Ideas

Step 1: On to the Ballot

Well: here we are. It’s Tuesday, January 28th, 2020, and today several dedicated supporters are helping carry nomination petitions around the District. That’s the first official hurdle for the election: a candidate for the State House needs a minimum of 300 signatures from Democrats registered in their legislative district in order to appear on the primary ballot.

So: if you see some friendly folks out wearing Elect Matt shirts, wave ’em over and offer your scribble.

And: if you want us to come find you, let us know (email electferrence@gmail.com), and one of us will come a-knockin’.

Plus: we’re going to change things here in NWPA, with an emphasis on care, and justice, on everyone getting a fair shake, in a clean environment, where everyone has access to excellent healthcare and strong schools. Some would tell you that’s too much to ask. I’m not one of those people. It’s what we all need and deserve. It’s the right time for us to do right by us all.

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New (Old) Legacies

Listen to what people have to say about our neck of the woods, and you’d get the message that ours is a legacy of smallness and exclusion. But that’s neither the full picture, nor even the right one. Our legacy is care and compassion, and I’m running for the PA House because we deserve a politics that values humanity more than dollars.

Consider:

  • We shelter the needy. The building where I work each day — Odd Fellows Hall — is the site of the first Odd Fellows orphanage in the nation (the current structure is an early 20th Century replacement for a late 19th Century wooden one). Each day, I sit in an office and teach classes in a building that stands as a legacy of the care Meadville has exhibited to children who needed care, education, and a home.
  • We fight for racial justice. John Brown, the famous abolitionist who was infamously hanged for “treason,” because he had the temerity to fight hard for the liberation of slaves, had a homestead in Guys Mills. And the Underground Railroad ran through our hills and basements and barns, brave men and women of our county helping black Americans escape the bondage of slavery, defying racist laws.
  • We stand up to exploitative extractive industry. Ida Tarbell, a graduate of Allegheny College in 1880, struck a blow against the robber-baron monopolies of the day, exposing the dirty secrets of labor abuse and financial tomfoolery in her bombshell The History of Standard Oil Company.
  • And we do all these things — and more — every day, in small and big ways, so many of us standing up for what’s right, and just, and green, and smart.

The point is, Northwestern Pennsylvania isn’t what a caricature might imply. It’s not a land with legacies of bigotry, exploitation, backward thinking, xenophobic, exclusionary people. That’s what the news sometimes feels like, though. And that’s what the shouting voices that troll local social media might suggest. But it’s simply not who we are. Never were.

That’s one of the reasons I’m running in 2020, to unseat a politics that caters to the mean, and rude, and dismissive, that gives evidential support to the very thing people from outside Western PA might think we are, that votes in ways that side with Standard Oil instead of Tarbell.

I’m running because I’m tired of being made to feel like we live in a place represented by such ugliness. I’m running because I’m tired of getting blamed for the ill will of a certain swath of the country. I’m running because I’m tired of sitting on the sideline and letting the mind-numbed internet trolls shout out a version of us that really is not us.

I’m proud of my Western Pennsylvania background, of being born and raised on a farm, outside a small town, in a part of the country with many claims to pride and heritage, to kindness and care. I’m proud of being rural and thoughtful, of recognizing the integrity of the fields and the integrity of the library, of being part of a positive legacy that, with your help, we can help nurture and reinvigorate. This is our Northwestern Pennsylvania. And the legacy I want to help pass on to all of our children is one worthy of the noble past we sometimes find hard to remember.

Changing the Conversation

Out and about the other night, I ran into Makayla Alicea, President of the Erie County Young Dems. Chit chat ensued, politics on tap, and a question: who do you consider your chief demographic.

It was a good question, but one I wasn’t quite prepared for, in part because I’d like to say, everyone. That’s the ideal, of course, but it’s already clear that (shocker!) there are people who will not only not support my candidacy, but actually loathe everything I stand for. So there’s that.

But to answer the question about my chief demographic: people who have been left out of the conversation.

I describe my candidacy as an effort to change the conversation, because I’ve heard for too long the same old (non)ideas from the same old sorts of people in Western PA politics. Unimaginative. Looking away from our real problems. Committed, really, to maintaining the system we’re stuck with, even when it isn’t working. Because…well…that’s never quite clear. Probably because it benefits them in some way, or the deep pockets that back them.

