The narrative of ‘Trump’s America’ in rural Colorado is bleak but not hopeless
Twelve years ago, I left my hometown of Grand Junction, a place I loved dearly for its natural beauty and pace of life. I left because, as a recent graduate of then-Mesa State College, I wanted more job opportunities and to experience new places.
Two years ago, my husband and I moved back to the Grand Valley after enjoying a number of duty stations across the world because of his career with the U.S. Air Force. Today, we are both educators here and are invested in strengthening our community.
We did not move here for the high suicide and unemployment rates, as consistently reported in The Daily Sentinel. Nor did we return to experience what the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler recently described as “a rural place with problems that have traditionally been associated with urban areas” thanks to high crime and drug addiction rates.
We certainly didn’t return for the salaries we’ll make as educators in one of the least-funded districts in a state that has also made deep cuts to higher education, a problem The Denver Post wrote was increasingly evident after the 2016 election.
Hessler’s 6,500-word article, “How Trump is Transforming Rural America,” focused on all these negatives in Grand Junction and more.
These media narratives, fueled by a primal desire to understand the chasm of political and social realities in our country, are not inaccurate. At times, reality in rural western Colorado can feel that bleak.
But inside my classrooms at Colorado Mesa University (a place Hessler calls a “bright spot” in his recent, expert analysis of Trump’s rural America), I feel a fragile potential for more. My husband, a new high school math teacher and soccer coach in the valley, feels it too. It’s why we’re here, and why we know our young people are the first and best hope to breathe life into a struggling community.
As an assistant professor of mass communication, I work with students who are eager to question the status quo and reimagine stale social, political or cultural institutions in ways they believe will benefit social good. I’ve seen firsthand how the progress they hope for goes beyond party politics — my students are a robust mix of every political view imaginable.
But this diverse cohort doesn’t stay in Grand Junction after graduation. Instead, they head for Denver or cities elsewhere, taking their economic, political and social capital with them, capital we so desperately need here.
Many of our young people are waiting, desperately, for Mesa County to give them a reason to stay. Yes, my husband and I chose Grand Junction, and we’re very happy with that decision.
But we pay a price for living here — geographic isolation and an often oppressive uniformity of thought that comes with living in a relatively remote valley.
When my university seniors graduate, many are understandably unwilling to pay that price.
Even many high school students are nonplussed about the opportunities in Grand Junction as they bide their time before moving elsewhere. And who can blame them? They’ve grown up spending their days in aging, even decrepit schools, suffering the revolving mandates of standardized testing and “reform.”
A proposed bond measure and mill levy override on the November ballot, for instance, will ask voters to fund improvements on school infrastructure. The last time residents allocated money to our crumbling schools was in 2004, meaning this year’s high school graduates went through their entire K-12 career without additional county-approved funds to improve the classrooms they sat in every day.
Here in Mesa County, we have neglected to fulfill our one promise to our young adults in America: a brighter future through education. It’s no wonder mainstream media narratives about our valley are so dismal.
We have not just tightened our wallets. We have cut off our nose to spite our face, and now we wonder why we can hardly stand looking in the mirror.
Right now, school board members, parents and educators are begging residents to choose our future by choosing our children.
We can write a different story, but we can’t do that by maintaining the status quo.
Megan Fromm is an assistant professor at Colorado Mesa University and the educational initiatives director for the Journalism Education Association. Her column first appeared in the Denver Post.