The Organizers Forging a Rural Action Plan for 2024

‘We need to make sure that rural leadership has a seat at the table’

Joel Bleifuss & Justin Perkins February 22, 2024

Barn Raiser kicks off its 2024 election coverage with “Charting a Path of Rural Progress,” a series of interviews with rural policy experts and organizers who came together to forge a rural policy platform on which candidates can run—and to which voters can hold their elected leaders accountable.

In April 2023, more than 50 strategists, researchers, organizers and elected officials descended on the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, for the second-ever Rural Policy Action Summit. Their mission: to draft a rural policy platform that would shape the national discussion around rural priorities in 2024 and beyond.

“For too long, rural America has been miscategorized as a conservative monolith that is averse to progressive solutions to local problems and afraid of big ideas,” said Kellon Patey during the summit. Patey is the Rural Strategies Lead Organizer at People’s Action Institute, the sister organization of People’s Action, a network of independent grassroots organizations spanning 30 states. “In reality,” he said, “rural people of every creed and color are hungry for policies that rein in corporate power, support working people, protect our democracy, take on systemic injustices and ensure people’s freedoms to make decisions about their bodies.”

The platform that grew out of that summit, A Roadmap for Rural Progress: 2023 Rural Policy Action Report, released last October, details 27 legislative priorities for rural and small town America, based on legislation that has already been introduced in Congress. At a November briefing, Sarah Jaynes, executive director at Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI), which convened the summit, said that she hoped that the report would “shape the discussion about rural priorities throughout this upcoming [2024] election cycle and into governing.” (RDI supports the work of 150 rural-focused nonprofits in more than 20 states, including Barn Raiser.)

In the coming months, Barn Raiser will bring readers inside this conversation, interviewing the key players and examining their plans to advance a national platform of rural priorities, from organizing and into governing. Beyond shepherding the passage of much needed legislation, the coalition that came together is a testament to profound shifts in rural America—changes that stand to alter the face our nation, and our democracy. Together, their voices, in tension and union, offer a call to action and a message of warning: Rural America demands to be heard. But who will respond?

In this first installment, here is what several of the organizers who helped create the Rural Policy Action Report had to say about the significance of their project. In coming weeks, these organizers and the others Barn Raiser spoke with will discuss how they plan to advance the agenda laid out in the Action Report and make it part of the national conversation.

‘Braiding people together across issues and across geographies

Michael Chameides is the Rural Democracy Initiative’s communications director and represents Hudson’s 3rd Ward at the Columbia County (New York) Board of Supervisors. He lives in Hudson, New York.

What is RDI trying to do with the Rural Policy Action Report?

The Rural Policy Action Report identifies the challenges that we see in rural communities across the country. It provides tangible legislative and executive actions that are both popular and winnable in the next couple of years and could address those problems.

The action report is a toolkit for grassroots organizers to engage on federal policies and mobilize people. When we’re talking to decision makers we have a menu of priorities that we’re fighting for. If someone is interested in an issue, they can look up key policies that are in play right now, and why they matter. Organizations are using the report to educate their members about rural issues, to reach out to other organizations working in similar spaces and to bring them on board. In this way, we’re bringing people together across issues and across geographies, and the Action Report is a summation of our priorities.

Why have most of these policy solutions been missing from legislative agendas in both the Democratic and Republican Parties?

It’s about power. Power is how you get your agenda done. We traditionally haven’t empowered people in rural communities to demand what they need and so it hasn’t happened yet.

We need to make sure that rural leadership has a seat at the table and can define what the challenges are and advocate for the solutions.

The 2023 Rural Policy Action Report circulates at the National Convening of Local Progress in St. Louis. Shown here are, from right, Sherri Jones, Florence (Arizona) Unified School District and Rural Arizona Engagement; Kara Sheehan, Local Progress; Michael Chameides, Rural Democracy Initiative; and Jaime Kinder, the mayor of Meadville, Pennsylvania.

On issues where there is broader appeal, it’s about understanding what the issue looks like through a rural lens. You go anywhere in the country and people talk about housing and healthcare, but the specific challenges of a rural community are different and therefore the specific solutions are different as well. For example, the lack of hospitals is particularly relevant in rural areas because the distance to the closest hospital could be miles away, and the abject risk of hospital closure is going to be different than for an urban community. The same for affordable housing. Housing is an issue across the country, yet in rural areas there is a need for smaller scale affordable housing solutions that can accommodate the lack of municipal sewer and water systems.

How do you see the Action Report being used in 2024?

It is a blueprint for what the policy debate should be and what the political solutions should be.

People should hold elected officials accountable. The report’s pillars frame the questions to ask elected officials and candidates: “How are you going to make sure that we all have the freedom to work and live safely? That workers and small businesses are empowered and that we’re not overrun by giant corporations? And, specifically, what’s your stance on the legislative proposals in the report?”

The Action Report supports small businesses and opposes agricultural monopolies. How will this resonate with folks in rural America?

