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Rural America and a Tale of Two Columnists

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Two columnists, from one national newspaper, write about "two" rural Americas. (Daily Yonder illustration. Photos via iStock.com)

Last week’s New York Times columns by Paul Krugman and David Brooks offer textbook examples of the unhelpful frames that define our conversation about rural America.

Americans have a couple of ways they tend to think about rural America.

On one side of the coin, we see it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland of dysfunction, intolerance, and economic ruin.

On the other, we see a pastoral cornucopia of small-town charm, neighbor helping neighbor, and home-grown tomatoes.

In other words, it’s all bad or all good.

Last week the New York Times published columns by Paul Krugman and David Brooks that fit these all-or-nothing patterns to a T.

Krugman wrote about the economic dysfunction of rural America, saying unstoppable forces prevent widespread rural economic recovery. “There are powerful forces behind the … economic decline of rural America – and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces.”

Brooks, on the other hand, wrote about the positive aspects rural civic life he has observed first-hand in visits to small towns in Nebraska. “I keep going to places with more moral coherence and social commitment than we have in booming urban areas.”

With just a few words, the economist (Krugman) and the moralist (Brooks) trigger our customary response to rural America. It’s so busted it can’t be fixed, or it’s so naturally good we must tread lightly lest we corrupt it. Either way, if you buy those stories, there’s not much American society can do collectively to help improve conditions in rural America. If it’s economically hopeless, why bother? If it’s morally superior,  just let them figure it out on their own.

Both columnists are raising fundamental questions about the future of rural America. Both present parts of the story accurately. There’s nothing malicious about either column, necessarily. (Although there’s always speculation that the two men are fighting a passive-aggressive proxy war because the Times discourages direct debate between their columnists.)

But the binary, us-against-them framing of the rural question misses a far more important point. The future of rural America isn’t separate from the future of urban America. This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible for rural and urban areas to succeed simultaneously, and by doing so, each part of the country helps the other part build a better future. Rural and urban areas depend on each other. That is why they both matter – not because one is more economically productive or the other is morally superior.

This isn’t my original thinking, of course. Folks at FrameWorks Institute looked at rural America about 15 years ago at the behest of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Their analysis of rural frames came out in 2005.

The reality is that rural and urban areas depend on each other. Each offers the other economic, cultural, social, and environmental necessities. When rural and urban are in tune, the success of one contributes to the success of the other. And, the corollary is also true: When one falters, the other is likely to experience loss.

There are plenty of examples. Metropolitan areas are the market hubs for their surrounding rural regions. Rural counties that are closer to metropolitan counties have fared better economically and demographically than more remote counties in the recovery from the 2008 recession. Metropolitan regions provide opportunities for rural young people who want advanced education and urban-focused careers. Metropolitan areas provide access to more specialized healthcare and other services that are easier to provide at higher population densities. The list goes on.

Conversely, rural communities provide the food, fiber, and energy that cities cannot generate for themselves. We can’t address green-energy and climate-change challenges without strong rural participation. Urban America needs rural stewards who harness the productivity of rural America while ensuring its sustainability. We all win if that happens.

Rural communities offer a lower cost of living than cities. Lower population density changes human interactivity and connection. We are more likely to know our neighbors and participate in social, civic, and religious activities. These are skills we desperately need these days, and rural America has a unique way of teaching them. That doesn’t mean rural Americans are morally superior to urban ones. The scale of human interaction tends to be more personal in rural communities, and that affects the nature of our relationships.

Rural and urban have become shorthand for political division and tribalism that pundits say are the hallmarks of our current civic discourse. The reality is that the rural-urban dichotomy is false. We need leaders and policies that reveal that falsity and create a new path forward for us all.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder. He is from east Kentucky and lives in Norris, Tennessee.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Maryland Has Created a Truth Commission on Lynchings – Can it Deliver?

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State delegates work in the Maryland House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis, Md., Monday, April 8, 2019, the final day of the state's 2019 legislative session. Photo: Steve Ruark/AP Photo

Between 1850 and 1950, thousands of African American men, women and children were victims of lynchings: public torture and killings carried out by white mobs.

Lynchings were used to terrorize and control black people, notably in the South following the end of slavery.

