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W.Va. Teacher: We Went on Strike to Fight Retaliation, Not Reform

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Striking West Virginia teachers and supporters rally outside the House of Delegates chambers Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Teachers are opposed to a complex education bill making its way through the Legislature. Photo: John Raby/AP Photo

My great-grandfather was a coal miner.

He dropped out of school to mine coal at age 14, and he supported his family with his wages from the mines and what he could grow on the small farm I would one day grow up on. And while he never regretted his decision to go into the mines–he famously said he liked the hard work–he knew that for his children and grandchildren, education was the path forward.

My great-grandfather used his wages from the mines to buy playground equipment for the one room school my grandfather attended, and when my grandfather and his sisters were high school age, my great-grandfather led a local movement to petition the school board to send busses to his small mountain community in North Central West Virginia so his own kids could be transported to the local public high school.

My grandfather and his sisters all went on to graduate from high school, attend college and work in education. I have often wondered if that would have been the case if my great-grandfather hadn’t fought to get that school bus up our mountain. My grandfather went on to be a celebrated teacher and coach in Barbour County, West Virginia, and three of his own children, my mother included, carried on this family tradition of working in public education.

I have been an English teacher in Berkeley County, West Virginia, for the last 15 years, but I have spent my life in conversations about public education in this state, and I know now what my great-grandfather knew over 75 years ago when he petitioned the school board to provide busses to that small, mountain community: that our path forward in this state is to make sure every student has access to quality, public education. Strong schools and educational opportunities build strong communities.

Jessica Salfia poses next to a parade float. Photo: Kristen Uppercue/100 Days in Appalachia

The problem is, in recent years in West Virginia, teachers have been fighting an uphill battle to create those strong schools. Public education funding is scarce, teacher pay in West Virginia is among the lowest in the nation and last year increasing insurance premiums and skyrocketing deductibles were going to mean that many educators across the state were going to experience a loss in pay. It was too much.

Teachers in this state have consistently been asked to turn two fishes and five loaves into enough to feed thousands. We have worked on the front lines of poverty and opioid epidemics with not enough books and supplies, sometimes not enough heat in our schools, not enough time to plan and collaborate and still we have worked miracles. The innovation and successes in our schools have happened despite the West Virginia state government.

But in February 2018, those sacrifices were being overlooked. So, I along with 20,000 teachers and school service personnel across this great state walked off the job. That work action lasted nine emotionally charged days, and, for many of us, it was not a fight about salary, but about respect. It was fight about health care and what we value as public educators. It was fight about what we want for our schools and our state. It was a fight for the soul of West Virginia.

We returned from the picket lines and the halls of the West Virginia Capitol to our classrooms with a 5 percent pay raise and a promise to find a dedicated revenue source for PEIA, the state’s Public Employee Insurance program.I never imagined after I returned to my classroom last March that I would walk out of it again so soon.

But as the months ticked by and I watched the PEIA Taskforce spin its wheels trying to fix the funding problems of our health insurance system, I could feel the collective frustration of public employees growing. I attended and spoke at public hearings on PEIA. I watched an educational revolution of teacher strikes sweep the nation, and I wondered how our Legislature would address our concerns in 2019, concerns over health care and education reform.

The first major piece of education legislation to be presented in the 2019 session was Senate Bill 451, a massive “omnibus” bill that did include another pay raise and additional funding for PEIA, but also damaging measures to privatize public education in West Virginia. It was clear this bill was retaliatory in measure. It was a complete overhaul of our education system — one that had been written without the input of a single teacher or school administrator. In fact, most of the language appeared to be lifted from the ALEC website, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative bill factory responsible for legislation like Florida’s “stand your ground” law. To add insult to injury, these damaging measures were wrapped up in words like “empowerment” and “reform.”

Proponents of this bill claimed these initiatives — the dismantling of public education and the creation of charter schools and Education Savings Accounts– were about “choice” and creating competition for our public schools. I listened while elected officials gave speeches on the Senate floor and called West Virginia public education “failing” and compared the great work of my life to a “fatal disease.”

