Despite the predominate national narrative, rural America is not a monolith of whiteness. Like the rest of the country, it is growing ever more diverse, with people who identify as Black, Latino, Native, Asian and multiracial comprising up to 24% of the rural population. Nearly one third of all young people in rural areas 18 and under (32.5%) come from racial or ethnic minority populations.
The Emerging Movement to Build Multi-Racial Power in Rural Communities
What the D.C. establishment gets wrong about rural politics
The following forum is based on a panel organized at this year’s Netroots Nation conference in Chicago, titled “Building Multi-Racial Power (and Winning!) in Rural Communities.”
The panel was moderated by Michael Chameides, the communication director of Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI) and an elected supervisor in Columbia County, New York, and featured three rural organizers: Danny Diaz, the program manager at the Rural Youth Voter Fund, a project of RDI; W. Mondale Robinson, the mayor of Enfield, Halifax County, North Carolina, and Founding Principal of Black Male Voter Project; and Celina Culver, with Showing Up For Racial Justice, who is building a local organization called the Kentucky People’s Union in Ashland, Boyd County, Kentucky.
Full disclosure: Barn Raiser is an RDI grantee, along with over 100 other organizations that focus on rural America. As part of its stated mission, RDI “supports rural people working to transform their lives and communities to advance widely shared prosperity and democracy.”
Michael Chameides: The first time I ever went to City Hall in my small city of Hudson, New York, was in 2005. I was involved with a pick-up soccer game at a public park on the waterfront. People from four continents were playing, mostly teenagers from Bangladesh whose families had recently immigrated. The police came and said that playing soccer at a public park was illegal and we fought back. We understood this to be an attack on whether people of color could participate in public life and live full lives in our community. We won and continued to play soccer in the evenings at our public park. One of those soccer players is now serving on the city council.
We have to work together in order to be able to live full, safe lives in our communities. But it’s not just about fighting for good local government. We also need federal leaders, national media and progressive allies in urban areas, to fully see rural communities for who we are and what we need to do.
People of color have led important movements in rural communities since before the United States existed. But our movements are often erased and our leadership is often made invisible.
The first question is: What is rural America to you and what is your experience in rural America?
Danny Diaz: Nearly a quarter of people in rural America are multiracial. And there are smaller communities across the country where the majority are people of color. I come from one of those communities in South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where over 85% of the people down there are Latino. A lot of folks come from families like mine. They were farm workers, like my parents, who picked the fields working for farm industries that exploited and discriminated against them. They felt like they were outside of the mainstream. Not being seen by mainstream America was something that I felt growing up.
I grew up in what we call a colonia, which in Texas is defined as an unincorporated rural community that lacks basic infrastructure, like housing, sewer systems, roads and, nowadays, access to broadband. In Texas, this is a typical experience. South Texas, like in Arizona and New Mexico, and in California’s Central Valley, is full of colonias. But if I go to Kentucky, North Carolina, Idaho, or Iowa, I’ll find we have common struggles.
W. Mondale Robinson: For me rural America is the grandchild of plantations. Eastern North Carolina, for example, has seven counties that are majority Black. They’re also where most of the plantations in the state were. So we have that same dynamic, while the majority of the population may be Black in these counties, a majority of their elected leaders in the legislature are white. So you see the same power structure that existed on the plantation.
The blackest cities in these counties are also the least funded. My community of Enfield still is a majority black town, 85% Black, but we still lack proper housing while our neighbors, our white cousins up the street, have big houses with large acreage and also sidewalks everywhere. So when you ask me what is rural America, I say, rural America is the failure of urban America and also the systematic leaving behind of Black people.
Celina Culver: I live and work in Ashland, a town of 21,000 in eastern Kentucky building multiracial power by bringing white working class people into multiracial struggles for liberation.
Ashland is a town that is 91% white. It’s a place where neighbors know everybody. When we first started knocking on doors in Ashland, my friend Beth was walking the streets and a woman also named Beth and another woman named Kathi were looking at her like, “Who are you?” Because they know everybody who lives and walks in their neighborhood. And Beth said, “I’m here to work and build a community organization called the Kentucky People’s Union.” And they ended up sitting on Kathi’s porch with her husband, Allen, and her neighbors and talked for over an hour about what it was like to live there and what changes they wanted to see in their community. And now, a year and a half later, Kathi and Allen are leaders of our local organization. Beth is a member of our organization.
Kathi’s an organic leader who knows everybody in her neighborhood. She’s the one who people come to when they need help. And this is not something that’s unique in rural America, but what is unique is the slowness of it. It takes time to build these relationships. It takes time to just sit on a porch with new friends and old friends without a schedule, without an agenda, just talking and building trust.
Robinson: Celina said, “It takes time.” Time is something that we don’t normally talk about in electoral spaces. We should focus on that word “time.” We–the collective we who are interested in doing things in rural spaces–cannot show up without talking about what rings true in rural spaces.
Chameides: What does multiracial power building look like in your communities?
