When a rural community has an emergency, it’s all hands on deck.

“Rural cannot afford bystanders” Robb Webb, Director of the Rural Church Program Area with the Duke Endowment, told the audience gathered in Durham Arts Council in introducing the keynote panel at the 2018 National Rural Assembly (21-23 May).

That’s how he introduced the this year’s theme: building civic courage and civic engagement in rural America.

The presenters were activists who the organizers from the Center for Rural Strategies dubbed as “firestarters” — people who, through civic courage and action, make change happen in their communities.

Their stories shared in Durham at this year’s assembly tackled that fundamental question of what it means to have civic courage in practical terms, how to generate it and, perhaps above all else, what does it mean when we say “civic courage” today?

Bryce Oates, a journalist with our publishing partner the Daily Yonder, took a closer look at the story behind civic courage of the two speakers at this year’s Assembly: Carol Blackmon and Anita Earls (read here). 

The speakers defined civic courage as more or less the same as in the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s – speaking up and taking action to make things right.

While the Jim Crow laws era has far passed, their pains were still felt when Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, now a Regional Administrator for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic & Social Justice decided to fight a lack of black representation on boards of electric utility co-ops in Virginia and intimidation of voters.

Shaw found that she couldn’t order a simple item online and get it on time to Marietta, Ohio to welcome her first grandchild into the family.

When she shared her frustrations with friends and neighbors, they told stories of kids doing homework in McDonald’s because of the free wifi it offered, and others of police officers unable to call backup in certain communities because everything from landlines to cell service to internet connection was down.

She said that, in the face of stories she heard, she’s embarrassed of her “broadband problem” now, but it ultimately helped uncover connectivity issues in Marietta and neighboring towns in West Virginia far more serious than slow streaming of a favorite show.

Taking action, she created Citizens Connectivity Committee and in June of 2017 had representatives of US Senators, Congressmen and other public officials from Ohio and West Virginia, both Republican and Democrat, coming to her Appalachian Ohio – West Virginia Connectivity Summit. “Leave things better than you found them,” was her take on civic courage and engagement.

Speakers agreed that civic activism can often feel uncomfortable, or even threatening. Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald was scared facing white farmers who rolled into towns to keep the utility boards all white.  

Acts of civic courage might force someone, like in the case of David Tolland, the CEO of Thrive Allen County in Kansas, to bend the rules in order to let people know their needs are being heard. Like when his nonprofit coalition dedicated to improving health of the community started by mowing a ditch, because that was the priority of the people.

He thought people would ask for a clinic and they asked for a clean ditch. Then they asked for a missing stop sign. But after that it was flu shots and so it went. Today they have a clinic and a variety of programs promoting health in the community.

What emerged quickly was an image of similar rural issues plaguing the country, and yet each with its own unique and local angle. Health care is often an umbrella term, but it means something different to undocumented poultry workers in Arkansas and a small town in Appalachian mountains.

Liz Shaw / National Rural Assembly 2018 / Durham, NC (photo by: Jan Pytalski)

What might seem obvious to those living in rural America is often missed by the legislators, activists, or organizations based in big cities and urban centers.

That was another common and often repeated sentiment – don’t treat rural America as a monolith, and take time to learn it.

During one of the breakout sessions I asked what media gets wrong about the rural America. The answers were pointed to two opposite sides of the spectrum – rural country is ignored altogether, or it’s a blip on a national radar, homogenized, simplified and ultimately misunderstood.

Liz Shaw shared her frustration with the media, telling a story of a reporter, who kept asking about issues relevant to the Ohio plains, while writing a story about the foothills of Allegheny Mountains. She got it right in the end.

“South is not monolithic and it never was” Ruby Sales, veteran human rights activist, critical thinker and theologian, echoed some of the sentiments expressed earlier during what I thought was one of the most radical and illuminating panels of the entire conference on day two.

She shared her thoughts on the role of church and religion in rural communities in a conversation with Reverend Jennifer Bailey.

Sales asked some of the hardest questions out there, questions about the growing gap between the spiritual and consumerism-driven lives of Americans that lead to the commodification of men, through exploitative, extractive work practices, or privatization of the federal and state prison systems.

Sales believes those are all, at their core, theological questions,  because – ultimately – they represent our relationship to what constitutes our humanity and our relationship to the spiritual. And answers to those questions will define rural identity.

My takeaway from the 2018 National Rural Assembly is this: there is hard work being done in the backwoods, hollows and at the dead ends of dirt roads across America. It’s not glamorous and it’s often thankless in the moment. But it’s essential and helps mend the severed tendons that hold the American body politic together.