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An Epidemic of Opioid Documentaries — Who Is that Stranger with a Camera?

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It’s been more than five years since documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne of Peekskill, NY, released Oxyana. The IMDb description reads, “The ‘Hillbilly Heroin’ epidemic that’s slowly rotting the soul of rural America.”

As the film begins, a harrowing mist rolls over the hillsides and wooded ridges of Oceana, WV , while a lo-fi guitar score hums. When describing the small, rural town and recent events, a local dentist shares, “It’s incredible and amazing and awful, all at the same time,” as he slouches on an examining table. He laments that it became difficult to appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape as complex social and material problems emerged in his community. He felt haunted by its new reality.

He’s right — Oceana’s beauty is complex. Oxyana’s B reels hardly neglect that. At first, the filmmaker nails a distinct “West Virginianness” — the moodiness of low, ambient dream-haze lighting at roadside service shops at midnight, the lull and familiarity of winding back roads and passing by locals sitting on porches at dusk. The grit of the atmosphere and the grit under your fingernails. Coal lurches up impossibly long conveyor belts to be processed, ethereal fog obscures a full moon, and dew coats the windows of broken down 1970s Winnebagos parked between lush pine trees. West Virginia, like most places, is complex, and Oxyana pays careful attention to intimate glimpses of beauty in contraction, albeit peripherally.

Since the film’s release and subsequent acceptance into the documentary film milieu, the concept of the “opioid crisis” as a long-form documentary genre has emerged. Several independent films have joined Oxyana in undertaking the daunting task of documenting events leading up to and as a result of a public health crisis. Many weigh in on factors leading to the emergence of the American opioid crisis, making the normative claim that the monumental rise in licit and illicit opioid use and trafficking in rural American communities is wrought by irresponsible and unethical decisions made by doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

It’s worth noting, however, that not all documentary films are directed by filmmakers who are intimately familiar with the communities they profile, and Appalachian people have long been exploited by visiting photographers and documentarians.

In 1964, and in the wake of President Johnson’s ongoing war on poverty, photojournalist John Dominis captured images of residents of eastern Kentucky communities as a part of a photo series, titled “The Valley of Poverty,” for the contemporaneously popular LIFE magazine. Therein exists an even more uncomfortable reality that poverty tourism was once a common practice in eastern Kentucky.

The “Valley of Poverty” dispatch aimed to illuminate ongoing Depression Era wealth inequality, which was palpably evident in Appalachian Kentucky, but the photos, in many ways, reduced their subjects to nameless stand-ins for the socioeconomic challenges they themselves and their region faced. To Dominis, their valley appeared “lonely,” their homes “ruins,” and their children “urchins.”

OXYANA TRAILER from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.

Indie film buffs will recognize Oxyana’s Dunne as the creator of a breakout short film, American Juggalo, released in September 2011, which debuted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Juggalo functions as a sardonic, searingly funny biopic of the lives of a fiercely devoted subculture of followers of the Insane Clown Posse. A once-underground cohort of hip-hop artists hailing from Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods, I.C.P. boats an extensive discography and a loyal following of fans who immerse themselves in the music’s carnival themed lore and macabre motifs.

The laughs are cheap, however. A few views of the 24-minute long film and it’s nearly blatant that the director doesn’t seem to be laughing with the Dark Carnival. In reality, the film is laughing at a quirky fandom of individuals who are merely observing the working class tradition of finding relief, comradery and joy despite everyday pains and monotony through exploring music and culture.

The Juggalos and Juggalettes show the filmmakers how they cut loose and share with Dunne and his crew that the Gathering is the best weekend of their year. The Gathering of the Juggalos seems … eclectic — for lack of a kinder word — to outsiders. It’s no secret that I.C.P. and their fans have found little else but ridicule from onlookers since the Carnival’s inception. But to the Juggalo “family,” as they lovingly refer to one another, it’s meaningful. And to some, the Gathering is the only place where they truly feel accepted and embraced by a community who chooses to love them unconditionally, despite their status in “the real world.”