For many educators, the implication that any struggle or inadequacies our schools or students might be experiencing is simply because we don’t have enough “competition” is frankly insulting. Teachers do the work they do because they are called to it. And if our legislators truly wanted to know how to fix a struggling school, the educators in them could tell you.  

But it soon became clear that teacher voices would not be valued in this conversation about education.

I watched as for-profit charter school lobbyists were given endless time to present to the House Education Committee. A public hearing was scheduled and I drove 300 miles to the state capital to speak only to have my mic cut off at exactly 70 seconds. That was the time I was allotted. But later that day, school choice lobbyists were once again given endless time to speak to the Senate Education Committee.

This bill was not really about reform. It was about finding a way to use education to line the pockets of out-of-state corporate interests. There is a long history of folks coming to Appalachia and taking. They’ve taken our coal and our timber and left us with flat mountain tops and polluted water. And now, those out-of-state corporate interests have looked around and the only thing left to take? Our education system.

And this isn’t just happening in West Virginia. It’s happening across our country. Teachers in Denver went on strike for the first time in 25 years, ending last week after three days on the picket lines urging officials to pay them a fair wage. Los Angeles Unified Public schools just last month ended a nine day strike, instating a moratorium on the creation of any new charter schools because of teachers’ demands for a better system for their students, a system that protects them from the interests of for-profit schools.

West Virginia teachers filled the halls of the state Capitol once again this week, striking over a proposed education reform bill. Photo: Brad McElhinney/WV MetroNews

The idea that education should and can be run by business should terrify us all. Because we aren’t dealing with products, we’re dealing with children. All over this country charters schools have closed suddenly — some mid-year — because they were “underperforming.” This is the danger of having a “CEO” instead of a principal or a teacher: the bottom line is not the wellbeing of our students or communities, but profit margins and success rate. And as I heard one brave West Virginia student put it at the public hearing on West Virginia’s “omnibus reform” bill: when you say schools should compete, you are saying that some schools should win and others should lose.

Teachers in West Virginia are not against reform. In fact, we’ve been advocating for it for years. But real reform doesn’t look like a for-profit education system. It looks like funding for professional development and time to plan and collaborate. It looks like more school counselors and nurses. It looks like funding for programs to combat our opioid epidemic and mental health crisis. It looks like competitive salaries and adequate health care. It looks like the recruitment of teachers of color and the expansion of teacher education programs.

But this bill was not really about reform. It was about retaliation.

So for the second time in two years, West Virginia teachers, bus drivers, and school service personnel walked off the job. It’s been scarier the second time around. No one was sure if the public support would be as strong this time, especially since the fight is so much more nuanced. We were battling a bill that included a pay raise after all. But if our state government wants to give us 30 pieces of silver in exchange for the dismantling of public education in West Virginia, then they can keep it. And perhaps they will.

The battle to protect our state’s public education system from the outside interests that are attempting to “reform” it isn’t over. Teachers and bus drivers, counselors and nurses will return to their workplaces in West Virginia Thursday with the hope that our lawmakers won’t attempt to revive a proposal that sells our public education system to the highest bidder.

It’s what my great-grandfather — a coal miner with no high school education — knew when he stood before the local board of education and demanded school busses for his mountain community.  Education should not be politicized or partisan. It shouldn’t be about profits. It should be about building stronger communities and about making sure that all our children, not just a select few, are getting the quality education they deserve.

Jessica Salfia, co-editor of the book “55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike,” is a writer, activist and teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and WVCTE Blog.

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Will Superfood Pancakes Solve the Opioid Crisis?

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West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, left, speaks with Axios Executive Editor Mike Allen, right, at an event in Washington, D.C. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

Last week, Axios announced the latest in a series of D.C. conversations that have become somewhat of a staple in the Capital. This week, they hosted what was billed as a conversation on the nation’s “biggest health care issues and how to tackle them,” pointing specifically to the opioid epidemic and inviting several officials from Appalachia to participate.

Covering D.C. through the lens of the region impacted most by the opioid crisis, I thought it an important conversation to be a part of. States in Central Appalachia, including West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, have boasted the nation’s highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the nation for years, and the line up looked promising.

