I first learned about Chattanooga as a high school senior.

As an assignment for a marketing class, we were tasked with creating and branding a minor league baseball team. I landed on Chattanooga as my team’s host city. Why? Because I thought it was one of the most unique names I’d ever come across, of course. So, as an enterprising eighteen year old, I fictionally founded the Chattanooga Choo Choo’s — which unbeknownst to me was the moniker of a historic Negro League team whose home field I now live steps away from — and got an A.

A year and a half later, I was making the first of what would become an annual summer pilgrimage to visit my college roommate, Vince, at his home on Amelia Island in North Florida. That first trip down, Drew and I made the somewhat foolish decision to drive straight through from Chicago to Florida, swapping the steering wheel every time we filled up the gas tank. It was a grueling 1,100 mile trip. Vince’s driveway signaled our salvation when we pulled into it 16 hours after leaving my own.

For the life of me, I couldn’t remember if it was sunrise or sunset when we passed through the Tennessee River Valley on I-24 heading south from Nashville, but I’ll never forget my eyes widening, jaw-dropping and neck careening as I beheld mountains (of Nickajack Lake) for the first time in my 19 years of life. Minutes later, we passed through Chattanooga, and I smirked to myself as I gained understanding of what it meant for life to come full-circle.

Fast forward to 2019, and I’m calling an oversized beanbag in Taylor and Bryce’s living room home for a month in Johnson City, Tennessee, while I pilot the second phase of my why [here] matters project. As that March became April, there was a conference — the Unrig Summit — in Nashville that I wanted to attend. A number of my friends would be there, and it was on the ever-important and relevant topic of bi-partisan political reform. I secured free admission as an event volunteer, pitched in on a group Airbnb and made the half-state drive.

On the first day of the summit, I ran the photo booth with my trademark and borderline obnoxious enthusiasm. On the second day, I helped form this tight-knit, audacious group of young doers and disruptors, which we spontaneously named 1755 in commemoration of the individual cost for splitting dinner that night. By the end of the third day, I convinced one of the group members, Sara, to join me on a little adventure to Chattanooga before she went back home to Huntsville.

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast and worked together at The Camp House in Downtown Chattanooga, before driving to the top of Lookout Mountain and whimsically venturing through the Rock City Gardens together. Sometime in between breakfast and the mountain, we also strolled around downtown and came across what I could only interpret as an absolute omen — parked next to a downtown green space was the StoryCorps Airstream.

Especially since I was in the middle of my why [here] matters endeavor, all I could think about was how this might be the purest existing form of my project’s vision. I made Sara snap this shot and then fanboyishly met the program manager (who I found again and tried to re-network with on Tinder in Portland, Maine later that year😅) before we moved on.

Now, it’s August of 2019, and I’m living in suburban Atlanta for my role with the American Voices Project. As one of my responsibilities for the project, I would hit the road to do advance research site visits throughout the South ahead of our teams, who would then live and canvas there for eight weeks. A couple times these trips took me to Tennessee and Kentucky on routes through Chattanooga. While I met absolutely wonderful local leaders in rural Kentucky and rural Tennessee through work, I also made it a point to stop in Chattanooga each time to deepen my relationship with it as well. The first time, I met with a fellow Beloiter, Megan, in the back booth of an eclectic bar in a boutique hotel downtown. I unloaded all of my curiosities and speculations about the city on her — I left intrigued about Chattanooga. The next time through, I met a local professional connection through a mutual relationship with a national nonprofit, Alea, at a historic train terminal turned hotel, the Chattanooga Choo Choo (yep, full-circle again!). We hit it off and fully acknowledged that we could be friends and co-conspirators, if I ever returned — I left knowing that I could find people to work with here. The final time through, Alea connected me with a local community organizer, Michael, and he told it to me straight about the state of things in the community in a downtown café — I left knowing that there was work I could contribute to here.

So, why Chattanooga now? Based on what I know so far, it feels like the true crossroads of this country. The city votes Blue and enforces a mask mandate, while paradoxically bordering Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district in North Georgia. It has the history and heritage of the South, yet the post-industrial and logistical significance of modern Rust Belt cities. It was an initial stopping point during The Great Migration, and, with a third of its population being Black, has the familiar legacy of racial oppression and disenfranchisement, which it is reckoning with today. Alongside that, it is undergoing considerable development and in-migration, and experiencing the complexities of gentrification that typically accompanies it. It’s also my ideal city size with a population just under 200k, and it’s surrounded by mountains with countless trails that might as well be outside my front door.

*exhale*

Per always, my understandings and assumptions could be misguided and naïve, but the only way to find out is to get engaged and connected locally. These are all problems that I have learned about, witnessed and worked on; I’d like to see how I could apply myself to them here. If there’s someone I should meet down here, please introduce us!

More broadly, I’m curious to figure out how I can support and contribute to the tremendous potential of organizing towards positive political, social and environmental outcomes in the South. There is so much momentum in these parts, and for those who aren’t familiar with it, the successful voter mobilization efforts catalyzed by Stacey in Georgia just scratch the surface.

I’m about three hours or less from Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville and everywhere in between, and I fully intend to explore as much of the region as possible. This is my first lease in almost four years, well technically, it’s a sublease until July, but STILL! This feels like a commitment, and I want to lean fully into it with an openness to stay here long-term.

More to come!

To be human is to be flawed.