I grew up in a small town in rural Alabama where, to the average resident, there were no signs of political activity. It doesn’t help that the Alabama state legislature has been hoarding power since Reconstruction. But nationwide, there’s a huge problem with a lack of opportunity for civic engagement in rural communities presenting challenges to those organizing for social justice.
A recent study found that 60% of rural Millennials live in civic deserts–areas lacking opportunities for political education or engagement–compared to 30% of their suburban and urban peers. Add in low-income, minority, and older populations who traditionally have even less access to community resources and that number is certain to get a lot higher. It’s little wonder then that rural America is more distrustful of government and feels abandoned by elected officials. There are no signs it is actually working for them.
But there is a clear need in rural America for political engagement, not just to change the national balance of power, but to address local issues that impact residents’ everyday lives. Traditionally this is the role of community organizers who build relationships within communities and empower residents to take action for the change they want to see. However rural environments present unique challenges to traditional organizing methods.
Probably the biggest challenge to rural organizing is the sheer vastness of space between people. That makes it difficult to get any large group of people together in the same space at the same time, whether it’s for an action or a meeting. Technology can help bridge the gap, but can’t fully replace the benefits of building face-to-face relationships with others. And that’s really the glue of community organizing, so there’s no way of getting around the fact that rural organizers will have to travel long distances and think of new strategies to connect people across large geographic areas.
Institutions in rural areas are different from those in urban areas. For one, community needs are different. But even the most basic institutions like libraries, community centers, and schools are likely to be fewer in number and funded at lower rates than their urban counterparts. That makes them far less likely to be centers for community or civic participation.
Government institutions in rural areas also fail to take into account the realities of rural life, holding public meetings at times inconvenient for residents or too far away from those most impacted. When it comes to organizing within institutions, the most prevalent in rural communities are often churches, which cannot always be depended on to be progressive allies.
Yes, rural residents do tend to be more conservative than those living in urban communities. But there are also large pockets of progressives, though they may lack a common identity or feel compelled not to advertise their presence. Even a cursory glance at local election data will reveal hundreds if not thousands of voters who have turned out to support progressive candidates at the local or national level.
The level of conservatism in rural areas is often skewed by our own assumptions or elected officials who win by slim margins or go unchallenged and cater to a small, but vocal segment of their base. Rural residents care deeply about the issues affecting their everyday lives such as jobs, wages, and health care. While less likely to prioritize causes for racial equity or LGBTQ rights, these issues too can be framed in a way that resonates with people in rural areas, even if they don’t think they know or interact with those populations.
The issues of concern in rural communities are often the same as those in urban communities, though they may look different. Wages are important, but so is having a job within your community and the means to get to and from work–elements some urban residents take for granted. Similarly, affordable health care is important, but is of little use if there are no medical facilities in your area. When it comes to organizing around rural issues, the key as with anywhere else is to listen to the concerns of residents.
It’s no surprise that less money is funneled to rural communities. And that has real world impacts on the lives of rural people. But there is also significantly less funding available for organizing within these communities. Most grantmakers are based in major metropolitan areas. Even if they express concern for rural issues, it can be extremely difficult for community members or rural organizers to actually connect with funders to make a case for their cause, a critical step to avoid grant applications being lost in a pile of paper, or worse, never making it past a computer program’s algorithm.
The principles of rural organizing are the same as those in urban and suburban communities. It hinges on building strong relationships and listening to stakeholders. But the logistics change and can present formidable barriers. But anyone who comes from a rural community knows it’s a challenge worth taking up.