It is about leveling the playing field and putting people first. People want corporations to be reined in.

We can’t give away our decision making power to corporations. Left unchecked, they have decision making power over where the jobs are, how much we have to pay for things, which products are available and whether a small business can survive or not.

Moneyed interests have a lot of entrenched power, but it’s a big fight that we need to take on.

‘Change the dominant narrative

Kendra Kimbirauskas is the Senior Director of the Agriculture and Food Systems at the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a national nonprofit that organizes with state legislators to enact progressive policies. Each year the organization publishes the annual Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States. Kimirauskas grew up on a Michigan dairy farm, and now farms with her husband on 70 acres near Scio, a town of 961 in Linn County, Oregon.

How do you see the Rural Policy Action Report and the Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States being used in rural America?

I am a rural person. I grew up in a rural community and I live in one today. Unfortunately, there are many stereotypes about rural places and the people living there—including that we are all white, we are all conservative and we are just a bunch of sad saps who despise where we live. I have heard people in the progressive space repeat the term “deplorable” when talking about rural people. Because our communities and rural people aren’t always valued, they become places that can be “sacrificed” with extractive models like factory farms, mines and dumps that export the jobs, wealth and value from our community.

Both the Action Report and the Blueprint for Rural Policy try to push back and negate that assumption.

Rural people want the same things that everybody else does. We might think about it differently. We might talk about it differently. But at the end of the day, we want healthy communities to raise our families in, we want good work and we want better paying jobs so that we can put our kids through school. We want to be able to support our communities. We want to be able to have clean water. We want to be able to access good, healthy food. And these are the same things that urban people want.

These reports are putting a vision forward of what rural places can be like. They help to change the dominant narrative that rural communities don’t matter.

Progressives have unfortunately ceded the conversation in many of these places to conservative-minded people. These are the communities where white supremacists are organizing. A lot of the really horrific social bills that we’re seeing—like the anti-trans bills and some of the anti-abortion bills—is because progressive organizing is not happening in rural places and it’s largely happening in urban places. If progressives aren’t in these places putting forward a different vision, we’re going to see more of those very divisive social policies continue to raise their heads.

Kendra Kimbirauskas, the director of the Agriculture and Food Systems at State Innovation Exchange, milks one of her cows in Lin County, Oregon.

Here in Oregon, in my rural area, I have the pleasure of having a very strong community of people with whom I do not share the same political ideology. And yet we are able to have tough conversations because we trust each other and we have community.

What was it like to work on what became the Rural Policy Action Report in Omaha?

The Omaha experience was incredible. It was wonderful to have all of these organizations come together to talk about what unites us as people who care about these rural issues. It was incredible to be able to center policies that are super impactful to rural people living in rural communities.

We were able to push back against the idea that rural places are conservative and to say, “No,” actually our rural communities are incredibly diverse. The issues that women care about in urban areas are the same issues that women care about in rural areas. More than a quarter of people living in rural areas are people of color. It was good to be in a space where people understood what we were talking about and with organizations that are doing the work of advancing good social change in our rural communities.

‘Everything’s connected

Melissa Cropper is the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, which represents 20,000 active and retired teachers in 55 school districts across Ohio and four community/technical colleges, as well as librarians and social workers. She is a former school librarian in Georgetown, Ohio, a town of 4, 463, 36 miles southeast of Cincinnati.

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, campaiging this past summer against Issue 1, a proposed state constitutional amendment that sought to raise the threshold for passing all future constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%, which would have made it more difficult for Ohio voters to pass a constitutional ammendment guaranteeing women the right to make decisions about their own bodies. The measure failed and in November, Ohioans enshrined the right to abortion in their constitution.

What brought you to the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha for the Rural Policy Action Summit?

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convened a Rural Task Force to identify ways to connect our rural members with other work that was happening in their communities. As a continuation of that work, AFT is now establishing a rural caucus. The Rural Policy Action Summit in Omaha provided an opportunity to engage with other rural groups and understand their agendas so that we can tie those with AFT’s education policy and healthcare policy. It was a phenomenal opportunity for us.

We know that in our small towns and our rural areas, everything’s connected. It’s critical that we are all on the same page together and pulling for each other.

‘You don’t bridge some of those divides—you provide an alternative

Erik Hatlestad works as the Energy Democracy Program Director for the Minnesota nonprofit CURE! focusing on rural energy issues. He grew up on a small family farm 10 miles from New London, Minnesota, the town of 1,277 where he now lives 100 miles west of Minneapolis.

How does the Rural Policy Action Report address the challenges facing rural America?

The biggest problem is that rural America has been underinvested in and disinvested from for a long time. In previous decades, we had strong rural social movements that were fighting for these big investments, like the original Rural Electrification Act and the New Deal and all of these incredible programs that helped make rural America what it is—or what people like to think they remember it as. Those social movements and organizations were crushed during the farm crisis in the 1970s and 80s and as a part of deindustrialization through NAFTA and the right-wing attack on organized labor. So we haven’t had the political strength to put forward the alternative solutions that were historically offered to rural people to win new investments in their communities.

