This nation is founded on the premise of granting and protecting personal liberties. The forefathers of the United States of America sought freedom from an oppressive monarchy to establish a democratic government by the people and for the people. The rights outlined in the United States Constitution ensure no infringement upon citizens’ liberties. However, freedoms guaranteed to Americans are not applicable to all. Nor could these original tenants encompass all the needs of a constantly evolving society.
Though this nation’s founders could not foresee the eclectic circumstances of the present, they created a system that protects the formative American values. It is the people of this country who unite in one simple act that continues to protect and liberate men and women within the nation’s borders: voting. Each ballot cast represents a voice and empowers millions of individuals to interpret and create the laws and amendments that shape the future of the United States of America.
Despite differences between young and old, liberal and conservative, local residents and temporary, all are bonded by the home they’ve found within the hills of Appalachia. From a 7-year-old recognizing the importance in participating politically to a Vietnam veteran who fought for his country, but could not cast his ballot, the faces of Athens County speak out on the most basic element of American democracy: voting.
A Southeast Ohio resident her entire life, Helen Swaim, 91, lives in the city of Athens, retired from her jobs at General Telephone and as a real estate agent. Helen regularly visits her friends in the nursing home, goes to church, and has her family over for dinner every week. A lifelong Republican, Helen has voted in nearly every election since she was 18, and counts it as one of the most important aspects of citizenship in which she can partake.
Anybody can vote the way they feel. Even in my family there's both Democrats and Republicans. I have always voted since I was 18/span> and I've never missed a primary or a general election even, if I had to vote absentee.
This is what I think it at stake: You kids will be the people that pay for the national debt. My grandchildren will suffer through that. I feel it's your patriotic duty to vote. I go at 7 o'clock in the morning before I do anything else. If I die before the day's over, I want my vote counted.
A retired carpenter and lifetime resident of Ohio, Dale Johnston, 78, was wrongly convicted in 1984 of murdering his daughter and her fiancée, and was put on death row from 1984 to 1990. Despite the fact that the real murderer was discovered, Dale has never been declared innocent, but was acquitted of the charges against him. He is an advocate against the death penalty and will talk about it whenever he gets the chance.
On October 4, 1982, my daughter and her boyfriend—they was murdered. Any evidence that pointed to somebody other than me—it was dismissed. I was convicted March of ‘84 and shortly after that was transferred to Lucasville… …Ohio's death row. Losing my right to vote, it was a factor, cause from the time I was old enough to vote I voted every election.
If I didn't voice my opinion then I had no right to complain about who got in and what they did. To be able to vote again and to make my voice heard is part of the American life. Voting to me is as important as eating. If you let your rights be taken away from you, you're in a heap of trouble.
After attending Harvard University for music, Steven Huang, 38, came to Ohio University to be a professor. Steven began attending the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens. Soon, Steven, who has been openly gay since he was 25, began dating AJ Stack. After moving in together, they decided to make their relationship more of a public commitment. They signed up for a domestic partner registry and had a ceremony at the Good Shepherd Church, declaring their devotion to one another. They emphasize that it is not as much about the official status as it is about their community recognizing their commitment to love one another.
Being in a committed gay relationship really brings to light which politicians or which policies are ones that are really important to you and realizing that only one party really has been embracing that. In many ways, the vote is sometimes less important than the discussion that comes before that vote.
In the long run, the discussion showed many people that this trend is actually going to continue—in other words that same sex marriage will be recognized more and more, not less and less and that is something that I believe nothing is going to be able to stop.
While most boys watch Spongebob or play video games, Will Drabold, 17, is too busy tuning into the nightly news to notice. His passion for politics has existed since his childhood, wishing to vote even at a young age. In 2010, Will campaigned for Ted Strickland, the former Governor of Ohio, and became disheartened with the political process after Strickland lost. This influenced Drabold's decision to study journalism during his college career. Instead of running for public office, Will hopes to inform people about the political systems in the U.S. and the world.
I used to think I had aspirations to be a political figure, but I don't want to pour my heart into it because I can't take the loss. It was like you know I was on the Cinderella basketball team, we were in the state championship, and we lost.
I just, you know, think that voting is really important – I mean its one of the few things we can do to change our country and I'm definitely excited to be able to walk in and say, you know, I am of age in this country where I can have a say in the political process. I want to live in this country for the next 60-70 years, you know, I need to start making decisions about who's gonna run it. It's something I need to do the first time and then it's something I need to do every time afterwards, every opportunity I can.
Oliver Pyle, 7, has grown up in a family concerned with the social plights of today, especially homelessness. His parents have emphasized the importance of being an active citizen by taking Oliver to the voting polls during the 2008 Presidential Election and talking about the political undertones when they arise in music. Despite his unique perspective on the world at such a young age, Oliver is still a kid, playing drums and doing sports in his spare time. He hopes to be a police officer, a fireman, or an astronaut when he grows up.
When I went to vote with my dad, my dad said, 'Would you like to press the red button?' It was pretty cool. My parents have taught me about voting and I think it's important that I should learn about politics cause it will help me when I get older understand a lot more.
I think voting could help a lot with the problems in the world. People that don't have any money are living in shag bad like rags clothes and like they're dying because they don't have enough money to afford medicine I think that's a really bad problem. I think voting makes a difference cause it helps whoever's running—it helps them win.
Still mourning the loss of her husband, Bill, Mary Diles, 83, fondly remembers their legacy in Athens throughout. They were actively involved in the Athens community, opening a business on Court Street, establishing Maplewood Inn & Drive Thru, and voting consistently since they moved to Athens in 1950. Mary remains passionate about politics and advocates for the incumbent president, joking that the only acceptable political signs in yards are for Obama.
