Community Perspective: Citizen of the ‘Burg

A contributed Perspectives piece by Katie Monroe

Last Thanksgiving, I came home to Harrisonburg from Massachusetts to celebrate my ten-year Harrisonburg High School reunion. Reconnecting with the people I grew up with was a good occasion to reflect on all that the ‘Burg taught me.

In Harrisonburg, I learned that a public K-12 education can be a great education. I learned to love the views from Skyline Drive in all four seasons. I learned that Kline’s ice cream knows no rivals.

Some of the most important lessons I learned, though, were about how to use my voice as a member of a community.

I am the daughter of two left-leaning James Madison University professors who have called Harrisonburg home for 26 years. My family’s social and political views sometimes conflicted with the those of my classmates and neighbors. At the time, it was frustrating. In retrospect, it was a gift. In an increasingly polarized country, I feel lucky to have grown up in such a purple place. The importance of engaging in public debates and advocating for the things I believed in was always tangible, and Harrisonburg gave me many opportunities to practice speaking up.

I have childhood memories of holding my parents’ hands as they walked into the Lucy Simms Continuing Education Center to vote in every single election, even when their candidates didn’t have a chance of winning. The lesson stuck: my first vote, for President Obama, helped turn Virginia blue in 2008, and I haven’t missed an election since.

My family members were avid readers of local news, and sometimes wrote letters to the editor. Once, my parents wrote in to the Daily News-Record to defend the inclusion of Mali as a topic in my school’s social studies curriculum, after another parent questioned whether Harrisonburg kids really needed to be learning about Africa. With my parents’ encouragement, I wrote my first letter to the editor when I was around 12, and marveled when I opened up the paper and saw it in print. The topic may have been school overcrowding, but it was the act of contributing to the debate at all as a young person that really stuck with me. I’m still thankful to those editors for making space for my voice.

In high school, I was the co-president of Harrisonburg High School’s first ever Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) from 2006-2008. Our club’s goal was to serve as a safe space of community and solidarity for LGBTQ students. The formation of the GSA inspired a community backlash, however, both in Harrisonburg and across the state. Homophobic local leaders demonized us from pulpits and editorial pages, and state legislators attempted (unsuccessfully) to pass legislation banning or restricting clubs like ours.

We did our best to speak up and fight back, but we were instructed by well-meaning administrators supposedly “on our side” to “lay low” as a club, just in case the school got sued by angry parents. While the GSA technically survived the attacks, I remember our low-profile existence never really felt like a win, and I left for college feeling bitter about Harrisonburg.

Over the past ten years, I have lived, worked, and studied in Philadelphia and Boston. I’ve worked for nonprofits and for city government, and I use my voice to speak up about transportation access, reproductive justice, and more. I’m getting a Master’s degree in public policy so that I can be more informed and effective at standing up for the things I believe in.

While my stance on LGBTQ rights hasn’t budged over the years, my feelings about Harrisonburg have softened and shifted considerably since I left a decade ago. I can now see how valuable it was as a young person to be forced to articulate and stand up for my beliefs when lots of people around me had different opinions. I have gained a greater appreciation for the incredible civic engagement role models that my parents were, and are. I also understand, better than I did as a teenager, that even if not every struggle ends in a slam-dunk “win,” the work is important nonetheless.

Katie Monroe is a graduate of Harrisonburg City Public Schools (’08) and Haverford College (’12). She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

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