In a deeply red district in a small Illinois community, a resistance movement slowly but steadily built itself with rage and fierce determination.
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If you ask the average Trump supporter what an America made great again looks like, it might look a lot like Princeton, Illinois. It is the kind of place where people say nothing changes, in the way of Midwestern rural communities. The city of 7,000 has a Main Street, USA charm, punctuated by near-cliché middle-American touchstones. Pick-up trucks are everywhere. Most businesses close at 5 p.m. It’s predominantly white and Christian, although people in Princeton tell me that is slowly starting to change. At the four corners of the interchange where the city meets Interstate 80, one is greeted by four oversize American flags known as the Flags of Freedom. The surrounding area is farmland dotted by smaller towns, including the one in which I grew up. It’s quiet, safe, and neighborly—we always joked it’s a bit like Mayberry, minus Andy Griffith.
So perhaps that’s why Bureau County, of which Princeton is the county seat, went for Trump in 2016 by a margin of 20 points. His victory in this county wasn’t a surprise, but the margin was. It was the county’s largest margin of victory for any candidate in decades.
In the months leading up to November 2016, Trumpism had swept the area, with large yard signs in prominent places, as Catherine Unzicker, who grew up in Princeton, points out. Along with this came a barrage of racist, homophobic, and otherwise ignorant comments left on stories about small progressive measures being taken in the surrounding area, like the introduction of a Black History class at a local high school. Princeton has always leaned heavily to the right, so much so that right-wing views aren’t seen as inherently political. But the bigotry, shared so openly on social media, was new and signaled a further shift in the area’s politics that people like Catherine and her husband, a web designer and developer who grew up in a neighboring county, weren’t comfortable with.
This is the kind of place where being liberal is seen as being just a little unpatriotic. I know firsthand—as a student of political science and an outspoken advocate for liberal policies, I was more often than not singled out as a lone dissenter under the Bush administration. But I moved away shortly after Obama was elected in 2008. Catherine and her husband, Kyle Unzicker, however, moved back during his first term, and have been raising their two children in the area. He says that isolation didn’t make politics feel too pressing. In Princeton, as for people across the country who got too comfortable, the warning signs of political unrest that we’ve seen in recent years were easy to look past under the Obama administration.
“I’m 31, so Obama was president most of my adult life,” Kyle says. This year is the first time he’s ever voted in the midterm primaries. “I was very laissez-faire about it. The country is fine, we all voted for Obama twice, we’ll be good. Then the election happened.”
Trump’s victory took people by surprise, but it also motivated Unzicker to act. After months of simmering anger that he shared with his wife and other close friends, it was time to do something, even if he wasn’t sure what that meant right away.
The Unzickers weren’t alone. In the months following the election, organizations like She Should Run and Run For Something were formed quickly to help the groundswell of candidates running for public office. The Women’s March is the most prominent example of activism in the wake of Trump’s election, but across the country progressives began getting involved in ways they hadn’t before. Small towns weren’t immune; in Bureau County, younger people began running for city council seats, in some cases unseating established figures in the community. But Princeton had one significant obstacle: a lack of progressive infrastructure.
There is a joke in Illinois that there is Chicago, and then there is Illinois. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of poking fun at the ubiquitous nature of Chicago and the obscurity of the rest of the state. But it’s also revealing. For those in Illinois, it often feels as if Chicago carries the conversation and is alienated from Illinois as a whole. What that means in practice is immediately clear when looking at an electoral map: Chicago carries what has become a reliably blue state, despite the sea of red that dominates the southern and western counties. In 2016, just ten counties in the state went for Hillary Clinton. The rest went to Trump by margins topping 40 percent in some cases. The Democratic Party is largely absent from cities like Princeton; it’s not that Democrat platforms have forgotten small towns as pundits often suggest—it’s as simple as not having a presence.
It’s a void that people like Kyle and Catherine Unzicker have now found themselves working to fill. In the past year and a half, Princeton has seen a steady rise of activism as residents look to reshape their small city into a place that reflects their values of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.
“The election was an absolute turning point for a lot of people,” Catherine says. “That happened and collectively we were like, ‘We can’t pretend anymore.’ We decided we did need to be out there fighting for what we know is right.”
The effort to organize started a few days after the election. “I essentially texted everyone in Princeton that I knew and trusted and said, ‘I haven’t felt lower in a long time. I really want to do something to combat this’,” Kyle Unzicker adds.
Two of the people he texted after the election were Princeton residents Kenny Mecum and Elise Swinford, both of whom were immediately interested.
“We saw the things he saw and felt the same way,” Mecum says. “He was the driving force behind it, but we all felt we needed to do something. We’re all in this community together.”
Together they decided to start Human Human, a group dedicated to bringing a message of inclusive community to Princeton. Shortly after they decided to take action, Voices From the Prairie was also established. Voices is a forum and think-tank-style group that hosts town halls and runs articles in local newspapers. At the monthly meeting I attended before speaking with the founders, a group of around 30 people listened to a rundown of a planned Earth Day event before holding a Q&A with three local high-school students who had started a Gay/Straight Alliance, the high school’s first. Whereas Human Human is primarily a group of 30-somethings, the Voices meeting was made up mostly of people over the age of 50.
