Opinion and Forefront

WAGNER: Sick and tired of worn Hoosier stereotypes

July 23, 2011

Jennifer WagnerI don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the headlines about Indiana.

We’re fat.

We smoke too much.

We’re out of shape.

We make less money than everyone else.

Just the other day, a friend sent me a study that ranked us among the top 10 most depressed states in America.

Those of us who live here can look at one another and say, “Oh, that’s rubbish. They clearly used the wrong cohorts, didn’t take into account our low cost of living, don’t understand our charming Midwestern lifestyle.”

Unfortunately, this is how people elsewhere see us.

I spent the last two years living in northern Virginia and working in Washington, D.C., and people would frequently comment, with a tone somewhere between sympathy and disdain, that it must have been so nice to leave Indiana and move to the civilized world.

I would be left defending my homeland to a stranger who clearly imagined the Hoosier state as a giant field filled with corn, cows and deep-fried candy bars.

A few weeks ago, a local columnist wrote about all the good things Indianapolis has to offer: opportunity, affordability, engaged citizens and big-town amenities with a small-town feel.

He also touched on some of the same problems I referenced in the opening of this column.

His analysis was sound, but here’s the next step: It’s up to us to aggressively challenge those problems.

If there’s one generalization about Hoosiers that’s true, it’s that we’re nice folk.

This is a beneficial attribute if, for example, you happen to be a lost tourist asking for directions. We’ll help you find your way and even offer a random observation about the weather.

Our cheery disposition, however, is not a particularly useful trait when it comes to taking on entrenched interests and making much-needed changes. Simply put, there’s such a thing as too nice.

I’m not proposing that groups of local business owners and community leaders take up pitchforks and torches. I just want people to stand up and say, “Hang on a second. Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t make it right, and by God, I’m not going anywhere until this gets fixed.”

I also want more cheerleaders—and not the scantily clad ones who rev up a crowd at halftime.

Are you an executive on travel for a meeting in a major metropolitan market? Talk about how great Indiana is. Tell people what they’re missing and why they need to consider visiting or locating their company here.

Hint: It’s not just about the cheap housing.

I often see our state pitched as an inexpensive place to live, which it is, but let’s be honest: Cheap doesn’t always have the best connotation in the marketplace. Nor is it particularly sexy to talk about our ability to attract conventions. Raise your hand if you live here because large organizations periodically host events here.

Instead, let’s trumpet our rich sports history, our top-tier university system, and our manufacturing and logistics infrastructure.

It’s also time for our elected officials to use their bully pulpits to change laws that make us look silly and implement policies that will move us forward.

We need a smoking ban. We need to take some credible steps toward addressing our obesity problem. We need to do away with outdated liquor restrictions. We need to focus on bringing more federal research dollars to Indiana by helping startups and universities navigate the complicated procurement process.

All these things can happen, but they won’t happen unless we decide we’re tired of our national reputation, tired of the studies, tired of being labeled inferior.

Ask a New Yorker to name the greatest state in the nation, and there’s no doubt what answer you’ll get. Ask a Hoosier, and she might want to think about it.

You know why you’re here, you know why this place is great, and you know what needs to change. Spread the word.•

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Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident who served as deputy director of public affairs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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