A very soothing, nice voice on the phone asked if I was Mary and he said, um, 'We're working for the President to make sure that he keeps the Clean Air Act in his policies because we are now feeling that cancer is a definite result of giving up that policy,' and I said, 'It so happens that I lost my husband a few weeks ago with cancer and what do you want me to do?' And he said, 'I want you to stay on the line and all I want you to do is talk to an operator at the White House and tell her how you feel about this clean act.' And I said, 'I certainly will and I'm gonna be sorry cause I probably am gonna cry,' and so I don't think that hurt.
We agreed on politics all the way. We matched. And we did not have issues. Politics enters almost every field and the voting is very important. And we both totally agreed on most everything.
The first tenured African American professor at Ohio University, Francine Childs, 72, taught African studies from 1974-2010. A friend and mentor to many of her students, Francine opened her home as a place of refuge, where she held weekly bible studies for women. She also opened her basement up for women to live. She served as a delegate on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign and continues to be an advocate for social justice issues. Although she never married, she has an adopted son and two grandchildren.
Our house is like a political network. The local ministers, the teachers at the school, they all met at our house to talk about political and social issues. I've always been interested in issues as it relates to justice. I was raised up in a segregated society so of course my concern was making justice prevail. Injustice, if it's an injustice, then I want to vote for justice. For me not to vote would not be only a failure to myself, but a failure to all of those who have gone before me who never had the opportunity to vote.
Living in Athens County all his life, Ernie Lanning, 86, volunteered to fight in World War II when he was 19 years old. Not more than 30 months into his service, he found himself wounded, without a leg. Despite this impairment, Ernie made his way back to Southeast Ohio, started a family, and worked as a janitor at Ohio University for 23 years. He currently lives at The Laurels of Athens, a local retirement home, and enjoys playing his ukelele.
They was shootin' to kill and of course we was doin' the same thing. On the first day of April, 1945, I was in the invasion of Okinawa. I lost this leg. It was on the 20th of May. I figured sometime it'd grow back, but I just had to say, well, it's gone. When I got out of the service, I wasn't 21 yet and you had to be 21 in order to vote.
We went over there and we fought and, you know, run chances of being seriously injured or killed and I thought we oughta be able to vote less than 21 years old. I live at the Laurels of Athens they call it and this section here it's an assisted living. We will be able to vote here absentee. Here, at this place, the Laurels, we make our choice.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Pittaya Paladroi-Shane (or “Fon,” as her students and friends call her), 42, came to the United States with the hope of obtaining an education degree and returning to Thailand to build a school specializing in Southeast Asian languages. However, she ended up meeting her husband and remained in Athens, finishing her PhD. She regularly goes back to Thailand and considers U.S. and Thailand equally as her home.
America has become my second home now. Originally I'm from Thailand and I came to the U.S. in 2004 to continue in the masters program in Cultural Studies in Education. I didn't vote when I came to the U.S. given the fact that its kind of difficult to contact the embassy and also graduate life here is so busy.
It's kind of strange because you work here, you pay tax, but you cannot vote. And I also would like, you know, to be able to reflect my idea and give some, you know, different perspective to the community of Athens or even in the U.S., but I cannot do that so, um, here I become a little bit like people would say, 'voiceless.'
A vote can change the future, but a voice can bring about action. The Bill of Rights contains amendments vital to each citizen. The first amendment grants expressive freedoms including speech, assembly, and religion — the liberties denied under monarchial rule. Although these declared rights have withstood for over 200 years, the current political landscape indicates a great divide in sustaining or amending liberties. This modern age still holds the forefathers’ truths to be self-evident, but as a nation, the people must address emerging questions as society evolves.
I feel like voting is important because of the whole freedom of speech thing. You want to be able to express what you care about and you want to be able to share that with your government. And if people don’t come out and represent, then there’s no way to see certain things through.
I heard it through the grapevine, Marvin Gaye is God, and what's going on should have been called 'What's already happened.' I say I do spoken word because I can't really paint that well, and I can't sing that well, can't rap that well, but I can definitely write. I guess we live in a fast food culture, so a lot of really deep issues don't get talked about, and that's the reason I do spoken word, is to get those deep issues out there, get people talking about it.
I do put a lot of myself in my spoken word and my music because it's my art. If I don't put my own personality into it, then I just wasted breath, I wasted paper, I wasted ink, I wasted time. When I was growing up I had a very suicidal episode in my life, and writing really saved my life in that aspect. So, yeah, that expression was very much needed for me to stay sane and stay alive.
I've always been a pretty artistic individual. I feel like spoken word is a great opportunity for me to communicate in another way. A lot of people don't quite understand the way that words can move, you know, and I think there's a power in that. There's something about getting that from here, onto there that makes a difference. And then there's something else when you're getting it there, out to here. I would say speech is free. The right to be heard is something that needs to be earned.
“There’s something about words that have capacity. I think a lot of people don’t quite understand the way that words can move … and I think there’s a power in that that can only be communicated through spoken word,” Acie, a graduate student at Ohio University, says.
“I think a lot of people don’t quite understand the way that words can move … and I think there’s a power in that that can only be communicated through spoken word.”
As part of Collective Majority, Acie performs spoken word poetry to get the gears of people’s minds turning, as he puts it. What started out as adolescent amusement, in the form of a middle school rap brigade, eventually turned into a poetic passion for creative communication.
“There’s something about getting that from here,” Acie taps his temple and brushes back his dark braids, “onto there,” motioning to an invisible sheet of paper in front of him, “that makes a difference. And there’s something else when you’re getting it from there out to here,” as his arms sweep through the air surrounding him.
Collective Majority is a group of spoken word artists on OU’s campus. Acie and his colleagues create food for thought in the form of poems, hoping their listeners will digest with consideration.
Holding tight to their First Amendment freedoms, the members of Collective Majority adamantly pursue paths to free speech that are not always conventional. DC Moore, a graduate student, used rap to discover salvation and save his life.
“When I was growing up, I had a very suicidal episode in my life,” DC says. Writing helped him push the demons away from his head and onto the thin lines of a notebook.