What the Rural Policy Action Report and RDI have done is to bring momentum back to rural social movements by offering an alternative to this disinvestment and the race to the bottom that essentially has been the hollowing out of rural communities.

How might people bridge political divides within your county and rural America in general?

You don’t bridge some of those divides—you provide an alternative. For too long, people who would not call themselves Republicans have not had the ability to articulate any kind of alternative. Democrats have spent too long trying to say, “We’re just the same, we’re just not so scary.” That is part of the problem we face here: no one has provided an alternative.

People in rural communities feel—and I would certainly count a lot of Trump supporters in this as well—totally ignored. If I’m accustomed to, as a community, being ignored and facing disinvestment , and I don’t have the kind of political institutions that used to exist, well, I’m going to do the thing that makes the people who I know are making my life worse as mad as possible: I’m going to vote for the most insane person. I’m not going to be listened to anyway, so why should I seriously participate in the process?

We need to provide an alternative that resonates with people, like the Ohio referendum on abortion that passed on November 7, 2023. Strong progress was made in a lot of rural communities in Ohio, thanks in part to organizers who were putting an alternative out there and actively talking to people.

It’s about helping rural people feel comfortable expressing the views that they have because so many people in these places feel isolated. There’s certainly a social aspect to that, but it’s also a product of decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Any attempt to rebuild those historic political institutions around progressive policy ideals must be predicated on presenting a viable alternative.

Why do you think both parties have failed in that for so many years?

A lot of people struggle with that question, and I do as well. There hasn’t been political leadership in the parties coming from rural parts of the country. The Democratic Party been disconnected from these communities in part because the people who would be a part of these movements in rural areas have left. And part of it is the acquiescence of Democratic Party leaders to look more and more like their opposition and buy into the ideas of so-called free trade, which has accelerated the decline and disinvestment from rural communities.

A summary answer would be, the Democratic Party’s loss of soul, it’s loss of identity as an institution.

‘Not just what they say, but what they do’

Margarida Jorge is the executive director of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a D.C.-based group that works to guarantee that everyone in America has access to quality, affordable healthcare. She was a co-founder of the campaign in 2008 and chief architect of the campaign’s 47-state field program that helped win passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

What do you think of the Rural Policy Action Action Report’s strategy to focus on concrete legislation that has been introduced in Congress?

The Action Report gives us an opportunity to do things that are bipartisan. On issues like prescription drug prices and trade you’re able to get some bipartisan agreement because those issues disproportionately impact rural communities.

Having a bill introduced in Congress requires a lawmaker to make a choice. For example, ask any lawmaker in Congress, “Are you for taxing the rich and corporations?” They’re all going to say, “Oh my gosh. I’m for taxing the rich and corporations. Blah, blah, blah. That’s the only fair thing to do.”

They’re all for it in principle. But what actually matters is not just what they say, but what they do: we need a commitment to take action. The only way constituents can truly understand what a politician is willing to publicly support is if they are willing to put their name on the legislation.

‘Get back to community in order to save democracy

Brandon Byrd is the lead organizer for Georgia Ignite, which works in rural Georgia as part of the New Georgia Project Action Fund. He grew up in Metter, Georgia, a town of 3,994, 65 miles west of Savannah.

What was it like growing up in rural Georgia?

I grew up in a really small county, in what was really a village. I could never get away with stuff without my mom finding out. One time I was driving to school and I took a different turn to avoid some bus traffic. Before I made it to my high school, my mom called me from work and said, “Where are you going?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” She said, “Somebody called me.” They told her that I was on such and such street. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh I just took a different route to go to school.” It was one of those counties where everybody knows everybody.

What do rural areas share that urban communities lack?

I would say community spirit. That love-thy-neighbor spirit is unanimous across our rural areas. Because it’s small and it’s mighty. Rural areas are where you see the most community. And that’s the same whether you’re in Georgia or in Montana.

In America, individualism has gotten only stronger and stronger. In rural communities, you don’t see it as much. You see people mainly together. You’re going to the grocery store and, boom, you’ll see somebody you know, and you’re talking with them in the grocery store for 20 or 25 minutes.

We’re the only folks here. We have to look out for each other. We see each other on a daily basis. I know your parents and grandparents, and they know me. They are the people who see you grow up and see who you become. So even if everyone isn’t the closest of friends, they’re going to watch out for you or help you when they can because of the community that you all have.

We have to get back to that sense of community in order to save democracy.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

Justin Perkins

Justin Perkins is Barn Raiser Deputy Editor & Publisher and Board Clerk of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is currently finishing his Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The son of a hog farmer, he grew up in Papillion, Neb., and got his start as a writer with his hometown newspaper the Papillion Times, The Daily Nebraskan, Rural America In These Times and In These Times. He has previous editorial experience at Prairie Schooner and Image.

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