I also know that when you grow up in rural Western Pennsylvania, you actually aren’t really ever part of the conversation when it comes to statewide politics. Rural people rarely matter, in these contexts. Which is something we have to refuse to accept. And when you’re a liberal resident of rural Western Pennsylvania, well that you really aren’t part of the conversation. You can watch the news, or read the comments on various social media posts (but really: never read the comments!) and it’s clear who gets to speak. Half of it seems to be that’s the way it’s always been and the other half seems to be insults from the trolls going after anyone who tries to push against the way it’s always been.

Well, hello…my name’s Matt Ferrence, and I’m running the for the PA House because I’m tired of that conversation. And I want to have new conversations with all the members of our community that usually find themselves shouted down, ignored, or condescended to. All the people who have been getting a raw deal, who have been made to feel like they don’t count, or aren’t welcome, or have to defer to the wisdom of the power that’s always been framed as the way it is.

Let me add a wrinkle, referring back to the status of rural Pennsylvania: if you live in District 6, then you really haven’t been allowed into the conversation. Not really. This is the long history of the Rust Belt and Appalachia (and we’re in both of those regions here). Even our own politicians back laws and regulations that are far more likely to hurt us than help us, then expect us to side with them, and then thank the people doing the hurt. After voting for them again.

That’s a conversation we have to change. And we have to do it by adding voices into the mix that many don’t imagine are here. LGBTQ+ voices. Non-white voices. Immigrant voices. Female voices. Poor voices. Compassionate voices. Green voices. Young Dem voices, gathering together to declare that this is their future we’re talking about, and they love this place, and we’re all in this together. Our voices. Voices that really want to see a different future here in Crawford and Erie Counties, in all of Pennsylvania, who are ready to change the conversation and transform from a political culture of perpetual austerity to one of human prosperity and care, for everyone. Because yeah, still, that’s my real chief demographic.

#Want to talk about this and other things affecting NWPA? How about hosting a meet&chat? I’d love to come and hang out, have some conversation about the 6th. I’d love to speak to interested civic organizations, too.#

On Pride

#1) Not long ago, I happened upon a parade while away for work in West Virginia. Around the bend came the usual cavalcade of high school bands, and civic organizations, and various politicians riding in borrowed convertibles, and then: the WVU marching band, “The Pride of West Virginia.” Now, I’m a Pennsylvania kid, born and raised in this state, but I also completed one of my degrees at WVU, so I’m fairly partial to the Mountaineers when it comes to things like college marching bands.

And, pride, you know…proud of my alma mater, and proud of the work those men and women put into the precision of their feet, all in step together, and proud of the sound of instruments raised together with a snap, and proud of the thumping drums, and proud of the flourishing cymbal line, and proud of the color guard and majorettes and drum majors and the whole hooting spectacle of it all. It works, because they work together.

#2) A couple of days before I ran into that parade, I was having a drink with Brian, my Campaign Chair, and we were talking about pride and politics. And we were saying this: it doesn’t seem cool these days to admit that you’re proud of your government or, even more, that you have anything like faith in an elected official to do right, to serve the public that elected them. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re right to be the opposite of proud of our political moment, and to have the opposite of faith in the words we hear said while politicians run roughshod over our baseline civic ideals.

But here’s the funny thing: at the root level, I’m actually proud of American governance. And I do have faith in at least the principles of our politics. What hurts me most, these days, is how often the practice of our politicians violates any sense of pride I might have, insults the dignity of service and leadership, appears as the most venal of self-interested emptiness. It makes me feel a fool, to actually believe in the possibility of ethical, good government, because of what we see, day in and day out.

I don’t blame anyone, but we’ve more or less given up on being proud of the men and women we elect. We kind of just hope they don’t screw things up too bad. Along with that, we operate with a baseline distrust, even animosity, toward anything that happens in politics. Heck, my loving mom once told me, I’ll be proud of you no matter what you do in life…unless you become a politician.

Yeah, politics are awful, but they don’t need to be, shouldn’t be, can’t be if we’re going to find ourselves out of the various messes we’re in. So, I get it. But I also want better, for all of us. I want a politics that inspires pride, that deserves our respect, frankly.