Creativity, DC says, is the key to making words stick and stay for good.
Inna Bagrich, a junior at OU, and her mother immigrated to America to escape possible execution and grasp at opportunity. Originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine, the political science student fled the clutches of organized crime.
In 1991, Inna’s mother, a currency exchange officer, faced the possibility of execution through beheading. At that time, organized crime was growing in Ukraine and armed gangsters were making late-night visits to kiosks, beheading the exchange workers that did not comply with their demands. Not wanting to compromise her daughter’s life if she were to be killed, Inna’s mother immediately applied for a visa and took to the United States in hopes of pursuing the legendary American Dream.
“This is definitely the land of opportunity, despite it all,” Inna says with a glint in her blue eyes and a smile tracing her lips. “You can pretty much have hope here and that’s what my family has and we love it.”
For Inna, America was the gateway to success and safety, a bright, glaring arrow that pointed her and her mother in its direction. But are the inherit freedoms of America, carefully penned into our foundational documents, still accessible in our modern society?
“If you’re not getting angry … or you’re not getting excited or laughing, then I’m not doing my job as a poet and I need to try harder.”
Freedom of speech drives Collective Majority to speak, or rather perform, to the masses about controversial subjects. As Torrin Jacobs, founder of the group, says; we live in a nation where what needs to be discussed isn’t always discussed.
“We live in a fast-food culture,” Jacobs says in reference to the “grab-and-go” mindset most Americans have. Spoken word is the vehicle he uses to start substantive conversations . “If you’re not getting angry … or you’re not getting excited or laughing then I’m not doing my job as a poet and I need to try harder.”
But the ability to speak freely, without retaliation, is something that Americans might have let carelessly slip through the cracks. Speech, when hurtful, shouldn’t ever leap off the tongue, according to Acie.
“It seems pretty straightforward, but there’s a lot more to it,” he says. “A lot of people feel like, ‘I have the freedom to say whatever I want to say.’ Well, if that infringes on somebody else … then you should not have the right to say what you choose.”
But for Inna, who has experienced the way that speech can be chained up and held back, Americans are perhaps taking these freedoms too lightly.
People in the United States are passive, in her perspective. She tells the story of a friend who griped about the high price of gasoline. Her friend continued that she was surprised there was not an uprising of picketers at gas stations across America. To Inna, who has seen the fall of the Soviet Union and the effect that organized crime has had on her country, Americans have a real chance to make change happen, however, they fail to utilize the rights handed to them at birth.
“It seems like as many people are in the states, and as much as the principles of this country are always reiterated … more masses would get together for change, but I don’t really see it happening as much as I thought it would.”
Cotrell Loftin, another member of Collective Majority and a senior journalism student, treads the line in her decision to speak freely. To her, there may be no institutional laws in place to punish those who speak liberally, but there are subtle societal consequences.
“What I hope is that it doesn’t stop at conversation; it turns into action.”
“You don’t have a formal penalty, but there are a lot of symbolic penalties that come along with certain things that are said,” Cotrell says.
In order to avoid this invisible backlash, Collective Majority takes the surrealism of their artistic performance to subconsciously lure their audience into exploring different subject matter, whether it is dark and twisted, politically controversial, ignored by many, or just downright uncomfortable.
“Turning it into a performance changes the entire equation. It changes the way it’s perceived,” Acie says. “There’s kind of like this luxury of being up on stage. As personal as it is, there’s still something very impersonal about it.”
What ultimately binds the threads of spoken word artists together is a community of creativity and support. Torrin’s mission for Collective Majority was to bring together all types of individuals with every kind of mindset or artistic vision as a unifying force.
For Cotrell, a relationship is built through her writing and verbalization. She wants to get the conversation started through her art and she wants it to keep going.
“What I hope is that it doesn’t stop at conversation; it turns into action,” she says.
Like the hard and fast freedoms engrained into American society granted to the people through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, spoken word artists hope their message endures as long as these documents. And if not that long, then maybe their words will make their way into the soul somehow.
“Everybody’s had that moment where you heard something and when it hit, it hit,” Acie says with bravado in his deep voice, “and it touched the very fiber of your being. That sort of experience … it just courses through you, you know? And those are the type of things that literally leave an imprint on you.”
I'm a do-er and a direct action-er. I will stop what I'm doing right now and go do something.
We went out and went to a woman's house that was about to lose her place. You know, the police, were gonna, the sheriff was gonna go in there and take all of her stuff out. Her husband had left her, she had two kids, she didn't know how to pay the bills, and didn't know what to do. So we, we took our tents down to her house, and um, we set up camp. And we brought the media there, we brought our lawyers there, and we bought that woman thirty days.
One of the things that Occupy Cleveland has been focusing on is foreclosures. So I really care about people who, because they are down on their luck or something bad happened along the way, that they're losing their homes.
Movements are never easy. It's always a struggle because no authority has ever given up power by simply being asked nicely or logically or reasonably.
It's fought for. And so I think what we're seeing with Occupy it's not a movement falling apart, but what I think what we saw is one of the first breaking points of people that are finally fed up. And the way that they're fighting back is with speech. And they're fighting back with consensus and they're fighting back with organizing.
As an activist and organizer for environmental justice, Ben works to create tangible change in his community. Ben lives and works on a three-acre farm in an East Cleveland neighborhood. For Ben, Community Greenhouse Partners (the farm) symbolizes the transformation of his beliefs into direct action. The term direct action dates back to the Civil Rights Movement, defining actions that are designed to create solutions to an existing social problems.
Community Greenhouse Partners is a nonprofit working to address the lack of accessible fresh produce in urban communities. It consists of six handmade greenhouses, a compost station, and what used to be a Catholic church, which Ben uses to teach activist workshops. The farm produces fruits and vegetables, which are sold at local restaurants and markets.
“Ultimately we decided this is the right thing to do, this needs to be stopped. We believed it so strongly that our words weren’t enough, our bodies had to become speech.”