Lindsay Vaughn and Stephanie Van Ordstrand, who grew up in Princeton and raised her own family here, organized what became Voices out of a desire to mark the Women’s March; the nearest march was being held more than two hours away in Chicago, and they weren’t able to make the trip. So they reached out to some friends, including Jessica Gray, who had recently moved to Princeton, to gauge interest in meeting up. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and a total of 14 people met at a local coffee shop. At the end of the meet-up, everyone agreed to do the same thing next week. But if the response to the first meet-up was surprisingly encouraging, then the response to the second was beyond any expectation.
“The next week, 40 people showed up,” Vaughn says. They hastily relocated to a train depot nearby, where they asked everyone present to come up with the two things they were most concerned about regarding the current administration. But it became clear quickly that narrowing it down wasn’t going to happen. “It was tax returns, and Russia, and women’s reproductive rights, and First Amendment rights, and attacks on free speech and free press, and delegitimizing dissenting voices.”
In the year and a half since first meeting, Voices has coalesced into a public resource, hosting speakers and events. But in those early days it’s value for the community was also in simply getting everyone together. A sense of isolation pervaded the political culture of Princeton in the run-up to the 2016 election for the organizers of Voices and Human Human.
“I felt very alone,” Swinford, who like Kyle, has been active in both groups, says. “But after the election I felt like there were peers and it was a wave of relief.”
“I’d lost a few friends,” Gray says of the period after the election. “I’d been blocked by people I went to school with and knew for 18 years. It was a challenging time.” Then came Vaughn’s invitation to meet up, and the outpouring of interest. “Just to be in an environment where we all cared about what was happening—we all had a space to voice how we were feeling—was comforting and reassuring. I went home feeling very empowered.”
“A lot of people are concerned with these things, I’m not the only one,” Vaughn recalls thinking. “That has been a big part of this, breaking out of the isolation, because we weren’t the only ones feeling isolated. We just hadn’t found each other yet.”
For both groups, enthusiasm was immediate. But planning and organizing took significantly more time and discussion, particularly within the context of Princeton’s overwhelming conservativism. Voices and Human Human wanted to ensure they would have longevity and not be dismissed out of hand, something that required careful positioning on topics that have created deep partisan divides across the country. Princeton isn’t the kind of place where one sees outright hostility to difference, but everyone I spoke to voiced concern about an undercurrent of intolerance that casts a shadow on the political left in the area.
“Sometimes I think we’re not doing enough. We’re not fighting this hard enough,” Swinford says. “But when you’re at this level, you can’t be harsh. You have to be smart and figure out how you strategically fit yourself in to make a difference.”
“It’s interesting to me that if you are known as a liberal group that maybe you’re thought less than. You can be dismissed,” Gray says. This awareness, and a desire to draw people in rather than deter them from being involved, lead to Voices labelling itself as “transpartisan,” a term Vaughn encountered while reading about Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France. “When you’re in a community that is largely Republican or has voted largely Republican you have to move differently.”
Both Voices and Human Human were delicate in their approach. The latter designed a sign that businesses and residents can hang that affirms that “everyone is welcome” regardless of “race, religion, gender, sexual orientation” and other identities. It is reminiscent of signs and banners that have popped up in cities around the country in the wake of the 2016 election. The response was largely positive, with around 20 businesses hanging them and around 30 residents requesting them for their homes. Prominent businesses and buildings, like the public library and a popular theater group, supported the initiative. But backlash of a particularly Midwestern sort did occur, validating some of the concerns members had about how the public would respond.
“It’s passive aggressive,” Catherine says. “No one has said, ‘We’re uncomfortable putting this up.’ They give you the runaround. There’s been a number of other ones who say, ‘Oh, yeah we’ll look at it.’”
It may seem tame to be faced with passive aggression in a time when hate groups are empowered to march around the country. But the push-and-pull they experienced highlights the deep seated sense of being outside of the norm that liberals and non-conservatives can feel in small towns where your reputation is at once important and out of your control. Members were nervous to put themselves out there to encourage businesses to hang the sign. “I think our group had a bit of trepidation about what are these people going to think if I bring this thing in here? What are they going to think of me,” says Kyle.
Voices has also had a largely positive response to their programming, but one encounter stands out in their memories. One of their early public events was a march, part of the national network of marches demanding the president release his tax returns. The group brought together around 50 people to walk down Main Street and hold a rally at a prominent park, with speakers and music. Not everyone in town was happy.
“Someone pulled off on one of the side roads, and slowed down, and yelled ‘Jesus Christ! Shut up you ignorant people!’” Vaughn recalls, laughing at what she saw as ridiculousness given the context. “She’s yelling things out at us and calling us ignorant, and these are some of the most intelligent people I know here. The speaker was a historian speaking about Abraham Lincoln at that moment.”
