I know many of you love text as much as I do, so here's my prepared text (not a transcript, mind you, since my speeches always morph in the moment):
I'm Cory Heidelberger. I'm a South Dakotan. I write the Madville Times, a political blog about South Dakota.
But I haven't been in South Dakota, not regularly, not as much as I'd like. A year ago, I had to leave. I didn't want to leave South Dakota, but I had to.
How many of you have heard someone say that: I don't want to leave South Dakota. I don't want to leave my hometown. But I have to.
During a blog tour this summer, I was chatting in a café when another friend comes in. We spot each other, say hi, talk a while. I mention how thrilled I am to be back and see friends like this.
“Be back? What do you mean?”
“Well, I've been gone for a year.”
And this friend looks at me and says, “I had no idea. It seemed like you never left South Dakota.”
That comment meant a lot to me. It said I'd succeeded. When we left South Dakota last year, I told myself I wanted to maintain my identity as a South Dakotan. I wanted to stay engaged with my community in South Dakota. And I was able to do that with my blog.
I've been blogging seriously about South Dakota life and culture and politics for about eight years. I called my blog the Madville Times, because Madison was my hometown. When I started, I thought I'd write mostly about Madison.
As I blogged, I found myself drawn into conversations with other South Dakota blogs. I found myself writing about other South Dakota towns and about South Dakota issues affecting the entire state. You see, blogs are just like South Dakota towns and South Dakota people. We don't exist in isolation. We interact; we respond; we challenge each other. In competition and in collaboration, we build an evolving narrative about our state.
Then in 2011, I had to move from Madison to Spearfish for a job. I actually thought, for a moment, “Gee, maybe I shouldn't take this job. I mean, how can I write the Madville Times if I'm not in Madison?” As I said, that was just for a moment.
My identity was strongly attached to my hometown. I wondered how it would affect me to move from the place I'd called home for all my life.
But when I got to Spearfish, I realized the effect my blogging had had on my sense of “home.” When I got to Spearfish, I kept researching and writing about South Dakota issues. I kept talking with and cultivating a circle of South Dakota friends and neighbors and sources. I kept debating and joking with the same bloggers and commenters. I didn't get homesick in Spearfish because I was still home... in South Dakota.
Then came Spokane. My wife had a year-long internship there, her entry into her profession as a pastor. I didn't want to leave South Dakota, but we couldn't pass that up. Leaving was professionally necessary.
My blog had survived the move from East River to West River. But could the blog survive Spokane? Could my identity as a South Dakotan survive? Could I keep participating in the community that I considered my home, even if I wasn't home?
I committed myself to trying. When we moved last year, we did our necessary work and went out and enjoyed the parks around Spokane, but I focused my attention on what was happening back in South Dakota. Every morning I maintained my discipline of going straight to the computer, checking the South Dakota blogs and news sites, and writing about South Dakota. I fostered existing relationships and forged new connections with South Dakota sources.
I even organized some political activism from afar. Last March, some blog readers expressed an interest in challenging a nominating petition. I'll avoid the politics, but I'll tell you that it was a logistically challenging project. We had a document with over 2,800 handwritten names, signatures, dates, and addresses. We had to convert that data to spreadsheet, cross-check those data points with themselves and a few data collections, research election law, follow up on hunches, and prepare a formal report of our findings within a week. I had to coordinate the activities of team members, many of whom desired anonymity, working in several different places.
And I had to direct their efforts without working with any of them face to face. I was 1,200 miles away, in Spokane, navigating a complicated and rushed legal process with an aggregation of South Dakotans whose only common point of contact was me.
Believe it or not, the project worked. The petition challenge itself failed—our research did not identify enough signatures to disqualify the petition. But I was able to use the knowledge and the trust I had built up through the blog to assemble and manage a team and to produce a collaborative document and evidence file that laid the groundwork for a criminal investigation.
That experience taught me that, thanks to the Internet, the choice between South Dakota and opportunities elsewhere is not as binary as it used to be.
The Internet's solvent effect on geographical boundaries is not news. Many of you live and work in South Dakota and use our wondrous digital technology to tap talent and markets and resources around the country, just as I was able to sit in Washington State and tap local talent here to help the folks I call my neighbors and influence the political process in the state I choose to call home.
Wait: wind that back. I'm not in South Dakota. But I choose “South Dakotan” as my identity. I choose South Dakota as my community in which I exert my political will. Does that make me the Koch Brothers? Does that make me George Soros? Do I have any more right to participate in this community than the RVers who rent a mailbox and register to vote in Madison so they can dodge their home-state income taxes?
That moral question is news. Do I really get to choose my identity and exercise it in your community, just because I say so, and just because I blog a lot?
I know I can use the Internet to sustain my presence in my community even when I'm not present. But should I?
I won't try on this stage to work out a complicated Habermasian/Wendell Berryan/Steve Jobsian philosophical framework of the morality of online presence. (Besides, our governor says philosophy is a waste of time, right?)
The question deserves much deeper and more interactive analysis than one ten-minute lecture. But I'll posit a starting point... and a raison d'être for my continued blogging.
I love South Dakota. I love South Dakotans. I want to be here with you. And when I can't be here with you, I will find a way to be here with you, in head and heart if not hand in hand.
I don't think the Koch brothers will say that.
We can sustain connection to the community we love through buttons and screens if we have to. It's not easy. It does not replace being there... or being here, with you, today, in Brookings, South Dakota, having dinner with Judy and joking with Scott and hearing Stephanie's stories about Zachary Lars.
But those buttons and screens are better than saying goodbye. It takes effort—it takes being on fire for the people you call neighbors and for the place you call home. But when you have that fire, you can still find ways to reach out to those screens and be useful to the community you love.
This summer I got to break out of those screens. I went on a blog tour of South Dakota. In eight days, I visited Rapid City, Edgemont, Manderson, Mission, Eureka, Mitchell, Brookings, and Sioux Falls. I interviewed 19 people in person, made one public speech and one radio appearance, covered two political debates, went fourwheeling with a legislator and a scientist, posted 23 articles with two videos and 64 pictures, and put 1,300 miles on my car, all in South Dakota. It was like a vacation... at home.
The blog tour allowed me to reconnect with friends and events and the prairie itself in ways we cannot do online. The friend I happened to meet at that café said it felt like I'd been here the entire time, but I still needed to refill my bottle with South Dakota air and water and chat and dirt (plus that layer of grasshopper guts on my bumper). Like the boyfriend back from college for a weekend, or the soldier on leave before her next deployment, I recharged on home to remind myself of who I am, whom I love, and what I'm fighting for.
I recharged for another temporary absence, this time in St. Paul, as my wife finishes her last semester of seminary.
And when we get back, when my wife gets her first call at a South Dakota church and we settle back into South Dakota, I'll feel as if I never left. I hope you'll agree... and I hope you'll have me back [Cory Allen Heidelberger, prepared remarks, "Always South Dakota: Blogging, Identity, and Community," TEDxBrookings, 2014.10.04].
Stay tuned for more great South Dakota speeches from the October event on the TEDxBrookings Facebook page!