Ben grew up in Richmond, Virginia, before attending Oberlin College, where he studied politics and environmental studies. He became conscious about the power of his own voice after a friend passed on a simple yet profound message. “He told me that as students we have a lot of ability, a lot of power, and a lot of privilege, and we could work with directly impacted communities and make a difference. I think in that moment I decided I wanted to become an activist and organizer.” Ben says.
Ben has been in Ohio for eight years now, where he is putting the beliefs he found in college to work. He has been involved in anti-mountaintop removal, student organizing, and anti-fracking communities. He worked as the spokesperson for specific Occupy Cleveland actions.
Ben was arrested in November for shutting down D&L Energy, an oil and natural gas group based in Youngstown, Ohio. He and others blockaded truck routes and temporarily shut-down plant operations.
“Ultimately, we decided this is the right thing to do; this needs to be stopped. We believed it so strongly that our words weren’t enough, our bodies had to become speech.”
Ben and a group of activists gathered at the entrance and exit of the plant, holding signs and impeding trucks, which were bringing “brine” (waste water from hydraulic fracturing) to an injection well for disposal. After three hours, the police showed up.
“We decided that it was important to us and our message that we not leave, that we not allow operations to continue until we were forcibly removed.” Ben recalls. He did not resist arrest and was taken away in handcuffs.
Ben was also involved in the Occupy Cleveland protest in Public Square on October 21st, which resulted in 11 arrests. The city set a curfew at 10 p.m., in part to get groups like Occupy out. According to Ben, part of Occupy’s intention was to build support and educate people in public spaces where citizens’ voices could be heard.
Despite the curfew, Ben and the few hundred protesters, who gathered in the square, used the space as a public forum to express their rights as citizens. They decided that the curfew represented the type of injustice they were protesting and they would not leave unless they were arrested.
“The tension was building … there were police, shouting and yelling and chanting, and media, and this sort of beautiful scene where people everywhere just demanded their basic rights to be in this park, demanding democracy,” Ben says.
Although the protest was nonviolent, the curfew violation cost the protesters a night in jail. Legally, there is a fine line between free speech and the type of action that constitutes a night behind bars.
“As long as protesters know what their mission is, then I support free and open protest,” says Sheriff Patrick Kelly. “But, when it crosses the line to violence or taking away someone else’s First Amendment rights, that’s when we have to step in.”
“As long as protesters know what their mission is, then I support free and open protest.”
Kelly began working in local law enforcement in 1977 and has been the sheriff of Athens County for three years. As he reflects on his experiences in law enforcement, he can not recall a seriously violent protest since those following the Kent Shootings in 1970.
First Amendment rights are divided up into protected symbolic speech and unprotected symbolic speech. It is often extremely difficult to identify what speech is truly protected. Each case is different depending on the details of the incident.
Protected symbolic speech may include things like swastikas, flag burning, and cross burning. However, symbolic speech considered threatening is not protected. In many cases of acts like cross burning, the distinction between protected and unprotected speech depends entirely on specific context and intent.
The First Amendment rights sometimes mean different things to different people. “I think we have a confusion about speech in society. I think we confuse speaking and words with speech,” Ben says. “For me, speech is an inherently political act.”
Ben believes that words without actions are hollow. He believes that speech is an inherently social function that represents an ability to connect with other people and to share a sense of the world.
He hosts activist workshops in the former church located on the farm. These workshops introduce activists to tactics used in the civil rights movement to effectively create change. “I think that one of the messages that I tell people is that they’re powerful. The things that affect their lives happen because we are robbed of our sense of power and how to use it,” he says.
David Hodo, known as “Tennessee,” met Ben at an Occupy Foreclosure protest. Tennessee, originally from Nashville, was living and working in Cleveland as a high-rise window washer downtown, until he was laid off. He was upset that he spent months washing the windows of all the big banks and could not receive unemployment.
“Protesting and holding up signs and yelling at the bank is one thing. That lets them know that you’re mad. That lets the people walking up and down the street know that there’s something going on. Direct actions are what really change things…”
“Protesting and holding up signs and yelling at the bank is one thing. That lets them know that you’re mad,” David says. “That lets the people walking up and down the street know that there’s something going on. Direct actions are what really change things…”
“People are busy, their lives are hard, and often times an action comes from a sense of despair,” Ben says. It can also generate a sense of community and solidarity.
Jessica Young, a 26-year-old web developer from Cleveland Heights, felt a strong sense of community and connection through her involvement in Occupy. “When the President gave the State of the Union Address a couple months ago … he would speak and I would say,'those are Occupy issues,' that’s us speaking through him,” she says.
Jessica became a member of Occupy because she is concerned about environmental issues, as well as people who are down on their luck and face foreclosure. She believes most people share a concept of a common good. “When you get right down into it, we want the same basic thing,” Jessica says.
Ben believes that the Occupy movement is notable because it created an open forum for speech and resulted in a change in the tone of public discourse.
Despite obstacles, Ben remains optimistic about positive change. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I don’t think that it’s not going to be painful. One day in the future, I’m looking forward to telling people that we were facing a crisis and we weren’t sure what to do, but we decided to act. That’s where I see myself one day, looking back,” he says.
I want to be a compassionate person with tolerance and love and patience and generosity towards my fellow men. I would really like to be like Jesus, and I think it's a really worthy lifelong goal. The fact that I'm a stay at home mom is a definite reflection of my faith. I think if I wasn't taught the way I had been taught as a child that I would have been a career mom for sure.
I try not to, you know, tell my kids this is how you should believe. I try to help them look at things and make decisions on their own and sort of teach them from my own perspective but also to allow them to experience the world and to ask questions and to seek answers for those questions. So I try to be a faithful, tolerant, inquisitive person. My kids are free to make their own decisions.
I really liked the warm welcome we received here. And I like being different and like being unique, and sometimes when you're a member of the super majority you just kind of get passed over like you're invisible because you're just one more person who thinks the same way.
