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.