Yet despite the prevalence and seriousness of the practice, there has been an “astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching,” reports the Equal Justice Initiative, the leading organization conducting research on lynchings.

Until now.

In April 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the first lynching memorial in the U.S. – was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. In December of the same year, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that defined lynching as a federal crime.

More recently, in April 2019, the state of Maryland established a truth commission to investigate the lynchings of at least 40 African Americans between 1854 and 1933.

The legislation that authorized the truth commission, Maryland HB 307, was sponsored by Maryland House Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in February 2019, Peña-Melnyk said that the commission would be an opportunity “to send the message that the lives of the 40-something people really mattered.” Written with the help of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and endorsed by the Equal Justice Initiative, the bill passed with strong bipartisan support just two months later.

The commission has the potential to educate the public about dozens of lynchings – some of which occurred with the knowledge or direct involvement of local, county and state government entities. The commission can also provide the opportunity for reconciliation between the families of those who were responsible and the families of those who were killed.

Can it live up to its promise?

Death certificate for George Armwood, 22- or 23-year-old lynched in Maryland by a mob. Photo: Maryland State Archives/Flickr

Truth commissions around the world

I study human rights, with a particular interest in institutions that hold individuals, organizations and governments accountable for human rights abuses. My current research focuses on truth commissions and how they can be designed to be effective.

A truth commission is a temporary body that investigates different forms and systems of violence that happened in the past. Examples include the commissions that investigated apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Timor-Leste and the dictatorship in Chile.

Generally, governments establish commissions to examine documents and collect witness testimony. A key goal of commissions is preparing a report that details the facts and traces the legacies of violence and abuse. A second, related goal is reconciliation. In Maryland’s case, this would mean working toward respect, understanding and trust of those of other races and their experiences.

Based on my research and analyses of truth commissions in Chile, South Africa and Timor-Leste, I believe that the commission in Maryland has the potential to succeed.

But it faces some big obstacles.

Truth commissions in the US

The commission in Maryland will not be the first in the U.S.

In the 1980s, a national commission studied the government’s relocation and internment in camps of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The commission’s work led to both apologies and reparations for victims.

In addition, there have been commissions at the local level – for example, the 2004 commission in North Carolina that examined the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Greensboro in 1979. There have also been commissions at the state level – for example the 2013 commission in Maine that investigated the separation of indigenous Wabanaki children from their communities since 1960.

However, the commission in Maryland will be the first to research lynchings, which investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1909 called the U.S.‘s “national crime.”

Lynchings happened across the U.S., including the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Photo: Shutterstock

The truth commission in Maryland

The Maryland law establishing the commission calls for “full knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the truth.”

How would a commission accomplish this?

I have found in my research that a commission needs support from politicians, access to information, and community knowledge and involvement. It appears that the commission in Maryland has – or will have – each of these characteristics. In this regard, it is similar to previous successful commissions.

First, similar to South Africa, the commission has support from politicians on both sides of the aisle – in this case, Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisan support affords the commission public legitimacy as it seeks access to court records, historical archives, and local and statewide newspapers. So, it may be harder to politicize the commission’s work.

Second, as in Timor-Leste, where the commission held hearings in the villages where violence occurred, the commission in Maryland will hold hearings across the state, including in communities where lynchings occurred.

By operating throughout the state, the commission can more easily reach victims’ descendants and collect their stories. Collecting information from as many sources as possible is important to ascertaining the truth.

In addition, the commission will be well positioned to broadly share its work and findings, through the hearings themselves, local news reporting and more. This is key to both truth and reconciliation.

Third, as in Chile, the commission in Maryland will receive recommendations from the public, including from victims’ families, about erecting memorials and historical markers where lynchings occurred.

Getting families and the wider community involved in this aspect can help provide healing and closure. For more than a century, the pain and trauma they experienced went unacknowledged.

Now, not only does Maryland have the potential to address this pain and trauma, it has the opportunity to memorialize the lynchings so others, too, can know what happened.

Obstacles to truth and reconciliation

There are, I believe, obstacles that may prevent the commission from accomplishing all of its goals.

To start, the commission’s limited focus may lead to limited reconciliation. Lynchings represent just one form – the most extreme form – of race-based discrimination and violence.