I feel an affinity with Athens. The Athens community is probably the closest, maybe strongest that I've experienced.
I think Mormonism fits into the current religious landscape community really well. It's a Christian belief, I'm a very strong believer in that. It's a way for people to get closer to their families, to get closer to their God, maybe even closer to their communities. You hear a lot of the pollsters saying "Oh they won't elect a Mormon president", but you know if you ask somebody "Will elect your neighbor across the street?", they'd probably say "Yeah!", you know, "Well, he's a Mormon", "Oh! That doesn't care he's my neighbor, I like him, he's a good guy". We believe in God the eternal father and his son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost, and we believe in the scriptures. But I really think the core value in the church more than anything, I guess it's families. We exist here on the Earth among other people to support each other.
You know they say that your hands are Gods hands right. That God isn't here, but he wants us to care for each other. Athens has been, for me, the faith promoting story. For me being here has been such a great thing for us, and I feel like maybe God does love me. And maybe the things that we go through in life really are to make us stronger. I'm starting to have hope that suffering doesn't just weaken you, but it really deepens you and gives you compassion.
Recent transplants to Athens, Ohio, Cory and Rebecca Crawford previously lived in larger urban communities in Massachusetts and Utah. Their transition to small town life has come with some surprises. After moving into their home, the Crawfords began extensive renovations to the property. Understanding of their situation, church members offered to open their homes to the family until major repairs were completed.
“We would come home covered in dust and dirt from working and this neat, wonderful lady would say ‘Eat dinner with my family,’” Rebecca recalls. “She’d treat us like we were one of the family. And feed us dinner. And they loved our kids and they spoiled them like they were grandparents.”
The Athens ward, a larger Latter-day Saints (LDS) congregation overseen by a bishop, emphasizes proactive communal fellowship. Hans Meyer, a church member and journalism professor at Ohio University details this philosophy.
“Just like any other community organization, I think the church exists to build the community up, to make it a better place.”
“Just like any other community organization, I think the church exists to build the community up, to make it a better place,” Hans says.
In recent years, community initiatives have extended into more public arenas to educate others about the Mormon tradition. Though there are approximately 6 million practitioners in the United States, these numbers make up a small percentage of the nation’s religious population. However, this Christian tradition experiences more nationwide attention and scrutiny as a result of current popular events.
Mormonism became a point of interest on the 2012 campaign trail. Two GOP candidates, Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney, are LDS members. Though Huntsman’s bid for presidential nomination ended early in the primaries, Romney has secured the nomination from the Republican Party.
This marks Romney’s second presidential campaign. He vied for the nomination in the 2008 election, but John McCain ended up on the ticket. In both campaigns, Romney’s religious affiliation became a hot button topic among American citizens. During the 2012 primary, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley voiced concerns about Romney’s religion in an interview.
“I think this is a very subtle issue … that may be a problem in many states – not just Alabama.” Bentley’s assumption is supported by a Gallup poll conducted in June 2011, which concluded one in five U.S. voters would not support a Mormon candidate for president. In a country where freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, it seems some citizens may believe certain beliefs are best kept in the privacy of one’s home rather than the Oval Office.
Attempting to keep religion out of the public debate, Romney rarely speaks about his faith. However in 2007, he addressed opponents of his religious affiliation in a speech entitled "Faith in America" at the George Bush Presidential Library: “They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is no more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”
Three Mormon missionaries, known as Elders, discuss their experiences of sharing their faith. Missionaries, on a volunteer basis, commit to spending two years studying the teachings of LDS and often go door-to-door within a community assigned to them by the Church. During this time, they have little contact with their families and put school and work on hold. According to the LDS website, most missionaries are about 20 years old. Athens has two LDS missionaries at all times. While working in the community, the Elders dine with different LDS families each night, which they say creates a sense of community and provides a surrogate family for them.
The complex relationship and perception of Mormonism within the Christian tradition and the public eye has existed since the establishment of the religion in the 1820s. Mormonism emerged during the Second Great Awakening, a Christian restoration movement, which also produced the Shakers and several Baptists sects. This movement focused on returning the Christian church to its origins and viewed this reestablishment as a purer form of the tradition. Michael McVicar, professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University describes the “primitivism” idea.
“Mormons believe there was the original church set up by Jesus Christ and then there was a long period of corruption where that church disappeared,” Michael says, “Joseph Smith claimed to be restoring it through his revelation.”
The Mormonism founder and prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., established the faith in his home state of New York before migrating to Ohio in the early 1830s. Congregations continued to grow along the Midwest, but pioneering a new religion often entailed persecution.
“It kind of blows my mind when I think of the early history of the church,” Rebecca says. “Heartbreaking stories about houses being burned, people being shot, and people's farms being stolen.”
Though Mormonism has evolved into an established religion, stereotypes and misconceptions linger. In 2009, Mormon leaders contracted with Ogilvy & Mather and Hall & Partners, two advertising agencies, in order to discover how Americans are interpreting the church and its members. Through focus groups and surveys, the firms’ findings determined that Mormons are often associated with such terms as “secretive,” “controlling,” and “cultish.”
These cultural perceptions and prejudices trickle down to impact individual members of the church. While living in Boston, Rebecca and her sister were browsing a video store when the owner approached them to ask if the women were Mormon. After confirming the store owner's assumption, they were surprised by her reaction. “ She went, ‘You people.’… And was disgusted and walked away,” Rebecca says.
Such incidents and an acute awareness of public perception of Mormons originally influenced Rebecca’s outward expression of her beliefs.
“I used to hide that I was Mormon,” She admits. “Not hide it, but not bring it up. Because I didn’t want people not to like me because I was LDS.”
Having personally faced negative experiences based on their religious practices, Rebecca and Cory raise their three children in a home that emphasizes openness to other beliefs as well as encourages inquiries into their own faith.