#3) So that’s the connection of pride I’m thinking about right now, mid-September, a month-and-a-half from this year’s municipal election, and about eight before the primary race of my own election cycle. I’m thinking about pride, and how I want to be the kind of candidate who brings it to public service. I want to be the kind of Representative constituents can be proud of, even if (you know it will happen) they can’t always love every position I take on every issue.

#4) And parades, you know? We love them, and we’re good at them, and we do a lot of them in this part of the woods. Because they demonstrate the kind of pride we have in our towns, communities, and homes. We love a parade because it displays the best of what we hope for ourselves, the teamwork of the bands, and the waving of the politicians in those borrowed convertibles, and the candy hucking at us from fire engine windows. Parades remind us that we are a community. They let us revel, at least for an hour, in the joy of us together.

I want to be that rare politician riding or walking along the route of one of our many demonstrations of civic pride, who neighbors look to without a harrumph or an eye roll. I want to wave and look people in the eye because, nope, it’s not politics but, instead, it’s pride.

So spread the word, if you will, that I’m running in 2020. That I’m looking to take the House seat in PA #6 and be a Representative even my mom can be proud of. And that you can be proud of. And that I can be proud of being.

Keeping It Local

Washington politics are on fire, again, in this age of accelerated hate-spew and wedge-driving, arch-nemeses waging war with nothing at stake but our shared future. And that doesn’t often really work out for us, y’know what I mean? Because national politics works on its own illogic, and not so much with an eye toward our corner of Pennsylvania. But the thing about local politics is that they’re built around neighborhoods and neighbors, about the person you see at the grocery store, and the person who goes to school with your kids, and the person you see at religious services, and the person you play golf with, and the person rooting for the next high school over, and the person behind you on the road as you drive to the hospital to see an ailing friend, and that ailing friend and the doctor who cares for that friend and so forth until you have a community full of people who know each other and are in this together.

Thus I’m thinking locally today for two reasons:

  1. I am legit stoked about the bevy of Democratic candidates who are stepping forward, stepping up, and stepping out to make a difference. Please, check out the slates where you live, in Crawford and Erie counties. Right now, candidates in our hometowns are gearing up for a couple of months of important primary campaigning, to be followed by absolutely crucial November municipal elections. The decisions that our city councilors and county commissioners and township supervisors make, well those are the decisions that affect us each and every day. These candidates want something different around here, and I’m excited about the prospects.
  2. National political ideology trickles down (such an ugly term; always has been). I’m thinking about how we wind up, even in our local elections, having arguments about the muppets we love and loathe who fill the nightly political news. As we all know, national politics are built on divisiveness. Separate ’em into teams, get people to really love their team and, more importantly, despise the other team with unabated fire and venom. And never, ever, ever vote for the other team, even when one team seems to be held hostage by the worst version of itself.

We’re in this together, is what I’m saying, and the divisiveness of team-based politics never, ever lets us be together. And y’know what else I see? That national divisiveness has for quite a long time indeed been built on actual policies that leave us out of the picture, together. All of us. I’m saying we all get a raw deal in Northwestern PA, have for a long time. Yet the national politics, and the ideology that has trickled down to our state representation and even to our local councils and boards, does the same thing. It spins the same old treacle that wants us to suffer, literally and figuratively. Our economic difficulty, well that’s not exactly a mistake or a flaw in the system. It is the system, the one that repetition of the same old same old politics ensures will never change.

Together, we can bust that system. Together, we can ignore the self-sabotage of the team-based ethos and, instead, recognize that what we love about our home is also what we love about each other is also what we can love about the different relationship we can have to our schools, our health, and our environment. We don’t have to accept the same old sermons of scarcity, the limited-horizon views of what jobs we can have, the fatalistic economics of how-will-we-pay-for-it, the small-minded cracks our elected officials make at neighbors who suffer because they lost work, or because they’ve been felled by addiction, or because they want to pursue education that edifies the mind and soul instead of serves the corporate machine that wants, always, to tell us who we can be and what we should dream. Yeah, we can bust that.

It starts locally, is what I’m saying. It starts now, in our 2019 elections, has started already in the minds of the candidates out there who are already dreaming differently about our neck of the woods. And it stays local into 2020, when we get to make choices about who represents us in Harrisburg (how about me!?) and in Washington. Let’s keep it local, promise each other that we’re more interested in our community than in whatever party line gets spun out as a way to keep the corporate state empowered and the people not so much. We can change that conversation, and we can thrive together.