Other forms – which persist today – include the over-policing, over-criminalization, and mass incarceration of African Americans. The commission hasn’t been designed to address these issues or the broader context of racism and violence. So, it’s unclear how the commission will lead to widespread reconciliation.

In addition, while the families of those responsible for lynchings can work with the commission and take the opportunity to make amends to the victims’ families and communities, they may decline to do so. And victims’ families may not be prepared to forgive.

Finally, the commission has been created in a fraught social and political environment. Hate crimes have increased in recent years throughout the U.S. Some elected officials have trivialized racial violence – including lynchings. And some race-focused policies, such as reparations, are widely unpopular among Americans.

So, while the commission benefits from broad support from government leaders in Maryland, it may not enjoy similar support from the public.

Whether the obstacles I describe will overcome the strengths of the commission remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the commission represents an important first step, and offers a guide for similar efforts in other states.

Kelebogile Zvobgo is the Provost’s Fellow in the Social Sciences and a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Opinion: An Agnostic in the Bible Belt

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St. Anthony’s Church located on Park Avenue in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

In my small town, not all of us believe the same thing. But that doesn’t stop us from believing in each other.

Growing up in the South, we always congregated around churches. Believing in God felt a lot like believing in each other. For many years, I equated the belief in a higher power with the presence of hope.

I lived in a mid-sized city, Rome, Georgia, which prided itself for its distance from the interstate but still had its fair share of rush hour traffic. You couldn’t easily walk from one end of town to the other, but you could navigate downtown on foot. Three rivers met just behind Broad Street, and people were usually standing down by the banks fishing as the clock tower announced each passing hour.

If you get in a car on Broad Street and head south, passing the fairgrounds, which fill up each October, and continuing past an iconic lot filled with stone statues, another filled up each holiday with inflatables, and finally past the expanses of woodlands beset in recent years by controlled burns — you will reach Kingston, Georgia. Growing up in Rome, we told local legends about avoiding Kingston at all costs. We said it was haunted or dangerous, the sort of place you’d get lost in forever.

Always curious, I longed to find out if the stories were true. Then, in my early 20s, I met a man who had recently opened a scenery studio in Kingston. Seeking refuge from the madness of Atlanta, he’d traveled north to a former lumber yard that before that had been a railroad wye – an important transportation hub during the Civil War.

Kingston has felt a lot like a forgotten town. You can walk from one end to the other. There is a park in between. Railroad tracks, on which trains still run, cross through the center of the town. We are known for our high number of Civil War landmarks and not much else. There are churches on many of the corners, and the conflation of religion with hope there feels almost as practical as fanciful. Specifically, churches provide evening childcare for many children of working parents and give food and clothing to a population in need.

When I married in 2007, a pastor from a local church officiated the ceremony. Four years after that, I found myself sitting on the town’s active railroad tracks. Some of me wanted to die. Nonetheless, I chose to live. I also began the long process of quietly losing my religion. This wasn’t because my troubling circumstances caused a lack of faith. Rather it was because, while sitting on those tracks, my inner will inspired me to go back inside, hug my child, seek out treatment for depression and ultimately be brave enough to leave what grew to be an unhealthy marriage. I had called out to God and received the clear message to call upon myself instead and rise beyond the stories of my childhood. I had not so much renounced my faith in God as found my faith in myself.

For many of my neighbors, that still sounds a lot like blasphemy. For others, it sounds like an opportunity for them to put me in their prayers. I greet both attitudes toward my agnosticism with a smile. There is no need for it to stand between us, and it doesn’t most of the time. At 10, my daughter can safely walk to local stores by herself and have picnics in the park with her friends. Mine is the house where local children come to pass hours and eat chicken nuggets and cookies before pulling out flashlights and making their way home at dark. We help each other plan parties when it comes time for them to celebrate birthdays. We share folk remedies and food. Within our community, there is a lot of love. There is also a lot of poverty, addiction and emotional pain. Whether or not our comfort comes from religion or elsewhere, we show each other kindness and respect.

I am writing to share that revelation. During a time when the United States is divided pointedly along party lines, I’ve found security and peace in rural America. In many ways, my small, taboo town has become its own nexus of hope. The simple fact that we keep showing up daily, bearing witness to each other’s lives, is enough.