“The example I try to set is one sort of thoughtfulness about the tradition,” Cory explains. “One that’s not so rigid that the kids will hide behind a blanket of mindless orthodoxy.”
“The example I try to set is one sort of thoughtfulness about the tradition.”
On one occasion, their son Hyrum came to Cory and asked about the biblical story of David and Goliath and whether it was historically true. As a professor of classics and world religions at Ohio University, Cory’s career is dedicated to biblical interpretation.
“We had a talk about the value of a story and we talked about some of the evidences from the Bible,” Cory says. “I tried to introduce complexity and at the end he goes, ‘So did David really kill Goliath?’”
Like any teacher, Cory preferred that Hyrum find his own answer to the question. Though his parental approach is different than Cory’s own childhood, he feels this method will stretch his children's minds and spirits.
“I try to help them look at things and to make decisions on their own. To teach them from my own perspective, but to also allow them to experience the world on their own and to seek answers for those questions. I try to be a faithful, tolerant, inquisitive person. I hope that will help them as they go throughout their lives.”
The freedoms of speech and assembly have been key in the debate over the Second Amendment. Gun ownership remains a polarizing and divisive subject in the United States. The right to bear arms is a part of the historic heritage of this country, but rising gun violence has some members of society questioning the necessity for civilians to bear arms. This liberty was derived in an age wrought with war on American soil. But in an era of homeland peace, citizens have begun to question the scope of this right, while others consider it unalienable.
I do living history as a hobby because I enjoy most of all the people and also the education aspect of it. This here is a flint lock rifle. This is what a pioneer would carry with him... The most intriguing thing is the study of history and I've often heard that if you don't know history, you're bound to repeat it.
My first experience with firearms is my father was also a gun advocate. First thing he did, was he explained the safety aspects of firearms and what they would do to things. And he actually took us out and showed us what they would do when you fired at a jug full of water.
Right now, currently, I'm building rifles for people to pass down to their grandchildren, their children to their grandchildren, to cherish. Making rifles is a it's a complete joy to make anything. There is something peaceful about making something with your hand. And, uh, when I finish a rifle I have a sense of accomplishment and it is one way of leaving a little bit of me behind. When I'm long gone, those rifles and my artwork will still be here for many centuries.
The earliest memory I have, I was with my dad. He took me out deer season. We were walking back this trail, to go to this tree stand and, um, a buck jumped out and stopped, shot it, tracked it down and that was that. My adrenaline was going real bad and I was like, shakin'. It was a pretty big rush at first.
I think a big misconception is it leads to violence and bad actions just because maybe a couple people make some bad decisions. It kind of ruins it and makes a name for everyone else, but its obvious that not everyone is like that.
I deal with felony laws and so any violation of the law that's a felony that involves firearms is typically what I would deal with. A lot of people think more laws help, I always think that enforcement of the laws that we have would be appropriate. Really, its drugs and alcohol, um, that cause the problems with firearms. Typical law abiding citizens don't have any trouble with them.
The primary reason I do it is so people will be safe. And that's my job, I guess, as a firearms instructor. I think I was four or five years old, first time I ever pulled a trigger on a gun. And you know, I was scared obviously but was also fascinated of the noise and the smell. And then, you know, being that I'm a country kid, and uh, Appalachian, you just guns are a part of our culture.
Firearm disciplines we teach rifle and shotgun and then, we teach pistol also. But there's a fair amount of, uh, pressure here, for people who want to have a concealed carry handgun with their self. We do eight hours in the classroom and four hours on the gun range. Buy a gun, keep it, practice it, take somebody who has never shot one out. Uh, educate him or her to it, and uh, keep the practice of owning your gun, keep it right out front because if you don't, you won't have it.
I got introduced to guns by my dad, he worked with the division of wildlife. So, I was just kind of always around them. He's retired now, so when I'm home on breaks and stuff, we can go shooting whenever and it's pretty cool. I'm a girl so I guess it's kind of funny to people, or I don't look like a gun enthusiast.
When I go to the shooting range, it's like older guys. So I look a little out of place. I absolutely think people should have the right to bear arms. People that don't know anything about them could, like, take a class. Like even in my concealed carry class, even if you don't plan on carrying, like, it's just so much information and it was really cool. Like, even I learned a lot that I didn't know. People shouldn't fear guns, that's what causes problems.
The Second Amendment was put in place on purpose.
Like the computer sitting on the table, a firearm doesn't do any harm. It's when somebody uses it improperly.
Safety is the number one thing when it comes to firearms. I mean that should be the utmost thing on your mind.
Two things to buy, you can never go wrong with; one is land and two is guns. One, they can't make any more land. Two, guns never lose their value.
Gary has been shooting since the age of six. He brought a .22 rifle to show-and-tell in first grade. For many in Southeast Ohio, guns are woven into the fabric of life. In the state of Ohio, anyone over the age of 18, who has not been convicted of a felony, can own a rifle or shotgun. Anyone over 21, meeting the same requirements, can own a handgun. Federal and Ohio gun laws have not changed in the past decade, but each election year gun owners grow wary.
Gun laws haven't changed, but ownership is rising. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 43% of American adults own a gun, the highest percentage since 1993.
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With higher numbers comes an increasing variety of gun owners, who value their firearms for different reasons. The gun owners of Southeast Ohio range from a 21-year-old girl who loves Hello Kitty to a Vietnam veteran who teaches concealed carry classes.
Gary, a carpet cleaner by day and "living historian" by hobby, has crafted 11 rifles, many of which he sold; the rest he made for himself and his wife. Each gun takes a year to make in his Albany, Ohio home, and they sell for around $2,000 each. To him, guns are an art form as well as a tool.
“There’s something peaceful and gratifying about making them. When I’m long gone, it’s nice to know that many pieces of me will be left behind in my guns,” he says, smiling.
