Communications Director’s note: I read this piece yesterday and was moved by the succinct and articulate way it summarizes the difficult choice facing South Dakota’s youth regarding where they should make their home. We asked and received Erika Unger’s permission to reprint her essay in its entirety. We think it nails any number of problems facing South Dakota – from economic development to population decline, the culture we create matters. Erika’s article was also printed in the Argus Leader.
Hi. I’m Erika Unger. I call South Dakota home. My father has a farm operation outside of Mitchell. My mother works in education administration in Madison. My entire immediate and immediate extended family, with the exception of one uncle, lives within the borders of the Rushmore State.
I graduated from the University of South Dakota, and I now live with my husband and one daughter (soon to be two) in Denver, Colorado, where I practice law as a public defender.
When I think of the people I know from my time in SD and at USD, a smile comes to my face. They are wonderful and talented. They have masters and professional degrees and successful careers. They are public policy analysts, news anchors, social media directors, teachers and doctors.
Vermillion is a little slice of heaven for us. We all regard our time there fondly, often sharing group texts talking about what we would give for a Mister Smith’s sandwich and lamenting that 50 cent taps at Pros are no longer a part of our weekly routine. We all spent some or all of our formative years in South Dakota.
And yet, none of us live there.
I posted something on Facebook recently about the current legislative session and the hateful measures garnering national attention. I spoke not even so much about the content or the constitutionality of these bills, or the fact that it’s downright crazy they are passing through chambers of our state’s highest branch of government.
Rather, I talked about the contradiction that rises within me. How when I’m asked by friends and family living in SD what keeps me away, I’m often too exhausted to give a real answer, an answer that in some ways implicates them, and instead answer glibly about the weather (the weather in Denver is phenomenal). Or how when my friends outside of SD see bills aimed to discriminate against LGBTQ people, unwed mothers or other groups on national news, I don’t try to quell their stereotypes that South Dakota is full of backwoods rednecks who hate anyone who doesn’t look, act or think like them. Similarly, I answer glibly with something like “tis the season…”
I talked about how when people ask me what I miss most about SD, the answer is easy: the people. The harder part to explain is that many of those people are people that support these types of hateful legislation. The people who taught me the value of hard work. The people who taught me to give and love unconditionally. The people who ask if I’ll ever move back to SD, and what keeps me away.
As the likes and comments on that post came in, I realized the people it most spoke to were similarly situated: those with South Dakota connections who all had things to give back to the state we hold so dear, yet choose to live somewhere else. Choose to use their talents to the benefit of another populous. Choose to support different economies. Choose to send their kids to schools out-of-state.
The group of us who came together in the little sliver of internet on my Facebook page comprised a generation of successful millennials that elude you. We’re the ones you beg to stay with speeches at our commencements; the ones you try and lure back with cheesy, outdated social media campaigns.
We know the benefits of living in South Dakota. We know and love the people there. We know you have jobs. We know that our Denver, Chicago and D.C. mortgages could buy us beautiful houses on the Missouri, in the Hills or on acres and acres of land. We know how awesome it would be to be in closer proximity to our families and for our children to better know their aunts, uncles and grandparents.
But we stay away.
Our mass exodus is a large part of the reason schools are closing and businesses are shutting their doors. The void we leave is part of what makes good workers hard to find.
You’d be remiss to think our legislature and the perceptions of our state don’t play a big role. Our generation cares more about social issues than any generation that has gone before us. We’re more connected. We have access to information at an unparalleled speed. We are educated. We can see through shortsighted explanations and we loathe insincerities.
Having to explain the context of backwards legislation brought by people we love is difficult and in many ways confirms why we left. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the idea of living in a place where our queer friends would be gawked at if they came to visit or worse: refused service.
We left because it’s easier not to deal with those explanations and difficult situations. Or worse, we left because actually experiencing the effects of this ruthless discrimination and hateful rhetoric hurt us deeply.
Bottom line: we left because it’s easier to come back and relish in the things we love and return to the comfort of other places we now call home, places that don’t use twisted ideas of religious freedom and “conservative values” to perpetuate discrimination and hate of things they don’t understand.
South Dakota, we love you and we miss you. And you’re right: we’ve changed. But we’re not coming back until you do.