Kelli Lynn, a native of Northwest Georgia, is an author, activist and entrepreneur. More of her writing is available on Medium.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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A Millennial (and Friends) Rethink Rural

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Participating in the 2019 Loyalty Day Children's Parade in Ilwaco, Washington, from left to right, are Quincy Moore, Lynn Dickerson, Thandi Rosenbaum, Cella Rosenbaum, Willa Tantisook (wagon), Jessika Tantisook, and Leah and Scott Hunt. Photo: Madeline Moore

What if we sent a different message to our rural young people? “Leave, but remember you can come back later and create a good life.” Rural millennials are forming a national organization to connect and support young adults who are making a difference back home.

When I graduated from Ilwaco High School in a class of 69 students, the resounding message was “Do well in school. Do everything you can to get into college. Get out of this town. Be successful, and you’ll never come back.”

In fact, teachers and other members of my community in southwest Washington state had pounded the same message into me since kindergarten.

The author with at her first Ilwaco Farmers Market with her small bakery, Pink Poppy Bakery. Photo: Damian Mulinix, 2012

I did the first three things, and then the fourth, too. But I did come back, at the ripe age of 22, to start a small bakery. I remember my mom telling me once, shortly after starting the bakery, that people kept saying, “We heard Madeline moved back to town. Is everything OK?” Something had to be wrong for me to want to move back to the town that had raised me.

This is a familiar story for many millennials who make the choice to move back to or stay in the rural, often downtrodden, small communities they grew up in. Success equals getting out and staying out for good. But many millennials are changing that narrative. We see the potential a small community offers to build a lifestyle that urban areas cannot: a slower pace of life, an appreciation for dirt over concrete, the chance to wear many hats and the ability to directly see the change you can make, to name a few.

Six years after diving head-first back into rural life, buying a home in Chinook, a community of 450, and running a successful small business, I realized I wanted to connect with others my age who cared about rural livelihoods as much as I do. Serendipitously, I connected with two women from Port Townsend, Washington, a city of about 10,000 in the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. These women wanted to do the same thing I did, and from there, Rethinking Rural was born. Together, we’re building a national network of millennials who want to create stronger, more resilient rural communities.

In March 2018, we invited 50 millennials who were active in rural communities across nine states for two days of conversation in Port Townsend. We focused on why our communities matter and how we can work together to make them better. By the end, many tears were shed. These were people like me, who wanted to fight hard for their town but, more often than not, felt as if they were banging their head against a brick wall. But maybe if we started working together as like-minded young’ uns, we could get more done and affect more than just our individual communities.

Aerial of Ilwaco, Washington, the town the author went to high school. Photo: Madeline Moore 

From those conversations, we created a three-year plan, which includes three more of these place-based celebrations and conversations about rural, all led and hosted by participants from our first event in their own towns. 2020: Nauvoo, Alabama. 2021: Indian Country, Pacific Northwest. 2022: TBD based on preceding symposiums.

To do all of that, we’ve partnered with a national nonprofit that has led the way on rural community development issues, the Rural Assembly. This partnership will broaden our reach and allow us to work under a larger umbrella. We’re also building many smaller, regional partnerships across the country to help guide our work. And now, we are launching a crowdfunding campaign to propel us towards our larger goals. We plan to raise $40,000 in start-up funds to use as leverage for other funding opportunities.

Quincy Moore at the author’s home beach, Chinook, Washington. Photo: Jacob Moore, 2018

I now have a 1½-year-old and she is being raised in the same community where both of her parents grew up. We recently pulled her in a wagon with all of her cat stuffed animals in the Loyalty Day Kids Parade – a parade I walked in every single year as a child. I now have similar hopes for her as many in my community had for me. I hope she moves away and goes to college. I hope she is successful and finds something she loves to devote her life to. But I also hope that one day, she decides to move back and invest in the place that raised her. Rethinking Rural is about making sure there is something for this generation and the next, and the next, to move back to. And that rural America is a thriving, culturally diverse, healthy place for people to set roots.

Madeline Moore is a mom and founder of Rethinking Rural. She studied photojournalism at the University of Oregon and works as a private chef for artists in residence at Willapa Bay AiR in Oysterville, Washington.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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