Juggalo’s dialogue reveals that, most of all, these people are genuinely happy, belting out the ubiquitous “whoop whoop” refrain each chance they get, and maybe — as bystanders — we shouldn’t knock it until we’ve tried it.

Watch the short and you’ll notice that Oxyana begins with Dunne’s newfound curiosity of Juggalo culture. Oxyana‘s opening scene is a short dialogue between the film crew and a man living in Wyoming County, WV, who had just lost a loved one. The man’s account becomes the focal point of the film, sharing intimate truths about the many ways opioid use has shaped his recent life. While holding an autographed shirt with I.C.P.’s hatchet man logo, he shares that it was his loved one’s “pride and joy.” He reveals that he recently lost him to an overdose and was struggling with his loss, holding on to a memento that was special to him in life.

I.C.P. has thousands of loyal followers across the U.S. It seems fairly innocuous that a 30-something man would be a member of the “Juggalo family.” I wondered if the filmmaker found the dialogue to be meaningful enough to be an introductory scene because it was such a palpably relatable depiction of loss. It calls the viewer to remember the longing and heartbreak associated with holding onto the last remnants you have to hold after losing a loved one. On the other hand, Dunne has made a career of mocking I.C.P.’s fans and their subculture, directing a narrative that their beloved cultural markers are garish, obnoxious, and honestly, trashy.

Juggalos gather at the National Mall for the Juggalo March in 2017. Photo by Blink O’fanaye on Flickr.

He chose to begin a long-form documentary that investigates the social and cultural conditions of a southern West Virginia community experiencing unforseen hardships with an “easter egg” Juggalo reference, and honestly, it’s difficult to ignore. Could it be that the scene reveals that Dunne was unintentionally othering his Appalachian film subjects in the same vein that he mocked the Gathering? The subject revealed a special vulnerability that comes with grieving. And I couldn’t ignore the place the scene had in context with Dunne’s earlier work.

The pain of Oceana’s residents is real. Dunne and producers show bleary-eyed, unfiltered accounts of the way opioid addiction has moved through their lives. However, the scene was an uncomfortable reminder that Oxyana’s narrative was never in the hands of those living in Oceana, West Virginia, no matter how well-intentioned its filmmakers were.

Over the past ten years, a documentarian has visited my own hometown to create a similar project.

The documentary trailer features B reel footage—supplemental footage used as “filler” between the main shots—of people intravenously using heroin as often as landscapes. The documentarian periodically visits East Liverpool, OH, to collect material for a documentary and photo-series “project.”

A voiceover explains that there’s nothing worthwhile here. People come here to die.

It’s clear that the filmmaker joins Dunne in conveying a similar message communicated by Oxyana: East Liverpool, too, is hardly more than a community in crisis.

The project offers “industrial de-evolution” as a wholesale diagnosis of our community’s problems without historical context of which of East Liverpool’s native industries no longer function or what led production to a halt. Glum, dreary footage and stills of buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes barely look like the same places I grew up.

My classmates, neighbors and people my mother taught as a high school teacher are depicted wearing outdated, tattered clothing, posed lifelessly in cluttered rooms of working-class homes. Images of the community are devoid of joy. Stereotypical misrepresentations of what people and cultural landmarks in our region look like abound. The systemic issues that these communities face are specters that render the community entirely dysfunctional.

Although I’m not an expert on the function of the “gaze” in art and film, it’s clear to me that the documentary filmmakers and photojournalists that visit Appalachia from elsewhere enter our communities with preconceived notions about who lives here and what struggles we face, effectively leading to inaccurate reporting and their own unconscious social distancing from their subjects.

In spite of everything, I don’t find it difficult to find beauty in places like Oceana or East Liverpool. Like other Appalachian communities, our relationship to more than a century of the presence of extractive industries in our region has compounded complex social problems, which over time have led to the public health crisis symptomatic of the emergence of a new extractive industry: pharmaceutical companies.

But our communities are not defined by the social problems we have no fault in generating, just as individuals and lives are not defined by their struggles with addiction and recovery. Most of all, Appalachian people should have the agency to direct new and extant narratives about their communities and those that do create seminal, revelatory works that uncover truths that would have been otherwise slighted by others.

