As journalists in the Your Voice Ohio project sit with people across the state, there is a realization that the issues heard in government meetings often bear little resemblance to what’s on the minds of many people in the community.

A recent media-community conversation in Athens County a few days before Thanksgiving was a good example.

A major theme heard from about 55 people who gathered on the Ohio University campus was that residents need access to healthy food. Access means more than having the wages necessary to make the purchase. Access means having a nearby store with fresh, healthy options and transportation.

And that’s why they named transportation as another top issue worthy of solutions.

One story heard was that a small town in Athens County had lost its laundromat – a town where residents don’t have the financial wherewithal to purchase a washing machine of their own. The closest laundromat is more than 20 minutes away – by car. In homes that can’t afford a washing machine, what might be the challenges of car-travel on curvy, hilly and occasional gravel roads? Will the car make it? Eight to ten dollars in gas for groceries?

And where is the doctor? They expressed a need for modern public transportation to the big city – Columbus – 70 minutes away.

To wrap this up neatly: The people of Athens focused on basic needs of food, transportation, affordable and safe housing, health care, relationships – and education as an equalizer.

When was the last time a political candidate campaigned on the theme of eliminating food deserts, or providing reliable, inexpensive public transportation for everyone across Ohio?

The Athens meeting was part of the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative’s effort to hear what people need to improve life in their communities. What journalists learn should help focus coverage in the 2020 election on what’s important to Ohioans – not what candidates want Ohioans to think about.

Helping to sponsor the event were the Ohio Debate Commission and Ohio University. Participating news outlets were WOUB public radio, The Athens Messenger, Athens NEWS, Vinton-Jackson Courier, Meigs Independent News and Logan Daily News.

The Ohio Debate Commission is exploring with Your Voice Ohio how to better represent the questions of people as statewide candidates campaign for office.

Ohio University alum Amelia Robinson, a columnist for the Dayton Daily News and former contributor to The Athens NEWS, attended the Athens meeting and observed that the concerns here were much like those in her own community.

And she’s correct. Your Voice Ohio has heard similar concerns in seven meetings in economically distressed communities this year. People in the Akron and Dayton areas talked extensively about the need for reliable public transportation, healthy food, health care, affordable housing, mental health, jobs with living wages and education as issues that should be addressed to improve life.

Meanwhile, there’s also a feeling emerging in those communities that have struggled the longest: Hope comes from within.

In Athens, Ohio’s poorest county, people celebrated the good work by community leaders and organizations. Jack Frech, retired head of the county’s Jobs and Family Services Office, was in the conversation. Frech had a statewide reputation as one of the most effective county leaders in Ohio because he was closely attuned to the real, daily challenges faced by Athens residents and bandaged together volunteers to provide basic, critical services.

One person said, “We have bright, talented miracle workers.”

Others said Athens has strong organizations, beauty, highest density of solar power per capita, multiple health-care agencies, bricks, events, outdoor recreation opportunities, arts, music, cultural facilities, biodiversity and strong local business.

Robinson at the Dayton Daily News made the same observation about her community, which has suffered economically perhaps the worst among Ohio’s big cities. This year, it experienced deadly tornadoes, a Klan rally and a mass shooting.

“Dayton has to be strong because Dayton is all Dayton’s got,” Robinson said in a recent column. “Dayton knows that the only heroes to Dayton are the people of Dayton.”

That theme of inner strength and resilience causes many to express excitement that they can improve life from within.

Among the personal commitments participants made at the meeting were to listen more, to discuss more, and to be part of community conversations.

Asked what they might do after the Athens session, one person said: “Inspire others to engage in the community to make a difference by starting a conversation.” Another said: “Remember all the good things in our community.”

What happens next?

In each Your Voice Ohio session, participants are asked to create action plans with ideas for themselves, for leaders and for journalists.

In Athens, to improve the local economy, they said they need to make sure voices are heard that are often left out of conversations, elect leaders who are dedicated to solving these basic needs, then support those leaders.

In exchange, they want leaders to stay focused on the people’s needs, become trained at doing good work, and communicate.

For journalists, they want lists of possible solutions on which they can act; stories about what works.

Journalists gathered to discuss what was heard at the community conversation and will talk again about how the session might affect the way journalism can help facilitate a better community.

The complete report on the Athens meeting can be found on YourVoiceOhio.org

Editor’s note: Doug Oplinger worked at the Akron Beacon Journal for 46 years, finishing there in 2017 as managing editor. Today, he leads the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative of nearly 60 news outlets as they experiment with new ways to connect with the communities they serve. He can be emailed at doplinger@yourvoiceohio.org.

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