The irony of booing Lincoln in the Land of Lincoln aside, the moment seems to capture one of the underlying issues that underpins the political culture of Princeton that Human Human and others have tried to address: A lack of historical context. Today the town is predominantly white (96 percent), conservative, and Christian (71 percent in Illinois overall, according to Pew). But Princeton’s history with race and diversity is actually far more complex. Reverend Owen Lovejoy is one of the town’s most celebrated former residents; his home, on the outskirts of Princeton, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and he served as an advisor to President Lincoln on emancipation and abolition. But often, local knowledge ends there.
“We don’t get the full picture,” local historian and writer Sarah Cooper says. “The Underground Railroad part captivates children and adults, but just how radical and influential Lovejoy was in the national anti-slavery movement doesn’t get communicated that much.”
Cooper, who worked on historical research projects and public awareness in Madison, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles before returning to Princeton, writes about Princeton’s history for the local newspaper, the Bureau County Republican. In 2016 and 2017, she used her recurring column, “Historically Speaking,” to highlight the area’s history with race—a move that prompted some to ask her, “What Black history?” As Cooper explained in her series of columns, in the early 20th century, Princeton had a significant and active Black community, but in the 1920s the KKK opened an office on Main Street and began holding marches. Within the decade, the racial diversity of the area was largely erased.
“Princeton used to have an Emancipation Day celebration every year. It was every bit as big as Homestead,” Kyle said about what he learned through Cooper’s writing. “You read her columns and you ask these questions. ‘Why did it stop? Where did that community go?’ We actively drove out these people of color in our community. I mean, it’s no accident that the demographics of today are the way they are.”
In a homogenous area, issues like racism can feel distant or non-pressing, despite white supremacists carrying out acts of terrorism such as last week’s murders of two Black people in a Jefferstown, Kentucky, Kroger’s and Saturday’s massacre of 11 parishioners at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and avowedly racist groups becoming more visible in areas across the country. When the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent last year, it became clear to Voices and Human Human that they needed to find a way to connect Princeton to the larger conversation. Part of the urgency was caused by the seeming lack of reaction in town. “It wasn’t even talked about. It stirred up a bunch and was really emotional for people who we are around, but it meant nothing to many,” Swinford remembers.
Voices ran an ad in the Bureau County Republican denouncing racism, and Human Human decided to center Princeton’s history with race as part of the Homestead Parade. The Homestead Festival, which takes place in early September, is one of the most important and popular social events in Princeton. Named for the Owen Lovejoy Homestead, the former home of Reverend Lovejoy and stop on the Underground Railroad, it draws huge crowds from across the county. In addition to being Human Human’s first large-scale public event, they decided their presence in the parade was a chance to send a message about racism using Lovejoy’s legacy.
They knew it would be risky, so they decided on a simple message: “Owen Lovejoy was a relentless force against racism. Be like Lovejoy.” They handed out around 2,000 postcards showing Lovejoy’s face and that message, with information about how to visit the Lovejoy Homestead and the Lovejoy quote, “No human being, black or white, bond or free, native or foreign, infidel or Christian, ever came to my door, and asked for foot and shelter… who did not receive it.”
The lines between the political and the non-political aren’t as clear in small towns like Princeton, and this message cut to the heart of that tension. Princeton, and in rural areas across the country, there is a sense that even though politics are inherently alienating, there is a common sense of decency that can unite communities. Today, that common decency is what seems to be under threat, and something that groups like Human Human and Voices are pushing to preserve.
“I don’t want it to be political anymore,” Mecum says about the kinds of statements Human Human has been making. “This message is just you’re a good person. Be a good person. It shouldn’t be a political statement at all.”
“You have to have an opinion on this,” Gray says. “There’s a line here that should not be crossed and has been crossed several times by this administration and you need to have an opinion on this stuff. Just because we’re a small town, we don’t need to go to a big city to find these issues. We’ve brought it to a population of 7,000.”
What can happen when those in a rural community decide to organize? The organizers of Human Human and Voices have the future in mind; many people involved have young children or grandchildren, and are looking for ways to reclaim the narrative of their own communities.
“There wasn’t something here we wanted, and rather than going somewhere else for it, we created it here,” Vaughn says of the ripples of change in the community. “We all want to live in a community that accepts and embraces and celebrates diversity and seeks intellectual stimulation. Rather than leaving and seeking that elsewhere we’re creating it here. We’re bringing it here, and making a home for it.”
In the more immediate future, both Human Human and Voices focus on the idea of fostering conversations in their community and the transformative power that can have in a place where it hasn’t always been a given. Leading into the midterm elections next week, Voices has been hosting candidate forums, and members were working on voter registration, right up to the last minute.
“One of our initial goals was just to start conversations,” Swinford says of her hope for Human Human. It’s a desire she fears is simplistic, but one that is no less radical given the current lack of political debate in the area. “At the end of the day if I am able to share my beliefs and someone can hear me who doesn’t believe the same thing, that feels like a pretty accomplishable goal.”
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