Josh Blakely: If we only…
Over the past several years, I’ve worked in an academic program that challenges undergraduate students to learn about civic issues while exploring their impacts in a particular place. At the same time, I’ve been advocating for change and improvements in the local school system because of its impacts in my particular place – that being Farmville, Prince Edward County, and the surrounding region of our wonderful slice of Central Virginia.
In doing so, I came to learn the unfortunate truth that the citizens and neighbors of a particular place often make a bigger impact on their community than many of the elected leaders chosen to do the same. Frustrated by how those leaders often squander their power and opportunity to help their communities in meaningful ways, I declared my candidacy for the House of Delegates on June 21, 2023.
It was an ambitious leap for me, given that I am not a politician and have never held an elected office. The business of campaigning and asking friends and strangers for votes was both foreign and intimidating. However, I decided that win or lose, I wanted to make sure my campaign left a trail of real, tangible and lasting good.
Enlisting a team of friends who set up our “headquarters” around the dining room table of my house, we strategized not only how to generate support that would show up on ballots, but ways to channel our campaign’s energy into tangible impacts on our community.
We all agreed that the “Blakely for Delegate” campaign would be worth the effort “if we only” raised money for teachers to outfit their classrooms. If we only empowered citizens by training them on CPR and basic first aid. If we only picked up trash, if we only gave voice to those who felt left out of our community, if we only brought attention to the neglect and ineffectiveness of our long-serving elected leaders at the state level who have ignored the crumbling infrastructure and shoestring budgets of our woefully underfunded public schools.
Win or lose, if we only made a difference in citizens’ lives, that would be a successful campaign. And by that measure, it was. We organized volunteers to connect with teachers in need, filling classrooms and clearing their wishlists. Since we know we live in a health care desert, we hosted an event teaching citizens CPR and basic first aid for bleeding. Since human-made impacts on the environment are mounting at an ever-increasing pace, we organized volunteers to pick up trash. Since some groups have long lingered on the fringes of our communities, we sponsored an interfaith mural to replace one that had been abruptly removed.
If over the course of our campaign we only demonstrated our shared values, engaged with our overlooked and unheard neighbors, and reminded people of the power of a community to pull together to support those in need, that would be a successful campaign.
But, that’s not all we did. At these events and countless other opportunities for conversation, we heard from the citizens of House District 50. We heard about the hopes you have for our community. We heard from farmers trying to make a living on land they had inherited. We heard from business owners providing space for community development and personal healing. We heard from young people scared to be their authentic selves. We heard from leaders who put their trust in a higher power and others who found renewed faith in one another. We heard from people young and old, new to town, and those who have lived in these parts their whole lives. We heard from strangers, friends, and everyone in between. We heard from neighbors and began to say, “If all we did was hear the people, that would be enough.”
Neighbors began coming together to hear from one another, too. At a postcard writing event, one volunteer shared about how she had helped with a presidential campaign in her younger years. At a meeting of the Hampden-Sydney Democrats, another shared the pain of feeling othered on campus. At a meet-and-greet, someone expressed their fear for their safety in light of their trans identity. At our town hall, a neighbor shared her attempts to get her road paved – an effort that has lasted 50 years. If all we did was provide a forum for the community to hear each other, that would be enough.
I began my campaign because I wanted to be a bigger part of building the community. I wanted to bring people together around shared values. I wanted to articulate a vision for Southside Virginia that valued the contributions of all voices and provided tangible benefits to those most affected by our government. I wanted to make a difference and, even more importantly, I wanted to invite others in the community to do the same. In short, I had hoped to see a renewal in engagement with civic life from my friends, family, and neighbors.
I have and that is enough.
Josh Blakely is a former candidate for Virginia’s 50th House District in the November election. He can be contacted at email@example.com.