As a long-form documentary genre focused on the opioid crisis and its cultural reverberations emerges, it becomes evidently clear that those that irresponsibly visit the region, who mistakenly engage in inaccurate reporting and misrepresentation of subjects, contribute to longstanding stereotypes about people in the region, leave and profit from their findings just might have more in common with exemplars of extractive industries that have shaped the Appalachia we know.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

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Journalism that Transcends ‘Us vs. Them’

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The author, Sara Schonhardt, on assignment this summer at the Rappahannock News. Photo: Provided

In my first week in Rappahannock I wrote a blog to introduce myself and explain what I, as a journalist, hoped to accomplish during my brief fellowship. I wasn’t sure what audience I was writing for, but I wanted to share my intentions and a bit of background. 

What brought me here, I wrote, was appreciation of an effort to cover the issues that matter to people. And I valued the mission of the Foothills Forum to inform and engage with readers through stories in the Rappahannock News. 

I spent the next 10 weeks doing what I said I would: going out and talking to people. And with each new story I learned something about Rappahannock and the people who chose to make it home. 

I learned that residents share a lot of the same challenges, concerns and love for this county. I learned a lot of judgments stem from not talking to one another. And I learned that people say they know the problems, but don’t always know the people struggling with them. 

Some things I thought I knew were driven home: that class differences matter more than we think they do, that divisions aren’t ever as simple as red versus blue, that showing up and just listening can be hugely impactful. 

Many people I met struggle to live in Rappahannock due to the lack of adequate work and high living costs. So they pick up multiple jobs or commute long hours. Yet, when I talked with them what I heard more than anything was a desire for other people to understand what they were going through.  

Rappahannock is complex, a mixture of families that have farmed this land for generations and newer ones with no farming background. Rich and poor, young and old, struggling and comfortable.  

Those characteristics don’t make Rappahannock unique. Counties across the country are changing, some in much greater ways. 

But Rappahannock does have its own mix of people and personalities, and it takes being here to understand those complexities. Sharing the stories of the people who comprise this county, I believe, is a way to confront the challenges, the divisions, the misunderstandings. Perhaps it’s also a way for people who appear to come from very different backgrounds to realize they have a few things in common. 

Not everyone wants to share their stories, of course. Doing so requires trust and it’s hard to trust a stranger – harder still, apparently, when that stranger is a reporter. 

Several people bristled when I told them I was writing stories that would appear in the newspaper. Some would talk to me, but never “on the record.” One man I finally got to open up said he avoids conversations with seemingly wealthier or close-minded residents because he doesn’t like being judged or looked down upon.  

When people did talk, I was always grateful for their openness. 

Local news remains essential in part because people want to know what’s happening in their communities. But small news organizations like the Rappahannock News are constantly seeking new ways to answer core questions like how can our reporting better connect with citizens? How can we provide solutions? What can we do to show that we’re listening and take what we’re hearing into account in our coverage? 

I come away from my fellowship with a better idea of the pieces that comprise Rappahannock, but also lingering questions about what role media plays in the county and what the role of Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News should be. Is it merely to inform and educate? Should it take more of a part in mitigating conflict? I do believe proposing solutions to problems is important. But if our stories inform the community about an issue and people still don’t do anything, do we just shrug and walk away?

On one of my last days in Rappahannock, I met Patrick Stark on my way back from a hike near Hazel River. He commutes for work but has lived for years in a modest house off a gravel road in the country. He invited me onto his porch to escape a sudden downpour, and though we’d never met we started talking, first about small things and then about our families and where we came from. 

I learned a lot about him that day, and I was pleased to see him weeks later at a public discussion Foothills Forum was hosting to get feedback on its latest series on economic transition.  

Patrick wasn’t the type to attend such events. He had his opinions about the paper and didn’t really understand what Foothills Forum was trying to accomplish. But he stood and shared his thoughts anyway. He said that Rappahannock was just too expensive for many people living here, that residents worried about groups like Foothills coming in and changing things because they didn’t know its intentions. Rather than talk about the problems, “tell us the solutions,” he said. 

