People from the coasts are moving to the Heartland. Will they embrace its values?

The pandemic and economic incentives have some city dwellers seeking wide, open spaces. What they’re finding could help America’s divisions

Stephanie Robesky is a self-described California girl who works in tech, enjoys high-quality sushi and likes to live near Trader Joe’s. Two years ago, she lived in San Francisco, paying $3,000 a month for a rent-controlled apartment with one bedroom, one bath.

“I couldn’t move out of that apartment because I couldn’t find anything — and this is the funny part — that cheap” in San Francisco, Robesky said.

Today, she lives in a four-bedroom house that she owns in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a radical lifestyle change she couldn’t foresee just a few years ago.

Robesky was drawn there by a program called Tulsa Remote, an initiative that seeks to enhance the city’s workforce by offering remote workers $10,000 to move within the city limits for at least one year.

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Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the program is designed to help a single city thrive, but it’s turned out to have an unexpected effect that could benefit the whole nation as a new president calls for unity.

In bringing people from the coasts to an area sometimes called the buckle of the Bible Belt, Tulsa Remote is fostering conversations among people who, in other settings, might view each other with suspicion, if they encountered each other at all.

“I’m one of these coastal people. We know the coasts, East and West, but we don’t know the rest of the United States, honestly. It’s kind of stereotypical, but it’s kind of true,” Robesky said.

More than 375 people moved to Tulsa in 2020 because of the program; the largest percentage of them from California. Many, like Robesky, had never visited Oklahoma before or lived in a “red” state. But despite the potential of a culture clash, an overwhelming number of the new residents have embraced Tulsa and the “heartland values” associated with states sometimes derided as “flyover” territory.

Of the participants who completed one year living in Tulsa — the length of time the program requires them to stay — more than 95% have elected to stay longer, said Ben Stewart, Tulsa Remote’s interim executive director.

More than a dozen other communities have reached out to Tulsa Remote for advice on starting similar programs. Other regions of the U.S., including northwest Arkansas and Topeka, Kansas, are also offering financial incentives to attract new residents at a time when the expansion of remote work is giving workers more flexibility in where they live.

And a cross-culture move can have social benefits in other ways. Ross Benes, a Nebraska native now living in New York City, says going from the heartland to an urban center helped him to understand how geography can shape political views.

Could programs such as Tulsa Remote help to resolve America’s polarization?

Stephanie Robesky sits with her cat Franny at her spacious home in the trendy Owen Park neighborhood just outside of downtown Tulsa, Okla., on Jan. 9, 2021. Robesky moved to Tulsa from the Bay Area as part of the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Tulsa Remote. | Shane Bevel, for the Deseret News

‘Nice for no reason’

Although she calls herself “a California girl through and through,” Robesky, 44, had been thinking of leaving her home state because she had become disillusioned with its problems, to include infrastructure, traffic and the cost of living.

“Don’t get me wrong; I love San Francisco,” she said. “But as you age, you want different things and your priorities change, your lifestyle changes. I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ It costs a million dollars to buy a condo here.”

The financial package that Tulsa Remote offered helped her make the decision to move 18 months ago. The program offers to people it accepts $2,500 up front, $500 a month for a year and an additional $1,500 to close out the year, Stewart said. Tulsa Remote also gives participants a year’s membership at a local business that offers remote workers office space, and organizes connections with other people in the program through a Slack channel and group events. In exchange, Tulsa Remote workers agree to live within the city limits for at least one year.

The program is an initiative of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which was started by a philanthropist who pledged to give away most of his fortune while he is alive. While the foundation’s goal is to improve the lives of Tulsa’s children, applicants aren’t asked about their family structure, Stewart said. About half of those accepted into the program are single and childless; about half come with families, he said. All contribute to the foundation’s goal of “making Tulsa the best city for children to be born, grow and succeed” by helping to build out “an incredibly diverse talent pipeline enriching the city.”

The Tulsa Remote workers also bring diverse ideas to the city, and they’re encouraged to volunteer at local nonprofits, where their expertise is valued. For some new residents, including Robesky, the adoption of a more relaxed lifestyle is allowing her to do charitable work, including fostering animals, for the first time.

“Your time is freer so you have time to volunteer, which doesn’t happen in San Francisco because you’re working all the time. (There) you don’t feel like you’re making a difference. Here, you do.”

But what has most surprised Robesky and others about the move to the heartland is the sense of community that they gained by moving there. Fully remote workers, about a third of the U.S. workforce — with another quarter working at least partially remote, according to Gallup — often complain of isolation. But Tulsa Remote participants have formed a tight community, even jumping in to pick up each other’s children from school in an emergency.

But even in the greater Tulsa community, Robesky notices a difference in how people interact with one another. “I lived in a five-unit apartment in London where I never once saw a neighbor in five years. I didn’t know the names of the people who lived next door, or above or below me,” Robesky said. “One thing that struck me during my (initial) visit here was how people were so friendly. Californians aren’t as jaded as New Yorkers, but we’re jaded, and we’re not used to people being nice for no reason,” she said.