It included West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin along with the Mayor of Huntington Steve Williams, a West Virginia city that’s been portrayed as ground zero of the epidemic. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy attended and Chief Medical Officer of the federal Department of Health and Human Services Vanila Singh.

Early Wednesday morning, I arrived at the Ajax event space, billed as the “newest industrial chic venue for the D.C. scene,” where a breakfast buffet of small informational plaques with data about the opioid crisis were scattered among piles of “superfood” mini-pancakes.

Cold-pressed juice were served in small containers that look like prescription pill bottles. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

To the left of this odd buffet were shots of cleansing, freshly pressed probiotic juice served in faux prescription pill bottles. The sponsors promoted the fare as being made with “natural pain killer ingredients,” at a media-sponsored “conversation” where government officials would discuss the impact of an epidemic largely fueled by the pharmaceutical industry.

The event’s host, Axios, is an online news service that in its manifesto calls media “a scam” and “aims to present the cleanest, smartest, most efficient and trust-worthy experience for readers and advertisers alike.”

Their co-sponsor was Eli Lilly, an American pharmaceutical company that sells its products in 125 countries. Those products include Dolophine, or methadone — one of three drugs listed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration as approved for use in medication-assisted treatment or MAT. Last year, Pres. Trump increased the federal dollars available to pay for MAT. Lily is poised to benefit from a growing substance abuse treatment market that is forecasted to grow to worth $12.43 billion dollars by 2024.

The bizarre food and the sponsorship by a pharmaceutical giant should’ve been enough of a red flag, but I’ll admit that at the time I didn’t make the connection. I didn’t realize Eli Lilly was in the opioid business and while I’m not suggesting they have anything to do with the creation of the opioid addiction crisis in America, they’re certainly making money off the fight against it.

The event began and Mike Allen, Axios’s co-founder and executive editor, took the stage.

“This is the coolest food we’ve had since we had an education event were we had straws that looked like pencils,” he quipped.

Axios runs these events are like a tight ship. There’s no room for nonsense and this time, there was no room for questions from the audience or the press either.

One by one, invited guests joined Allen on stage and each was given the opportunity to discuss not just the epidemic that’s killing thousands of Americans each year, but basically whatever they wanted.

Sen. Manchin spontaneously defended his mixed voting record on party-line issues by repeating how he doesn’t vote for something that doesn’t “make sense” to him. Sen. Cassidy took his time to tell everyone that President Trump can be quite “gracious” in a one-on-one setting. Axios” Allen maintained a chummy attitude and insisted every segment ended with a personal anecdote about his guest.

The only question that each guest took from the audience was from Axios’ own health reporter Caitlin Owens, who threw softball questions like “Can you tell us more about the ‘penny tax’ you introduced in the past to pay for the opioid treatment?” addressed to Manchin, or “Is there a role for Congress and Washington as a whole to be questioning how the healthcare system can be engaged in healing from the opioid epidemic?” directed at Cassidy.

Allen stood guard apparently to make sure nothing “too controversial” happened, and in one awkward exchange between Sen. Cassidy and Owens, he promptly swooped in, announcing that the Senator’s word salad answer should do for an explanation.

The event was fraught with issues on two fronts. First, a marketing stunt that played on a deadly serious problem many in this country battle on a daily basis and second, with its implications for journalism at large.

From an Appalachian perspective, to call this event “tone deaf” is an understatement. It would be difficult to find a better (or worse) illustration of the utter detachment from reality of the real issues involved in tackling the opioid addiction crisis exhibited inside-the-Beltway. The sunny disposition of the invited speakers and host, and the “feel good” tone of their stories undercuts what is still an evolving, deadly and vexing problem. More than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017, of both illicit drugs and prescription opioids combined. The latest data available shows opioid overdose deaths in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia grew by more than 1,000 percent from 1999 to 2016. In Appalachia, this epidemic is not a joke, it’s not a gimmick. It’s destroyed people and families and devastated communities.