It took courage for Patrick to come to the forum, and I think he provided an important perspective. But I also think it takes those difficult conversations to bring about change that benefits a community.  

I left Rappahannock more than a month ago for a job in Washington. When I meet people, I tell them I’m from Ohio and some I tell about my time in Rappahannock. They usually ask if I’ve read Hillbilly Elegy 

And so I’ve come back a few times to Rappahannock because it’s not a place with just one story. It’s not just a place of come-heres and been-heres, or even, really, a place with people that embrace those labels. It’s a place that is dynamic and ever changing, a place with people who are fighting for its future in their own way and recognize the importance of that change. It’s a place of many stories, and I don’t feel I’ve heard enough of them. 

Sara Schonhardt wrote stories for the Rappahannock (Virginia) News this year as a Foothills Forum Fellow. Foothills Forum, which is a citizens group that combines local issue research, community forums, and journalism to help communities engage in decision making. Foothills Forum’s journalism projects are published by the Rappahannock News.

This commentary was originally published by the Rappahannock News and the Daily Yonder.

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I was Arrested for Protesting Kavanaugh. This is Why I Did It.

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Karan Ireland is escorted from Senator Joe Manchin's campaign headquarters in Charleston, West Virginia, by a Charleston police officer. Ireland and eight other women were arrested after occupying the senator's office for ten hours, demanding he pledge to vote no on Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo: Roger May

It’s nearing 7 p.m. the evening after I and eight other women were arrested for trespassing in West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s campaign office. We had refused to leave until he assured us that he would vote “NO” on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. My daughter, who at 15-years-old had joined us earlier in the day to share her story of survival, has just gotten home from work. Her brother has had a long day at school and pops his head in to say hello; my fiancé is about to fire up the grill.

Gina Hays, one of nine women arrested for trespassing in Senator Joe Manchin’s Charleston, West Virginia campaign office, waits to be released after nearly ten hours of occupying the office. The women were protesting Senator Manchin’s immediate unwillingness to vote no on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Photo: Roger May

It’s the end of an ordinary day, but, for me, there are hours of work yet to do: conference calls, press inquiries, updates for social media and an essay to write. The laundry, the stack of bills and my actual job will have to wait. In a world where women still do more unpaid work at home than men, I am grateful to have a flexible work schedule and a supportive partner who also happens to love structure and order. Still, the question nags at me: How will I get everything done?

How will I parent my children, do my chores, go to work, share my most personal stories, support other women, recognize my privilege, participate in democracy and– lest I forget the internet trolls’ sage advice– lose weight. All while dealing with the effects of trauma.

I’m exhausted. I think we all are.

One forgets, though, how exhausting it can be to stand up for something– to add something to our already overflowing plates, regardless of how important or meaningful. It’s like forgetting the pain of childbirth.

“Sure, let’s have another baby!” “Yes, let’s dismantle the patriarchy!”

I’d gotten a call Saturday evening from my friend, Cathy Kunkel, who asked how I would feel about participating in an action to pressure Manchin on his Kavanaugh vote. I told her that I was ready to do something, especially after spending Thursday and Friday of the week before curled up in the fetal position, glued to my computer screen.

Okay– perhaps the fetal position thing is a bit of an exaggeration. What’s not, though,  is that I couldn’t look away from the heartbreaking testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s stomach-turning rebuttal. By Thursday evening, all I wanted was flannel pajamas, a jigsaw puzzle and a cigarette. I was feeling the effects of cultural misogyny: the overwhelm, the exhaustion, the despair that some things would just never change. But by Saturday, after spending the day with two solid and caring men working on a project close to my heart, I was rejuvenated and ready to act.

We met Sunday evening, about twenty of us, to strategize and plan. Organizer Katey Lauer led us through exercises so that we could be as prepared as possible for one of several possible outcomes. The action, though logistically complex, was simple: we would go to Sen. Manchin’s campaign office in downtown Charleston, ask him to give us his assurance us that he would vote no on Kavanaugh and leave only once we got it. We talked about the possibility of arrest and prepared for it, but it was not our goal to get arrested.