Gary is dressed in traditional colonial garb, complete with a tri-corner hat and a powder horn slung around his shoulder. He spends six to eight weekends a year “rendezvousing.” Rendezvousing is similar to historical reenacting in that groups of individuals, each with a different job or task from blacksmith to gunsmith, gather and live as though it were the late 1700s or early 1800s. Gary is a gunsmith who goes by Flat Rock.
Beyond rendezvousing, Gary gives presentations at the annual Pawpaw festival and at local schools to better educate the public about American history and the role that firearms played. Since Gary is well versed in America’s gun history, he is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.
“That’s why it was written into the constitution, the right to keep and bear arms, you know, for our freedom. Because once they take your firearms, the government can tell you to do anything because you have no way to fight back,” Gary says. “I hate to say this … but I will not give up my firearms. Because I believe it is a God-given right that is not given to me by man.”
“I hate to say this … but I will not give up my firearms. Because I believe it is a God-given right that is not given to me by man.”
As a gun owner, Gary is concerned about what the next President might bring to the table in terms of gun laws. He thinks the current Obama administration is anti-gun and considers himself a "Ron Paul man".
“In the past we have had a gun ban on semi-automatics and from what I hear from the NRA [National Rifle Association], from things through the White House, that that is [Obama’s] next step; to outlaw semi-automatics,” Gary says.
The ban he cites on semi-automatic weapons occurred between the years of 1994 and 2004 and is known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Semi-automatic weapons shoot only once when one pulls the trigger, unlike automatic weapons that shoot many rounds, but semi-automatics are typically seen as dangerous because they automatically reload. The Clinton administration banned the production, sale and ownership of 19 types of semi-automatic weapons in 1994. The Bush Administration did not renew the ban in 2004.
“In my opinion … guns do not kill people, people kill people. Firearms are safe if they are used correctly and I honestly believe that people have the right to protect themselves,” Gary says. “If they do outlaw firearms who’s going to have them? The law-abiding citizen will give his up, while the criminal doesn’t care about laws, and they will have them.”
Suzy Souhrada describes her bedroom as a cross between a “6-year-old and a mom,” as evidenced by the handmade flowers that adorn her lofted bed and the swath of Bath and Body Works candles on the coffee table. In the candy-colored room, two large black cases hold her guns: a .22 and a .38 Special. They were gifts from her father, along with the training course to earn her concealed carry permit.
The 21-year-old Ohio University math education major is unfazed by the guns she now holds in her lap. Her father, who worked for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, always had guns. She believes that the current societal fear of firearms stems from the fear of the unknown.
“People teach kids just to be afraid of guns and that’s the worst thing ever. Like, when you hear on the news, a little kid found a gun and accidentally killed his friend, it’s probably because they were curious because they were taught, ‘just don’t touch it,’” Suzy says.
“I think it sounds funny when I talk about guns, because I am basically from the suburbs. I don’t hunt and I am a girl. I don’t look like a gun enthusiast. It’s like my little secret … that I tell everyone.”
During Suzy’s childhood, her dad always placed the guns on the table when he came home. He taught his children the dangers of guns as well as their practical uses.
“I think it sounds funny when I talk about guns, because I am basically from the suburbs. I don’t hunt and I am a girl. I don’t look like a gun enthusiast,” she says with a laugh, waving at the pillows of her bed dappled with floral prints. “It’s like my little secret … that I tell everyone.”
One of Suzy’s favorite activities is shooting with friends who have never shot before. “You don’t have to pull the trigger with your whole finger; you just have to squeeze it slightly. Hold it with one hand on top of the other for stability. Line up your sights,” she says. Then she takes a shot. “It feels really powerful,” she says, laughing sheepishly.
Kevin sits in a room decked with American flags and machinery. The room is the operational base for his business, Athens Home and Garden. The room also serves as a training facility for his concealed carry handgun classes. Kevin has owned his own business and has taught self-defense since 1984. Besides the concealed carry classes, he teaches Bando, the Burmese form of martial arts, which includes stick and blade fighting, as well as hand-to-hand combat. Kevin can trace his ancestry in the Athens area back more than 200 years and he has lived in Athens all of his life, save for his stint fighting in the navy during the Vietnam War.
“A person should learn self-defense,” he says, gesturing to the rules of how to handle a firearm hanging on his walls. As an instructor, he has noticed an increase in class size in recent years.
“Fifty percent of my classes are women, and most of them are retired. How does a frail old woman defend herself?” he asks. “To be able to have the right to carry a concealed weapon on yourself, that’s a beautiful law.”
“Fifty percent of my classes are women, and most of them are retired. How does a frail old woman defend herself. To be able to have the right to carry a concealed weapon on yourself, that’s a beautiful law.”
Even as a certified instructor and a fervent defender of the Second Amendment, Kevin is not a devout follower of the National Rifle Association.
“I try not to get too involved with the National Rifle Association. They spit out a lot of right wing rhetoric, and I happen to be a Democrat,” he says. “I think they’re quite radical to be quite honest, but they are the strongest organization in the world for the preservation of firearms.”
And preservation is important to Martin who is also a federally certified firearms salesman. As a salesman, he says he has noticed increased pressure from the Obama administration to monitor the sales of firearms. Though he does not think Obama himself will make changes to gun law if re-elected, he thinks future Supreme Court appointees could make more anti-gun decisions. Furthermore, he fears that the media, since the 1980s, has become increasingly anti-gun. For him, the Second Amendment is a cornerstone of the country’s foundation.
“I mean think about it. The Second Amendment was put where it is for a purpose, to protect the First Amendment,” he says.
Dressed in a black suit and tie, one would never guess that the Assistant County Prosecutor of Athens County for the past 14 years is a firearms instructor on the side. Rob was an avid hunter before he stumbled upon Project Appleseed. The program, fueled by non-profit organization the Revolutionary War Veterans Association, weaves together lessons on American history and gun training. Through his work with the program, Rob says he has become a better shot and is now an instructor himself. As a gun owner, he states repeatedly that his opinions on guns stem from his experience and are not representative of his office. As Assistant County Prosecutor, the most common gun crime he sees results from the use of firearms while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Much like oil and water, guns and alcohol don’t mix very well,” he says. He emphasizes that those who are responsible gun owners should not be penalized.