But my bigger qualm is with Axios. As a news organization, their role is to provide unbiased information or a platform to challenge those in power, not a stage for political stump speeches under a guise of a journalistic event. Not only did Wednesday’s “conversation” go against what I understand to be the purpose of putting journalists and politicians in one room, it also allowed two Senators to turn a serious event into an opportunity to promote their careers.

As a country, we’re constantly talking about this national crisis, but success stories remain confined to particular counties or states. Today, there is no working, comprehensive federal policy to address the problem yet the opioid epidemic was one of the Trump administration’s flagship priorities.

No one in the room could challenge the speakers on a single statement, or ask follow up questions. Not once were the Trump administration’s policies questioned, not once were Senators forced to defend, or criticize, the policies that so far, have had questionable results.

While the institution of journalism struggles with issues of public trust and “fake news” has become a weaponized meme of our president, I had a front row seat to an ethically problematic feel-good event. Billed as a serious conversation about a deadly serious issue, what I instead witnessed was a slick marketing stunt sponsored by a news organization in partnership with a pharmaceutical corporation with direct financial interests.

It’s bad for journalism and it’s bad for policy.

100 Days’ Kristen Uppercue contributed research to this report.

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Commentary: Who You Callin’ Metropolitan?

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This is what a major metropolitan area looks like from the author’s office in Bracken County, Kentucky. Bracken has an entirely rural population of about 8,500 but is part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area, which has more than 2 million residents. Photo: Amanda Kool/Daily Yonder

Every single resident of Bracken County, Kentucky, is “rural,” according to the Census Bureau. So why does this county of 8,500 people generally get lumped in with the nation’s largest metropolitan areas when we study economic trends? A “rural” resident of the “major metropolitan area” argues for more nuance in how we talk about rural.

For the many years I spent living and working in Boston, Massachusetts and its surrounding cities, my morning commute involved brisk walks down sidewalks, crowded subway platforms and screeching trains, escalators, more sidewalks, and elevators that lead to offices in tall buildings.

Two summers ago, I jumped ship from a life I loved in New England to raise my family and open new doors of professional opportunity here in Kentucky.

These days, my route to work involves a seconds-long walk across my driveway to a 10-by-12 shed. From the screen door that leads to the shed’s little porch, my office view includes hayfields, pastures, and several stands of trees. In the foreground, just across the fence line, stands a grumpy bull who likes a particular shady spot on the on the dam of an insubstantial cow pond. In the distance, atop the farthest ridge, I can make out a smattering of other farmhouses and barns.

The author outside her office in Northeastern Kentucky. Photo: Christopher Adams/Daily Yonder

Bracken County, Kentucky is a long way from Boston in more ways than one. And yet according to one of the most frequently-used systems for defining what is rural and what is urban, both places are counted in the very same column of data, along with our nation’s other most urban locales.

By the prevailing metrics, it’s as if I never moved at all.

By any of the informal standards catalogued by Bryce Oates in his recent essay, Measuring Rurality. And Using Data to Inform Better Rural Policy, however, my little spot in Kentucky would safely count as rural. Parking is a non-issue. You can pee outside wherever you’d like (though it might be best to face away from the nearest road, out of courtesy). And if it’s as simple as “you know a place is rural when you see it,” then anyone who looks around this beautiful part of the country can agree that Bracken County is it.

On the days each week when I have meetings, I have no choice but to drive, since we now live 45 minutes, an hour and 45 minutes, and two hours by vehicle from the three city centers of Cincinnati, Lexington, and Louisville, respectively. This next statement feels obvious, but I’ll make it clear anyway: we have no sidewalks, and we have no public transit. I can breathe more deeply among the hills of Kentucky than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and so I don’t mind the long miles of poor cellphone reception along winding, narrow backroads sometimes congested with errant turkeys and sun-bathing dogs. I occasionally show up later than I’d like due to getting stuck behind Amish horses and buggies, or depending on the season, wagons loaded down with hay or tobacco headed for the warehouse. I’ll keep all those inconveniences and throw in a lifetime without pizza delivery for the joy of living right where I am.

But what about the people who aren’t here, and are instead looking at us through a chart of numbers?