West Virginia women rally in Senator Joe Manchin’s campaign office in Charleston, West Virginia, shortly after a late-night phone call with the senator facilitated by his staff. The group of nine women vowed to occupy the office until they secured a no vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Photo: Roger May

Later that night, as I drafted my statement to the media, I thought about the reasons I wanted to participate. Why was I willing to risk public scorn? Why risk the relationship I had with Sen. Manchin’s staff and, by extension, the Senator himself? My answers came through prayer and meditation.

I believed Dr. Ford’s compelling testimony. I witnessed Judge Kavanaugh’s partisan outbursts and poor comportment. I felt strongly that the next justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court should be one of impeccable character and even the possibility that he committed a sexual crime disqualifies him in my mind I wanted to share this with Sen. Manchin in a way that was impactful and meaningful and could not be ignored.

I approached my daughter about whether she would feel comfortable with me mentioning her in the statement I shared with Sen. Manchin’s staff, in a general way. She interrupted to say that she wanted to participate in the action, too. After a lengthy conversation about the emotional risks of sharing her story and logistics of her missing an afternoon of school, I made the tough parental decision to allow her to participate. She could walk in with us to share her story and her strength, and stay unless and until the police were called– and that’s just what she did.

Emily Comer (left) and Jamie Miller (right), both handcuffed, wait for their citations to be written and issued after occupying Senator Joe Manchin’s campaign office in Charleston, West Virginia. After nearly ten hours, Comer, Miller and seven other women were arrested for trespassing and later released on their own recognizance. The women have a court date of November 8, 2018. Photo: Roger May

The rest, or much of it anyway, is Facebook Live history. We sat-in. We told our stories and the stories of dozens of others spontaneously emailed to us that day. We sang, laughed and cried. We waved to our friends and allies out on the sidewalk who had come to deliver supplies and words of encouragement.

Although we were firm in our commitment to stay until we heard the words we came for from Sen. Manchin, we were nevertheless surprised by the arrival of the police in the wee hours of the morning. The staff had told us, on camera, that no woman would be arrested in their office. Clever, I thought later, to wait and to obscure their windows. As a lover of political strategy, I wish we’d seen that one coming.

All day during our sit-in, I struggled with my own internalized misogyny: “Why am I making such a big deal? I’m overreacting. Wait — could her story be true; it seems so outrageous? They won’t like you anymore. What if you cost Manchin the election — his opponent is so much worse?! Just sit down and shut up!!”

I made the mistake of reading some of the online comments, which one should never do. I feel raw and vulnerable and so, so tired. I understand why, like so much unwanted sex, it can seem easier to just let what’s going to happen, happen.

But for me the answer is clear: I just can’t do that anymore.

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Rural Lawyers’ Alliance Fills Needs, Creates Opportunities

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An urban “glut” of new lawyers hides the fact that many rural communities lack legal expertise that could help them address personal and societal issues. One lawyer who returned to her rural roots from the big city is part of an effort to change that.

Last summer, I quit my job at Harvard Law School and moved to Kentucky. Notable Kentuckian Albert “Happy” Chandler once said, “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home,” and I was no exception, finally fulfilling half-baked plans to return home that had formed the moment I left Kentucky for law school over a decade prior. Yet in spite of Happy’s wise observation, I had built a successful legal career in Boston, I loved my clinical teaching gig at Harvard Law, and I did not have a job waiting for me in Kentucky. Needless to say, this move seemed less than obvious to some of my colleagues. I knew I was on to something good, however, and that the time to make my move had come. Let me explain.  

By way of background, in May 2017, Lisa Pruitt and I co-authored an op-ed for the National Law Journal titled, “It’s Time to Heed the Call of Rural America.” Lisa has been writing and teaching at the intersection of law and rurality for many years, including at her blog, Legal Ruralism; my personal interest in rural people, places, and issues has become a professional pursuit in more recent years. Though I was teaching at a law school in Massachusetts and she was in California, we had both witnessed the momentous uptick in law students, lawyers, and other “coastal elite” friends who were newly tuned in to the struggles of rural people following the 2016 presidential election. Indeed no matter where any of us call home or currently live, we all now share the burdens of rural America’s disproportionate share of societal problems and corresponding critical shortage of attorneys through our collective state of political discontent. Addressing attorneys directly, Lisa and I concluded our op-ed article with a challenge:  

“A moment when lawyers are so treasured that the ACLU can raise $24 million in a single weekend is also a moment when other national institutions can step up, acknowledge the legal needs of rural America, and address them. We have heard the call. Now how will we respond?” 