“Much like oil and water, guns and alcohol don’t mix very well.”
For Rob, there is no need for more gun laws, because there are plenty on the books already. Instead, he thinks the police and county prosecutors should focus on enforcing the laws that already exist by communicating better on a county-by-county basis.
The most recent change in gun law came from the Supreme Court in 2008. In the District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court lifted the ban on owning handguns in D.C. In the 2010 case McDonald v. Chicago, the Court reiterated that all rulings regarding the Second Amendment apply in all states and federal enclaves. Rob says the case reinforces that the Second Amendment should be monitored federally.
“The importance of it [the Second Amendment] is so that people can protect themselves,” he says.
This right to self-preservation is echoed by many gun owners throughout Southeast Ohio and just might be the one point on which they all agree.
While existing liberties are exercised and debated, another civil rights movement stands at freedom’s door. The rights of American citizens self-identifying as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender exist outside of federal law. Several states have ratified legislation to allow gay marriage while other states have passed laws against it. The issue remains the most pressing social justice movement since the civil rights of the 1960s.
Though the founding fathers could not foresee humanity’s future, they put their trust in the citizens of their democratic nation. In the hands of the people, liberties continue to evolve to protect the rights of those oppressed and discriminated against, in order to ensure the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
[A candidate’s stance on gay marriage] will definitely affect my vote and everything, because of what I personally believe and what the Bible clearly says. But I’m not a basher or anything. I haven’t really looked at the candidates this year. It’s my first year to vote.
Everything that I've done in my life… every relationship… has made me the person that I am today… And I love who I am today. The compassionate, caring, sensitive man that I am.
I'm a female to male transsexual, and I started my transition back in 1998. I didn't like who I was. I was a good person. I never really got into very much trouble. I had a good relationship with God, and my faith was very important to me growing up. For me, my faith was that important to me that I did not want to have sex before I was married.
So I met this guy, a nice guy, we got along great, he had kids. After we got married, of course, we had sex, and you know, I… identified as a man, And here I'm having sex with a man. And that's when it really started stirring in me the uncomfortableness of who I was.
I… was very suicidal. I didn't like myself. I just did not know how to relate to this person that was outwardly resembling female.
Jake and I met online back in 1999 in a Christian chat room. We started discussing our views of the Bible, and the fact that I identified as a lesbian.
It started a battle in his body. His ovaries were trying to produce estrogen, and he was taking testosterone injections. And so, first his menstrual cycle stopped.
I would come home from work, and he would be doubled-over in the bathroom, curled up on the floor with a heating pad, in tears, having just been throwing-up from the pain.
You know I've always loved beards and mustaches, and I've always wanted to have a beard and mustache… so for me those were really huge signs that, ok, things are starting to change. There were a lot of times I would not go out, or go out in public, without Erin with me, because I was afraid somebody would find out and I would get, you know, attacked. I was afraid that people were gonna notice that, 'Oh my gosh, this person is starting to get facial hair, and they've got breasts!'
Erin… Erin means the world to me. She's stood beside me. She's, the one that has, lifted me up when I felt like I couldn't go on sometimes. She… She's never ever once questioned my transsexuality. She has always supported the man that I am.
You know, here we are, a straight couple. The law states marriage is between one man and one woman. We're a man and a woman, we're trying to get a marriage license, and we were denied. We applied again. And we were denied the second time, and then we went and took it to the appellate level. We weren't gonna stop until we got the marriage license.
And so there we were, in the Justice of the Peace's house, overlooking the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We got legally married out in the smallest of New Hampshire towns, when we couldn't get married here in Ohio.
All we wanted, was to be able to marry the person that we loved. But, to me, it's much more than that. It's a deeper connection, a deeper relationship when you can say I do in front of somebody, and it also be seen, and legally recognized… by not only the state, but also the country.
The shots that aided Jacob’s transformation were not always so easy. “It started a battle in his body,” his wife, Erin, says. “I [would] come home from work and he would be doubled over in the bathroom … in tears, having just have been throwing up from the pain.”
Jacob’s battle as a transgender man is not just physical. His life is truly indicative of the struggle and triumph brought about by changing liberties in the United States. The fight for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) rights may be considered a modern-day equivalent to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But as states slowly decide on same-sex marriage for themselves, transgender individuals are often not included in the legislation.
Jacob and Erin were recently locked in a legislative battle of their own. In 2004, Ohio passed a ban on same-sex marriage. This coupled with an older law that prevents transgender individuals from changing their sex on their birth certificates means Jacob’s gender, which was legally changed in his former home of New Hampshire, is not recognized by the state of Ohio.
Susan Young, Staff Psychologist at Ohio University and founder of the Spectrum Transgender Support Group, explains the legal confusion: “As far as the birth certificate in the state of Ohio, you cannot change the sex designation on your birth certificate ever. And you can't change your gender designation for the rest of your paperwork until you are completely transitioned top and bottom."
Like many transgender persons, Jacob has only undergone top surgery. Female to male bottom surgery is uncommon and extremely dangerous. Susan says many transgender males live in a liminal gender state and therefore cannot be recognized in Ohio as male.
These discrepancies in state laws create a situation where the nearly 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States find their rights and liberties in limbo when moving from state to state. In order to marry as man and woman, the couple was forced out of Ohio and back to New Hampshire for the legal document.
Jacob and Erin do not stand idly by waiting for their rights to be given to them. The couple is involved with TransOhio, an advocacy group that pushes for transgender rights. For Jacob, the issue is simple. “All we wanted was to be able to marry the person that we loved,” he says. “People believed in our marriage, and we believed that we should. We deserve to have the rights that everyone else does.