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

I grew up in Indiana County, PA, on a hundred acre farm in the Two Lick Valley. My father was an environmental biology professor at IUP and my mother a preschool teacher, but they also were farmers committed to the principles of land stewardship, in the vein of Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold. I participated in 4H — past-president of the Evergreen Sheep and Goat Club! — and showed pygmy goats at the Indiana County Fair. Through the experience of growing up on a farm, I learned how there’s no separation between the world of higher education and rural Pennsylvania. These were for me the same world, parts of who I am.

After graduating from IUP in 1997 with a B.A. in English, I worked for a summer as the Sporting Staff Director at the Boys Scouts’ Camp Seph Mach, where I taught rifle marksmanship, shotgun, and archery, then headed to Pittsburgh to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from Pitt. Following that, I worked for a couple of years as a writer for my hometown newspaper, The Indiana Gazette. There, part of my beat was to cover local and regional government, everything from tiny rural townships where the elected supervisors were also the crew maintaining the roads, to state legislative elections. I credit this time as sparking a recognition that politics is always local, that decisions are not about ideology but about how people live their daily lives.

Married by now to Jennifer (we will celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2019), we next spent a few years away, first in Southeast Arizona in Cochise County, then in Paris, France. We moved home to Pennsylvania in 2004, into the Laurel Highlands, and while she taught French at a K-thru-9th Grade school, I returned to my own education, earning a Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2010. At WVU, I studied the literature of Appalachia, started to recognize also that Pennsylvania was in fact part of Appalachia. Literally. And in the dynamics of its culture and politics. I studied these books with a particular focus on how politicians have manipulated the image of rural Americans to serve their own purposes, rarely to the benefit of those rural Americans. It might seem odd to some who think literature is “just a story,” but I studied the powerful ways that the stories we tell and repeat shape the stories we live.

In 2011, we moved to Meadville, where I took a teaching job at Allegheny College. We live in the city with our two young boys. I am an associate professor in the Department of English, and also Chair of that department. I have served on important governance committees at the College, including the Council of Diversity and Equity, the Finance and Facilities Committee (which I also chaired), and the Faculty Review Committee. I have authored two books (All American Redneck and Appalachia North: a memoir), as well as numerous essays and articles. I teach writing, particularly creative nonfiction, which is a literary form built on telling true stories and, more importantly, learning to reflect on those stories to recognize deeper truths in our own experience.

Mine is, perhaps, an expertise some would see as disconnected from legislative work, but I see it differently: my training is to study, to read deeply, to learn how to understand the complexities in stories already told in order to find ways toward newer, fuller, better stories. True ones.

A bad old story: a College and a rural county are disconnected. Or, a college professor couldn’t possibly be a state legislator.

A better new one: Allegheny College and Meadville and Crawford County and Northwest Pennsylvania have grown together through nearly their whole existence. They are each other, and we can imagine our way forward as partners, neighbors, and friends.

Coupled with my experiences growing up on Cardinal Creek Farm, back in Indiana County, my literary study has helped me consider how we need new stories to live, that we need to read our own experiences differently and recognize how the politics of America continue to influence our lives negatively. The struggles we face here in Northern Appalachia are not inevitable, though they are more connected to a narrative design than we might imagine. Appalachia has struggled, across all 13 states included in the region, very much because of policies of exploitation. Decisions have long been made to benefit wealthy outsiders at the expense of the residents, and politics have been developed that cause Appalachians to find villains among allies. That’s a condition that helps maintain the economic stranglehold the wealthy outsiders have on all of us, yet we wind up blaming each other, and never them, even often helping them tighten their grip.

I’m running for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives because it doesn’t have to be this way. We can tell new stories, our stories. We can change our relationship to the land away from an exploitation that weakens it and us, to one of stewardship that protects our natural resources while also making our own lives better. We can break the cycles of industrial domination and economic austerity politics that yoke us forever to a system that is designed to keep us poor, and weak, and divided. I want to go to Harrisburg to fight for a Sustainable District 6, and a Sustainable Pennsylvania, so we can all thrive, together. We can’t cut our way out of the economic decline that has affected this part of the state. We have to build together, build differently, build as a community.