From a raw data standpoint, I think the numbers do a decent job of capturing many of the differences between my old life and the life I live now:

In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, there are 784,230 people living in 120 square miles, for a population density of 6,535 people per square mile.

In Bracken County, Kentucky, there are 8,488 people living in 209 square miles, for a population density of 40 people per square mile.

The numbers that set our federal policy come from more complicated data sets, however, like the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, developed by the Economic Research Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. If defining rurality is, as Oates declares, “part science and part art,” then what use is a scientific formula that categorizes Bracken County, Kentucky as a 1 out of 9, ranking us among the very largest metropolitan areas in the United States?

I wish I’d had Oates’s article as a primer last year, when I stumbled backward into the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes and myriad other definitions of rurality while compiling data for an article on rural access to justice that I co-authored for the Harvard Law & Policy Review. It was during the exercise of running my current and former addresses through the various data sets out of pure curiosity that I first learned that my home in Kentucky is not, at least not by some definitions, “rural” after all.

There are many definitions of rurality used by government bodies, researchers, and other policymakers across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alone recognizes nine definitions of rurality: three of them are based on census places, three others on census urban areas, one on designations of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), one on USDA ERS Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes, and yet another based on the USDA Business and Industry Loan Program definition.

Confused? Me too. But these definitions have real-world consequences that go beyond my irritation when someone on the other end of a conference call map-splains my town as “part of the Cincinnati MSA, so essentially a suburb of Cincinnati,” and I do my best to not counter with, “You have clearly never been to this neck of the woods.”

Lenoxburg Store, Bracken County, Kentucky. Photo: Amanda Kool/Daily Yonder

According to several of these nine definitions, the rurality of a given area depends on where that area falls on a numerical continuum that spans from most “metro” to most “nonmetro” – terms that are, often and dangerously, used interchangeably with “urban” and “rural.” When I checked my address against these data sets, I discovered that my area was generally classified as metro due to falling within the Cincinnati MSA that was mentioned on that phone call. I searched for my county’s placement among the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, which are used to assign every county in the United States to one of nine numerical designations of metro or nonmetro (and thereby conflate the terms urban and rural with metro and nonmetro, right there in the same classification system). You can imagine my surprise when I found my new Kentucky home pegged all the way at the end of that scale as a “1,” meaning Bracken County, Kentucky was lumped in in with the most urban/metropolitan places in the United States.

New York, New York. Los Angeles, California. Boston, Massachusetts. Johnsville, Kentucky.

To further complicate matters, the U.S. Census Bureau takes a position that is much different than the USDA’s when it comes to defining rurality. Through an interactive map on their website that’s replete with facts about rural America, in a section subtitled “Dispelling the Nonmetro Myth,” the Census Bureau boldly declares that the terms “nonmetro” and “rural” are not synonymous, regardless of how the USDA ERS uses them – and regardless of how often those terms are used interchangeably by people who make important decisions, such as federal employees who conduct analyses of conditions in “rural” America and establish eligibility criteria for critical pockets of federal funding reserved for rural people and places.

The Census Bureau goes on to proclaim that over half of people living in rural areas live within a metro area. In other words, in the eyes of the Census Bureau, the vast body of data we have about rural people, as collected and analyzed under USDA ERS definitions, excludes roughly as many rural people as it includes.

And sure enough, in contrast to our 1 on the USDA ERS’s Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Data, 100% of Bracken County’s population is designated as rural.

That’s a dramatic shift in perception that depends solely on which data point used to define us.

The problem here is much bigger than a cultural crisis of identity. Conflating notions of urban and rural with notions of metro and non-metro and mixing usage of USDA ERS definitions with Census Bureau definitions creates a muddy mess of what we think we know about broadband access, healthcare, employment, education, poverty, and so much else, both here and there. It means that the lines we use to separate the haves and the haves-not on any given topic appear less stark than human experience suggests, since under-counting the issues only serves to soften the statistics on either side of the line. From a programmatic perspective, it means that streams of funding for services intended to level the playing field do not reach some communities that might most need it, or that might best utilize it.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Oates that rural statistics are undercounted. I also acknowledge that being over-inclusive when defining rurality comes with its own share of problems. I am far from a statistician, and I so I won’t proclaim to know how we resolve these blinding incongruities, how we concisely capture the nuances of these places that we see as rural and urban with our own eyes but that sometimes appear as something else entirely through the guise of someone’s calculator. Anecdotes and personal narratives don’t fit neatly within any graph.

