Rural Equity: What’s Good For Rural America Is Good For All of Us

By Eric K. Ward

Even as Portland and the nation continue to be rocked by authoritarian and vigilante responses to racial justice protest, it’s important to return to the underlying conditions that result in these moments of crisis for our democracy. I’m asking you to stay with me while I turn your attention to another piece of the puzzle.

As I’ve been saying recently, when it comes to inclusive democracy, winning the peace is as important as winning the war. One of the most critical fronts in getting us there is dismantling the destructive myth of an urban-rural divide and joining together to lift up rural equity.

The issues facing our nation are not so easily defined by red versus blue. The death toll and economic wreckage of a mismanaged pandemic; the rise of armed paramilitary formations and authoritarian erosion of democratic practice; the impact of structural inequities and vulnerability to climate disasters — these threats cross every geographic line. These threats could and should unite, rather than divide, cities, suburbs, and rural communities.

In this time where there is no shortage of injustice to stand against, we have to put just as much energy into what we stand for. That’s why Western States Center is proud to be an endorsing partner of Relief, Recovery, and Reimagination: A Federal Policy Agenda to Meet This Moment in Rural and Small-Town America. This agenda provides a path towards a new American political center uniting multiracial, working class communities across rural, small-town, suburban, and urban areas.

I encourage you to take a look at these common-sense strategies for:

  • Relief: Immediate help to respond to the unprecedented challenges caused by COVID-19.
  • Recovery: Once the immediate crisis of COVID-19 has passed, what we need to do next.
  • Reimagination: Policies we need to build resilient rural communities for the long haul.

Here in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, we see our shared stake in rebuilding common ground every day.

As the COVID death toll in the U.S. approaches or has already surpassed 200,000 deaths, we see the communities hardest hit by the uncontrolled virus and COVID-related mass unemployment and economic agony: Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities; those whose incomes have not afforded them access to high-quality health care; those living and working in close quarters, whether prisons or agricultural processing plants. These are our rural, suburban, and urban neighbors.

We know the impact of structural racism is not limited to city policing of urban Black communities — unacceptable as that is — but is also lived every day by the generations of farmers of color who have been disenfranchised by banking and agricultural policies from the work their ancestors did; by the Latinx communities that deliver our nation’s food supply but are in constant fear of deportation; and by the Indigenous communities whose land was plundered and stolen, their survival threatened and tribal sovereignty violated for 500 years now, in every corner of this country.

We see that no community is immune from the devastation of climate chaos, with super storms like the recent derecho in Iowa and Hurricane Laura in the Gulf states compounding the suffering of rural, suburban, and urban communities already reeling from COVID, unemployment, and failed immigration policies.

And no type of community has been immune from a crack-down on legitimate dissent — whether from law enforcement or the opportunistic mobilization of armed paramilitary formations and lone vigilantes indoctrinated on the internet. Small towns and cities alike have seen the hardships of these times only multiplied by the violence, confusion, and misplaced priorities promulgated by the far-right.

The good news is that courageous people in communities of every size in red, blue, and purple states alike, are rejecting the politics of fear and division — the war Mr. Trump is seeking to wage — and instead working to build the necessary peace to bring people together around the common good.

In Iowa, for example, after a violent storm hurt low-income Black and Latinx communities already reeling from COVID-19 and federal policies unfairly targeting immigrants and refugees, we helped connect an anonymous donor with three social justice organizations working on the ground to provide immediate relief. Our local partner, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a People’s Action affiliate based in Des Moines that empowers local communities through grassroots action, helped us move the $25,000 we delivered to Catholic Worker House and Advocates for Social Justice. Catholic Worker House distributed $10,000 in critical direct aid for housing, utility assistance, food and supplies to 27 immigrant families in just seven days. Advocates for Social Justice were able to distribute $15,000 to Black families in need. What’s more, our Iowa partners have been able to leverage matching funds from their community, nearly doubling the original $25,000. As ICCI leader Hugh Espey noted, “while this small cash donation can dull some of the immediate pain experienced by those trying to pay rent or just buy food, it is no substitute for a state or national response.” But it is a way to model and advance our values: values of caring and inclusion, values on which we can build a new peace.

In Oregon, the network of food pantries and meal sites has gone beyond emergency relief to engage communities in structural solutions. With our support, the Oregon Food Bank (OFB) hired an organizer to engage community members, elected officials, and local organizations in making sure all residents get counted in the census. For the first time in some communities, the impact of racism and other forms of discrimination on food insecurity has been openly discussed. Gaps in food distribution systems have been identified and OFB has now committed to hiring two more organizers to continue this equity work in eastern and coastal Oregon communities.