Robinson: It looks like listening, which is something that political campaigns don’t do. When people come to knock on doors or canvass, they do a disservice to their own campaign when they say, “Your community needs to do this,” or “Your community needs this.” In rural spaces, especially in Black rural spaces, you’ve already lost whatever you’re trying to sell at that moment because you’re telling them, “I’m not a part of your community.” So I think we need to take a step back. We can’t be urgent; if they’re not heard, people shut down. Enfield, North Carolina, is growing younger, and these people are not seen in our current political structure. This is how I beat an incumbent by 50 percentage points. When we center marginalized people, you don’t need to be traditional in anything you’re doing, as long as people are the center of what you’re doing. The transition happens naturally. We outperformed every race on the ballot because we sat and listened to young people and we didn’t shut them down.
When we see 72% of black men between 19 and 44 not participating in electoral politics, that’s not a critique of them. When we see rural people not voting for our issues or sitting out elections, that’s not a critique of rural people. It’s a critique of our tactics. We need to be in rural spaces year round and not write them off as Republican or conservative.
Diaz: There’s an emerging multiracial community in rural America in what we call civic deserts, where a lot of youth don’t have access to political education or the media apparatus in these rural spaces is bad or nonexistent. A lot of folks out there are just working, surviving, and the last thing on their mind is politics. The type of investment that is needed is to have the patience to be there long enough, to be in the front door and be with a comadre right in the living room and talk.
Loud Light in Kansas, a youth-led group that’s focusing on a Latino community is reaching people from rural Mexico who are moving to rural Kansas by being culturally relevant. You can’t talk to them like a political operative talks to them. You have real conversations, in Spanish or any other language from that community to be able to bring people out.
Texas Rising has multiracial organizers from rural and urban spaces working together to build political power, and getting people elected, in San Marcos and Corpus Christi, Texas, who are working on climate, racial and democracy issues.
When RAZE and RAZA in Arizona got ignored by the Democratic Party, they took it upon themselves to do the authentic work in rural Arizona. The political establishment for too long had gotten accustomed to extracting rural voters late in an election cycle, without building authentic long term relationships.
We can take these microcosms to scale, right? People who are from the community, who speak with a community and who are creating pipelines to get people into leadership spaces. Before I was at RDI, I worked at LUPE down in South Texas. And we did the best we could to bring people that felt the pain directly from immigration policies and challenges like not having broadband or drainage systems or sewer systems, or housing. We brought them in the room with the county commissioner, with a member of Congress, and encouraged them to run for office their local school board and beyond. We’re working to help them step up and be in those powerful spaces to represent us.
Culver: I want to respond to something Mondale said. Rural places get labeled as red and conservative, but they are disenfranchised places that are being left behind. People are complicated. So when you knock a door, most people are not going to fit into political parties the way that we’ve defined it.
Rural organizing does this by building bridges across difference. When we started building the Kentucky People’s Union in April 2022, we had our first meeting in May and 11 people came, 10 white people and one Black man. In April of 2023, we had 55 people show up to a meeting. It was multiracial, multi-generational. working class, queer, disabled, and powerful. And that didn’t just happen. That happened because of intentional organizing, because we saw that we have a self-interest in being a multiracial, working class and queer led organization.
Chameides: What we have seen continually over polling is that rural people want their lives improved, access to reproductive health care and access to abortion, they want policies that are going to benefit working people and they’re super skeptical about paid lobbyists and the powers of giant corporations.
But at the same time, people around the country, particularly working families and rural people, are really skeptical about whether or not Democrats in the Democratic Party represent them. And so there’s a big gap between what rural people think on policy versus who they want to vote for and party affiliation. We need to make sure that we’re doing the organizing and lifting up the issues that people care about.
Mondale, what do you see as a movement building strategy versus electoral strategy in rural communities?
Robinson: I think part of it is this gap that exists because of lack of funding from the Democratic Party. They don’t speak our language a lot of the times. And I think what happens is because of the lack of investment, we don’t see any gain. We see that voters are disenfranchised. I feel like the Democratic Party is run by a consultant class in D.C. that’s okay with losing as long as they get paid. And I say that because of states like Mississippi being a bright red state when it shouldn’t be.
Talking about Mississippi, which is 47% Black, it would have been easy to bring out 22% of white brothers and sisters who support our issues along with us and make Mississippi a completely blue state. When we’re talking about movement building, we have to be honest about the donor class, all the rich white friends who think it’s more important to fund establishment candidates than the grassroot organizations that do this work all year round.
Diaz: On the rural youth side, there are 48 million non-urban young people in America. There is a huge opportunity there. They’re also the least contacted group, and also the most persuadable. They’re not married to a political party. And we want to bring them into the political system, into the movement, because it’s possible that right wing messaging will reach these rural spaces. Starr County, Texas is 90% Latino, but it had the biggest swing towards Trump of any other county in the Southwest. Even though there’s no local Democratic Party, they voted 77% for Obama. Then in 2020, it was nearly turned in favor of Trump, where Trump earned 47% of the countywide vote.
A lot of the young men there work the oil fields. I think the right wing is strategically giving a lot of the Border Patrol jobs to the young men there. So they’re being pulled into an economic system that requires them to favor these more conservative policies that are dividing our community. So I think we absolutely need to be vigilant that the right wing, the Republicans, they will hit up our communities and divide our own communities. They will bring these people into their party, if we don’t do anything about it. That’s a big, big call to all of us to not ignore folks in rural spaces.
