greater effect locally. “The main advantage (of activism at Austin College) is the opportunity to make an impact,” Hardy told me. “For example, when the Student Democrats hosted the voter registration drive, we registered over 20% of the student body. At a large university, such a number would be near impossible to obtain.”

At Austin College, the school’s setting had made it easier to reach fellow students. According to students I spoke with, it was common to engage in activism with fellow students as the only intended audience. Di Paolo observed that, at Colgate, student activism is often focused on campus issues, telling me that “there have also been sit-ins in the past couple of years when students aren’t satisfied with the administration’s response or actions in regard to an issue.” And McCormick noted that, at Muhlenburg, “it seems that most of the time the audience is fellow students… (This) is a positive in that students who are passionate about the same issue are able to come together… However, this is a negative in that their intended audience, or those who may really need to hear the message, are often not reached.” Even though the Allentown community seems uniquely diverse, students do not seem eager to engage them with activism.

Students in more conservative towns assured me that this was not the case at their schools. “Most of the time the intended audience is the community,” Fried said of activism at Wooster. “Most of the students on campus share similar political beliefs, and so they are trying to speak to people in the community who are more likely to disagree.” Hardy felt the same, saying that “students (at Austin College) want the Sherman community to see that there are other people with beliefs opposing conservative ideology, and we will fight for what we believe in.” Here, it seemed as though the ideological divide had encouraged students to escape the bubble of campus and engage with the broader community.

“Our voices are really heard.”

Though their experiences were mixed, none of the students I spoke with seemed to resent their small-town setting. On the contrary, they often seemed to embrace the role that student activism could play in their communities. “The benefit of being politically active in a smaller city like Hamilton,” Di Paolo said, “is that our voices are really heard.” At colleges near major cities, students get a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves by latching onto local politics. At small-town schools, students may miss out on the glamour of the big city, but they embrace the chance to drive local conversations themselves.

What would have happened if I had gone to school in Sherman? Sure, I may have missed out on the big rallies and marches, and I would not have the opportunity to interact with the major politicians and campaigns that San Antonio has. But, I would also have had the opportunity to shape the local conversation in a way that would not be possible at Trinity. Students in small towns across the nation shape those conversations by embracing their role within their communities. Away from the rallies and flashy politics of the big city, these students have found their own way to make their voices heard.

Brendan Kennedy is a senior Political Science and Spanish major at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas. His research focuses on police-community relations in San Antonio, Texas and around the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The photo above was taken by Adam Scotti of McGill students protesting. It is under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license, and can be found here.

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