What are ‘heartland values’?

The values ascribed to middle America in the term “heartland values” are generally considered conservative, which is why former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was criticized last year for tweeting that America needed a president whose vision was shaped by the Heartland.

“And what exactly are those values that are supposed to be unique to one state? It’s often not specified, but when it is, you hear things like “Hard work. Faith. Helping out a neighbor in need.” In other words, things you can find anywhere,” columnist Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post.

Buttigieg later released a statement saying that he didn’t mean to say people in other parts of the country don’t have heartland values. “I understand that family, faith, freedom, patriotism aren’t owned by any one party or point of view, and neither is the American heartland,” the statement said.

But differences in political opinions are a concern for some. California has been a blue state for a quarter of a century, with 46% of Californians identifying as Democrats last year. That number is up a percentage point from 2016. Conversely, Oklahoma is reliably red; slightly more than half of registered voters are Republican.

Robesky said before she moved, some friends questioned her, saying “Why would you go there? Those people don’t think like you?” But getting to know people outside her circle was part of the appeal of the move.

“Part of the problem with this country is that too many people see things in black and white. Are we ever going to get to a place of agreement if we refuse to have dialogues with people?” she asked. “If we only want to stay on the coast and be in our own little thought bubble or echo chamber, is anything ever going to change? So I look on this as an opportunity. Let me have those conversations.”

And she hasn’t just had them in Oklahoma. Since moving to Tulsa, she’s also visited Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas and Kansas.

Moving from the coast to the heartland — or vice versa — can also change how a person thinks, said Ross Benes, who described his experience moving from Nebraska to New York in his new book “Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold.”

Living in New York after Donald Trump was elected president, Benes, 31, said people would interrogate him about the heartland as if it were an alien planet. “There was this fascination that was not there for previous years. When I would say things I thought would be common sense — that they weren’t all coal miners and conspiracy theorists — they were surprised.”

But after living in New York City for a few years, he came to understand that some of the differences between the people in America’s heartland and those in America’s large cities may be due to their life experience, not deep-seated partisanship. “Since living in a much larger city, I’ve become a lot more in favor of government programs,” he says.

People who live in rural America aren’t as likely to encounter homelessness, for example, and may be more inclined to embrace a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap ethic, Benes said. It’s easier to champion fewer government regulations when neighbors are distant and traffic is light. And the rural-urban divide also affects how Americans value guns. “If you could carry an assault weapon anywhere in New York City, it would be scary as hell. In rural areas, you can see every human walking around in your peripheral vision, and you probably know them,” Benes said.

But even though his experience, moving from a heartland town to a large city, was the opposite of many participants in Tulsa Remote, Benes agrees on this: Heartland America is simply nicer than the coasts. “Nebraskans are among the nicest people in the world, much friendlier than New Yorkers,” he said.

Bri Seely poses for a portrait on Sixth Street outside Cirque Coffee in the Pearl District just outside of downtown Tulsa, Okla., on Jan. 9, 2021. Seely moved to Tulsa as part of the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Tulsa Remote. | Shane Bevel, for the Deseret New

‘A deep, deep caring’

Bri Seeley, an entrepreneur coach and professional speaker who moved from Manhattan to Tulsa in August, says the difference in culture is not superficial.

“I’ve noticed that people here just have a deep, deep caring for people that they don’t even know. For example, I go to a coffee shop every Saturday morning and I write. And the baristas literally care so much about me. If I miss a week, they’re genuinely concerned about where I was.”

Unlike Robesky, who has bought a home, is now dating a man from Arkansas and plans to remain in Tulsa, Seeley is still in a wait-and-see mode. Tulsa Remote’s financial incentives, combined with the restrictions of the pandemic, convinced her to give it a try, despite the significant changes to her lifestyle, not all of them positive. She recently bought a car after happily living without one for nearly three years. And she dislikes the occasional conversation about why she doesn’t plan to have children.

But Seeley likes enough of what she sees to give Tulsa a try beyond her initial commitment. That’s partly because she wants to see what life is like there when there’s not an ongoing pandemic. But it’s also because she’s seen something of value in America’s heartland. People in Los Angeles and New York almost seem to prize aloofness, she said.

“You can go through an entire day in New York and have no one see you, no one talk to you. Something happens, on a human level, when you don’t have those kinds of relationships. I didn’t know it was missing from my life, and now I don’t know if I want to go without it again.”

Nick Smith, a barista at Cirque Coffee, chats with Bri Seely at the shop in the Pearl District just outside of downtown Tulsa, Okla., on Jan. 9, 2021. Seely moved to Tulsa as part of the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Tulsa Remote. | Shane Bevel, for the Deseret News