Yet through first-hand experience of the inadequacies of our prevailing metrics and following Oates’ lead, I can’t come up with a better place to start. And in the meantime of a better solution, perhaps continually bringing the art of rural into public discourse might encourage the science of rural to catch up.

So let me tell you about our general store about 15 minutes up the road, and how it beats the convenience of any box store – which is good, since we don’t have one of those in our county – because you can buy shampoo and live bait, get your deer processed, order a deli sandwich, hear some live music on Saturday nights, and catch up on the local gossip all in one stop. My husband didn’t have to wait in a line nor argue with a self-checkout machine when he sprinted through the doors one crisp November afternoon to buy me a giant bottle of water as I waited in the car in the throes of labor, practicing my breathing techniques as we began our 90-minute dash to the hospital.

I’d also like to record the time our county clerk tracked my uncle down on Facebook because she couldn’t find my phone number but wanted to make sure to let me know that she’d successfully transferred my car title to Kentucky.

I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen how grateful I am for the ambulance and paramedics who showed up to our house in record time during an emergency last February, and how too few of our county’s first responders get paid anything at all for the life-saving work they do.

I’d also like to give thanks to the Bracken County News and the weekly newspapers from our surrounding counties, since without them, I’m not sure when or where our news would ever be reported.

I should also report that my internet works less than half as well here as it did in Boston and that it costs twice as much. And that in contrast to some of my neighbors, I’m lucky to have an option to buy internet at all. When Susan Crawford paints a near-term horizon upon which “widely and competitively available” fiber connectivity can bring our entire country “new businesses, new transport capabilities, new ways of managing our use of energy, new forms of education and health care, new ways of earning a living, and new forms of human connectedness,” and warns that without it, our nation will be “missing out on the future being lived and built elsewhere,” let my TestIT app results of 6.68mbps download speeds and 1.08mbps upload speeds expose how far behind we are all lagging in that race.

I want to enter into the record that when my family goes “to town,” we typically cross the Bracken-Mason County line into Maysville, which has a city population that tops the population of our whole county. And yet Mason County is designated as a 6 on the same Rural-Urban Continuum Codes that say we are a 1. In 1993, Bracken County was defined as an 8 out of 9 on that same continuum and yet over the course of a single decade, presumably due to the construction of the AA Highway which better connects us up toward Cincinnati, we had reached the pinnacle of urbanity at a 1. In light of this dramatic change in classification, I want to challenge the embedded assumption that a highway’s ability to more efficiently deliver our workforce to employers in a larger city (and in a different state, no less) correlates to dramatic shifts in the needs experienced by – and services available to – the people who live here.

Finally, I’d like to recognize the strength in numbers we have in our country’s vast lands of metropolitan rurality and call out just a few of the notable residents included among our ranks. Wendell Berry, Kentucky author, farmer, and living embodiment of rural, farms his homestead in Henry County and also finds himself kicked all the way into the “1” column of the rural-urban continuum, thanks to Henry County’s relative proximity to Louisville. Sarah Smarsh wrote a gorgeous book about class, culture, and opportunity through tales of her childhood spent as a farm kid on the windswept Kansas prairie; as it turns out, Smash’s family farm falls in metropolitan territory, as well. Even the Grand Canyon finds itself sitting on the metropolitan side of the fence. Check the data for yourself – you might be in the club, too.

Regardless of where you fall on any given chart of numbers, let’s acknowledge the shortcomings of those charts and the very real consequences of getting it wrong. And let’s work together toward a better means to capture our nation’s nuanced rural landscape – one that more closely resembles what we see with our own eyes.