As you already know, I responded to the call in my own way a few months after the op-ed went to print, by removing myself from among the oft-reported glut of lawyers in America’s cities and adding myself to the dwindling rural ranks. Certainly plenty of rural people have pressing unmet legal needs that merit lawyers’ individual and collective responses: Eric Conn’s busted social security fraud scheme  alone has left thousands of rural victims in need of legal counsel. But the truth is that I wasn’t leaving my much-loved job in clinical legal education and running home to Kentucky to save my people from the woes that had befallen them. I was running home because I recognized the potential of the moment and the exciting opportunities it presented for meaningful work. I was also running home because Kentucky is an incredible place to live.  

Too many headlines paint all of rural America with broad (and ugly) strokes that solicit a sacrificial response to the call of rural America. Yet an increasing number of us city dwellers happily choose to go – or return – to places where we want to raise our children, where we see fulfilling work that needs to be done, and where we might live a life that we can afford to live in a place we want to be. Of course I see the shortage of rural lawyers and unmet rural legal needs as challenges that must be addressed, but I also see them as compelling opportunities that are ripe for the taking. Law school education, legal practice, and the national legal market as a whole are overdue for change. Just as my sprawling Kentucky garden is leaps and bounds more productive than the leggy tomato plants I tended in pots on tiny porches in the city, I believe rural America presents fertile ground for positive growth and innovation in the practice of law. I also believe that growth and innovation bred in the rural legal markets of states like mine could one day benefit lawyers and clients in other legal markets, rural and urban, across the country. I see the pressing legal needs of today as the legal innovations of tomorrow just as clearly as I see Kentucky for its future more so than for its past.  

Just as I had expected, I’ve found more great work to do in this past year than there is daylight. I’ve been digging deep with local and statewide efforts to better train our future lawyers and better connect our practicing lawyers to waiting clients. I’ve also spent some of my working hours co-authoring an article with a rural access to justice focus through a national lens. At the invitation of Lisa Pruitt, and alongside legal academics living and working in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Maine, our forthcoming Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice details the rural access to justice landscapes in those states, the lessons learned from those states, and what steps all states might take to close the rural-urban justice gap in meaningful, collaborative, and impactful ways. As the six of us drafted the manuscript across institutional walls and, indeed, across the country, it became clear that this article provided the right confluence of people and momentum to raise a national institutional home for all of the exciting work that is done (and left to be done) at the intersection of law and rurality. Though certainly unplanned, identifying a moment “when national institutions can step up, acknowledge the legal needs of rural America, and address them” ultimately led me to create the institution I had wished for all along.  

On that note, and on behalf of my co-authors turned co-founders, please let me introduce you to the Alliance for Lawyers and Rural America (AfLARA). Designed as a convening space to be shaped by its membership, AfLARA aims to serve as a means to an end for people and organizations working near the intersection of law and rurality. In other words, AfLARA is the home at which all of us – including you – can gather, learn from one another, and work together to make the most of opportunities that serve to address rural legal needs. Membership is open to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, whether you are rural, urban, or living anywhere in between, and whether your focus is access to justice, entrepreneurship, education, healthcare, or any of the other myriad points at which law meets rural places. We are non-partisan, non-exclusionary, and eager to hear your voice.  

AfLARA is one way that I have responded to the call of rural America over the past year or so, though I have yet to feel like I’ve sacrificed anything but time well spent. How have you responded? And what can we all do next?     

Amanda L. Kool is a lawyer, consultant, and author of the forthcoming Legal Needs Assessment for Kentucky Entrepreneurs. She is also a co-author of the forthcoming Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice. 

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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