After high school, many folks did what kids everywhere do: They left to take on big cities—New York, D.C., New Orleans. They wanted the things most college students do, like adventure, culture, a life different from that of their parents and that which they knew. As a college student who watched her friends go off to find themselves in the country's great metropolises, I was envious. And then something funny started to happen. They started coming home. Not in all cases, but in enough to make for a surprising phenomenon.
I've been able to ask some of these folks why they came back. As someone who never left and remembers the conversations we had about having to get out of here, I wonder what their reasons are. One cited a cancer scare; more than a few needed somewhere to crash after bad breakups, job loss or returning from abroad; and even more came back because there were jobs here, with family and support networks. I don't know if this is how it works for other kids in other cities or if it's more especially tied to Chattanooga. After all, this city weathered the recession better than most. There's more opportunity now, not only professionally, but culturally. Chattanooga isn't the town it was when we were kids.
Chattanooga gets cooler every year. JJ's isn't the only place to see a live show in town. The Southside and the North Shore offer more to see and do in the price range and interests of young professionals and college students. It's all part of the city's evolution. The way some cities have a community of expatriates, Chattanooga has a growing community of prodigals returned. This reverse brain drain seems rife with opportunity to really change this city even further, to keep it moving in a positive direction. It reminds me of an argument I got into with a friend of a friend in from Portland, who had grown up here and fled to the liberal left coast after coming out.
She cited her ability to be around others with her values, around other lesbians and vegans and punks. That's all well and good, to want to be with your tribe. But I thought her a little selfish for not staying to make Chattanooga somewhere that lesbians and vegans and punks can love too. What about being the change you want to see in the world? It's not always easy being the change-maker. Is this a tough town to be a liberal, vegan, lesbian, punk in? Hell yes. It's a tough town to be a lot of things.
Change requires sacrifices and a lot of tough honesty with yourself. It can be as simple as living out and proud in a conservative Southern town, doing your best day to day to be a great gay ambassador, and teaching your neighbors to be more tolerant and open. It can mean living in a downtown neighborhood and thus perpetually confronting Chattanooga's deep-rooted issues with race and economics. It can mean choosing a profession that gives back, in nonprofits or in schools or at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. It can mean raising your kids in a struggling neighborhood instead of the suburbs, contributing your tax dollars to schools that need it and teaching your kids about diversity through example. Essentially, any choice in your life can be one that betters the city you live in. It's all a matter of being intentional in putting what you have to offer to work for your town.
I'm delighted that those who left to seek new horizons are bringing what they learned back to Chattanooga. It's delightful to see our hometown made better by these bright minds and fine educations and youthful excitement. I'm as happy as any other 20-something about the wealth of weekend activities, the plethora of local restaurants, the growing music scene. And yet I feel that there should be more to this youth culture, to this reverse brain drain, than simply making Chattanooga have everything we wished it did as frustrated 18-year-olds trying to discover ourselves.
I see a lot of good work being done. From the "Build Me a World" documentary drawing attention to the needs of students in failing and low-income schools to Glass House Collective's efforts to bring new life and commerce back to Glass Street through empowering local residents, Chattanooga is tackling its thorny issues. But more can always be done. Changing this city for the better isn't easy, but it's also just not for a few. It takes all of us to make this place better for everyone, and not just those who match our backgrounds and values, our incomes and race. We owe it to our city to make it great. After all, it paid for our schooling and upbringing in tax dollars and community support. Its culture and history made us who we are.
It's not easy to be the change-makers and put in the time and effort and love it takes to make Chattanooga not only what we want it to be, but a great city for all. It's not always as clear-cut as working at something like social work or moving into the latest downtown success story neighborhood. It's about being intentional and dedicated and thinking about the kind of communities you want to be a part of. It's about tough questions and tough decisions and sometimes being brave. This is my challenge to those who have stayed and those who have returned, to everyone who, by whatever means, finds themselves here. How can you be the change you want to see in Chattanooga?
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.