Amanda L. Kool is a lawyer, consultant, and author who lives in Bracken County, Kentucky. Her recent publications include the Legal Needs Assessment for Kentucky Entrepreneurs, published in collaboration with the Kentucky Bar Association, and “Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice.”

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The U.S. Should Confront the New Threat of Technology with an Old Idea

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University of Georgia Extension agents look down on cotton plants at the Ponder Farm in Tifton as part of an agent-in-training session, led by UGA Extension personnel. (Photo by UGA CAES/Extension via Flickr, Creative Commons)

The economic disruption of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could steal jobs and wealth from American communities. To make sure more than just a few people prosper from the change, we need a technology training program like the Extension Service to give communities more control of their own economic future.

If we keep obsessing about whether robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will put millions of people out of work, we’re going to miss a once-in-a-century opportunity, according to a new report from the nonprofit Makers All.

In the next 20 years, not only robots and AI but also augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, and other emerging tech will create an abundance of wealth.  If we can give communities the power to shape this technology and the impact it has on them, we can create an economy that works for all.

How do we do it? By taking a lesson from our agricultural past.

Robots and AI threaten to shatter the link between wealth and broad prosperity: new industries may not create enough good jobs.  But if we can put everyday people in the driver’s seat, if we can train millions of adults from Harlem to Harlan County to become developers and designers, they can capture a big enough slice of emerging tech’s wealth to help revitalize our communities.

The idea of training millions of adults to master a complex technological skill might seem like wishful thinking. It’s not. We’ve done it before, with Extension Services.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. faced a similarly daunting challenge. How could we ensure millions of farmers mastered the basics of soil science and other complex knowledge and practices that made up modern agriculture?  After several failed efforts, the U.S. created Extension Services, a massive community-oriented program that:

  • Collaborated with communities to make modern farming techniques and tools much more accessible.
  • Embedded Extension agents in every agricultural county, helping farmers leverage the power of community and peer-oriented learning to spread modern agricultural practices.

Using the lessons of Extension Services, the report argues we can truly democratize emerging tech using the following three strategies:

Smooth the Learning Curve. Today, coding can be painfully hard to learn. We need to do for emerging tech what Extension Services did for ag tech: redesign it so it’s easier for everyday adults to learn. To do so, we should apply “user experience” (UX) design — a mainstay of modern web design — to the world of programming via community-oriented coding UX.

Develop an Ecosystem of Community-Oriented Support.  We need to transform our current piecemeal approach to training and support so it harnesses the power of community and operates on the scale that Extension Services did.  As we do so, we also need to build a better bridge between training and work.

Integrate Tech Training and Civic Engagement Training. In the next 20 years, emerging tech will upend some of our core assumptions about how markets work, creating opportunities to reshape the rules of the road so our economy works for everyone. But if we want all communities to have a seat at the table, we must learn from the experience of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s Citizenship Schools, whose approach overcomes some of Extension Services’ limitations, and teach both the technical and the civic engagement skills needed to truly participate.

Equally importantly, the report argues, we must change our mindset. Why does the idea of training millions of people in emerging tech coding seem like wishful thinking? Because just like the first attempts to revolutionize agricultural training, our solutions so far aren’t up to the challenge.

For example, most community-based tech training efforts can only get funding for a fraction of the resources they need.

Unlike Extension Services, our current efforts aren’t accountable at the scale we need. We don’t regularly ask, are we transforming every community?

The tech world prides itself on being insanely ambitious, and yet the reason we’re failing so many communities is that we aren’t being ambitious enough. That’s the main lesson of Extension Services. If Apple’s coders learned a thing or two from apple growers, we’d all be better off.

The key to unlocking our future is in our past. If we can do for emerging tech what we did for agriculture, we can help communities from Harlem to Harlan County gain the power they need to shape their destinies. It won’t solve all the economic problems created by robots and AI; not everyone is going to become a programmer or designer. But it can serve as one critical foundation for rebuilding our communities and making them whole.

Anders Schneiderman is the founder and director of Makers All. He is a sociologist turned techie, with over 30 years of experience as a developer, software project manager and adult tech trainer at labor unions, corporations, nonprofits, and government.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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