Culver: When we aren’t organizing in these places with poor and working class white people, we are ceding power to the right. We know that the far right is organizing our people. And when we choose to not engage, we are saying those people aren’t worth it, right? Kentucky is a state that’s 86% white. And the far right has been exploiting Kentucky for a long time with leaders like Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. To win in these places, we need to be organizing white people to see that our challenges and our struggles come from people in power telling us to blame each other for our problems. When we ask who do you think is to blame for what’s going on in your life? People say, politicians who don’t care about me, big bosses of corporations, right?
I want to share one way that we’re doing that. Kathi, our wonderful organic leader, she invited me into one of her neighbor’s homes. We’re sitting at the kitchen table, talking to an older, white, pretty conservative couple, very religious, who are renters. And we’re working on a housing campaign to improve tenant protections and living conditions. And we were really connecting about this material thing: They were having flooding problems in their basement. Their landlord was not being clear about when they were going to have to leave and they were scared of being evicted. We all agreed we need tenant protections, we need better living conditions, and we need more safe and affordable homes.
And then we started talking about the Kentucky People’s Union co-hosting a rally for trans rights with the local Pride organization, Ashland Pride. And our neighbor friends said, we’re with you on the housing, but we don’t understand trans rights and we don’t support that part of your organization. I said, “Well, can you say more about that? Is anybody that you love trans?” And we found out in that conversation they have a trans niece. They showed me pictures of her. They love her. But because of their religion, they’re told that it’s not right, that she’s not right.
So I asked, “What are your religions values?” And they said, “Well, we value love, we value justice, we value equality.” And I said, “That’s what Kentucky People’s Union values, too. We value love and justice and equality.” And they said, “We share values.”
I’m not going to pretend that I changed their minds in one conversation on trans rights. But because Kathi, their neighbor, invited me in to have a conversation with them about material conditions in their lives, we started connecting on values, too. And these are folks who so easily can be organized by the far right, but because we’re not ceding them to the far right and we’re engaging in those conversations, they’re starting to make sense of it and understand a little bit more.
Diaz: I’ve definitely dealt with the consulting class coming down to our rural town for a big congressional race, or any type of other races, who are not from there and talk to the locals and say, “We’re just going to run a huge media operation. We’re not gonna do any field operation.” And, at first, I was like, “What do you mean we’re not gonna do any field?” What do organizers do? We do field! But then it hit me, that media is how campaign consultants make the money. They come in with a really good TV game. But TV isn’t going to make the difference in the margins. We need the margins in rural America to really make the difference, right?
Robinson: I mean, it’s a known fact that the least effective way to persuade voters, especially in rural spaces, is being on TV. The consultants get points, they get money off of those points. That’s why you see campaigns spending 60%, 80% of their budgets on TV, when we know the more doors knocked, the more deep conversation you have at the door, the greater likelihood of that person voting. That’s especially true for rural black men. Where for everybody else, if you have a conversation with them, it’s about a 5% increase of them going to the polls. for black men, it’s 7%. So why are you spending so much money trying to reach demographics on TV when we know it’s not how voters are influenced?
It’s a malpractice for us to continue to do electoral work in the same way we did in the ’70s, when the majority of the voters were baby boomers. We have two generations—millennials and gen-Zers—this year that are larger than baby boomers. And people don’t understand that power. Young rural voters can own that space if we engage them. So it’s just sad that we continue traditional tactics that came in even before James Carville. We cede power when we are not engaging younger voters and bringing them into the fold like we should be.
Michael Chameides is Rural Democracy Initiative’s Communications Director and supports a rural network to engage communities and advocate for meaningful policy. As an elected county supervisor in rural Columbia County, New York, he led effective initiatives for immigrant safety, affordable housing, and public transit. As the previous chair of his local Democratic committee, he realigned the progressive coalition, helping to elect the first Black mayor of Hudson, New York.
Danny Diaz is the program manager at the Rural Youth Voter Fund, a project of Rural Democracy Initiative. Previously, Danny was director and organizer at LUPE (La Unión del Pueblo Entero) in San Juan, Texas, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and led a team of organizers who won millions in drainage and housing improvements and organized working class immigrants for fair immigration. He has also managed and advised congressional and state senatorial campaigns in South Texas.
W. Mondale Robinson is the mayor of Enfield, Halifax County, North Carolina, a position he was elected to in May 2022, winning 76 percent of the vote. He is the Founding Principal of Black Male Voters Project, which works to increase Black men’s participation in electoral politics, and the former political director of Democracy for America, the progressive political action committee founded by Howard Dean, former Chair of the Democratic National Committee and before that Vermont Governor.
Celina Culver is the Eastern Kentucky field organizer at Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), where she is building a local organization called the Kentucky People’s Union in Ashland, Boyd County, Kentucky. Prior to SURJ, Celina organized with Voice of Westmoreland and Pennsylvania United, a multiracial, grassroots member-led organization building power throughout Western Pennsylvania.