Oregon Food Bank is one of two dozen organizations from across the state that Western States Center convenes monthly to discuss threats to democratic practice and develop messages and strategies that center the needs and values that unite us.

Statewide organizations in other western states also serve to unite the concerns of community members from across the vast rural reaches with those from their city centers. Progressive Alliance for Nevada (PLAN) formed in 1994 to bring together diverse and potentially competing organizations into one cohesive force for economic, social, and environmental justice. Led by Western States Center board member Laura Martin, PLAN’s work includes advancing structural reform of Nevada’s criminal justice system, which disproportionately impacts members of the Native American community; along with mobilizing concern over missing and murdered Indigenous women; working with Tribes on voter registration and civic engagement, environmental justice, mining and water protection issues; supporting immigrants’ rights to legal status and advancement to citizenship; and advocating for economic justice that lifts up families from every community.

United Vision for Idaho (UVI) was also founded in 1994 with a similar values proposition: they “understood that we couldn’t afford to just fight for single issues, or have one more group vying against the other for limited resources.” Under Adrienne Evans’ leadership, UVI has walked their talk with a deep commitment to conversation across differences to uncover common ground. As part of the People’s Action network, UVI’s work has influenced the national rural equity agenda and the conversation model being adopted by other affiliates. (Read more about this deep canvassing approach as applied in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.) Adrienne has taken this common-ground lens even further through participating in the first transnational cohort of Western States Center’s Leadership Initiative Combating Antisemitism. Traveling with leaders from a broad range of other sectors to Washington, D.C., Poland, and Israel/ Palestine enabled her to share the perspectives and challenges of rural Americans and in turn bring lessons back lessons to Idaho from others fighting hate violence and authoritarianism.

For as much as these program partners value working proactively to build stronger communities, rural equity necessarily entails a fair amount of defense to counter the influence of extremist organizations and paramilitary formations. The Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN), founded in 1990, combines organizing, progressive policy efforts and research to both proactively promote human rights like LGBTQ equality and economic justice, and to counter anti-democratic White Nationalist efforts. Last fall that meant speaking out against anti-Semitic flyers found posted around the state capital. This spring they partnered with allies to speak out against militia manipulation of BLM events. Currently MHRN is raising awareness about a new militia network calling itself People’s Rights that says it aims to establish an “Uber-like” militia response system that can be mobilized at any time.

MHRN and UVI joined with Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane, Greater Spokane Progress, and Western States Center earlier this summer to emphasize the importance of local government taking a stand for unity. In response to planned gatherings of anti-democratic groups in Idaho and Montana, we called on local leaders to use the power of their offices to reject the gatherings and advance the interests of the entire community: “Our democratically elected officials have a responsibility to stand up for inclusive democracy and strong institutions that protect our rights, well-being and public lands.”

I tip my hat every day to the people in the communities dismissed as “fly-over” country or characterized as “red” — or with even uglier rural stereotypes — who refuse to be divided neighbor from neighbor, and instead build the soil in which prosperous communities can grow, communities that don’t leave anyone out.

Are there real differences in the particularities of lives lived in rural, suburban, and urban settings — and differences, too, depending on the color of one’s skin, level of education, or other categories that align with differential opportunities and treatment? Of course. But I strongly believe that we, the majority, have far more in common with each other than we do with those few who benefit from the income inequality that’s driving suffering in every community. What we want for families and our communities is remarkably consistent: the freedom to live, love, worship, and work free from bigotry and fear.

As I wrote last April, the only way to navigate the chaos of this critical moment in our democracy is to move beyond the caricature of categories to the values that unite us. In this moment, when long-standing definitions of conservative/liberal, right/left, and rural/urban have largely lost their meaning, the only divide I’m concerned with is the one between those who value inclusion and opportunity and those who don’t; those who see all people as fellow humans with fundamental rights, and those who insist on the supremacy of one race, religion, or nationality.

Americans in every setting need to abandon our obsession with feeding the myth of a rural-urban divide. We need to say: We will no longer be divided and manipulated against each other.

With the Relief, Recovery, and Reimagine Policy Agenda we can see that rural equity — an antiracist rural opportunity agenda — is the way forward for all of America. Just as the success of the Movement for Black Lives will deliver equal opportunity for all Americans, we believe that the growing rural equity movement will secure the economic infrastructure needed for a prosperous America for all.

Coming together around the values that unite us, around policies that leave no one out; rebuilding the center through concrete actions that lift up and unite all of our communities: this is how we save America.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and Executive Director of Western States Center.

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.