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In a Desert, Any Oasis Will Do

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Rural “news deserts” are anything but arid. But the steady stream of information that flows into rural America isn’t the kind that waters the roots of democracy.

Back in the analog era, I had two newspaper boxes at the end of my driveway, a blue one for the Lexington paper, and a white one for the Louisville paper. Maybe that was showing off, but that was a time when I believed reading two sports sections made me smarter.

Then 15 years ago, the papers started shuttering their East Kentucky bureaus. Eleven years ago, the Louisville Courier-Journal quit delivering east of I-75. And in the last few years our local Lexington Herald-Leader distribution system came down to two big guys in a tiny gold Prius covering three east Kentucky counties, papers piled high enough in back to block the rear view. If the H-L wasn’t in the box by 10, you might catch the guys eating breakfast at the Dairy Queen and go pick up the paper yourself. But that was on the mornings they came to town. Some mornings what you got was two days’ papers snapped into the same rubber band. And occasionally it was three days in a row bundled together so you could read the Herald-Leader like Paradise-Lost; start in the middle, then go to the day before yesterday, and finish up vanquishing Satan with the day’s breaking news.

Where I live is now designated as a news desert. That makes it sound like the only news here is “man bites cactus.” But there’s nothing arid about our news. A lot of good journalists showed up and launched careers covering our corruption, perfidy and feel-good human interest. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Herald-Leader, Frank Langfitt, is now NPR’s London correspondent. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Courier-Journal, Gardiner Harris, covers international diplomacy for the New York Times. Even the Mountain Eagle, our weekly paper in Whitesburg, can point to its own legacy of covering local news and to reporters who went from covering these coalfields to grand destinies as authors, media executives, and, in Bill Bishop, to co-founding of the Daily Yonder.

The different definitions of “news desert” go from the simple, 1) places with no papers, to the gilded, 2) communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots. The news desert’s closest living linguistic relative is the “food desert,” meaning a place where you can’t purchase fresh fruit or vegetables. I don’t know who can’t buy a banana, but my heart goes out.

Why this news desertification happened hardly matters. Maybe it was because media conglomerates, like Gannett and McClatchy in my case, wanted to maximize profits and take away the information country people need to feed democracy. Maybe it was because digital technology created a more efficient paperboy. But what matters more is that this change in the news ecosystem has occurred all over rural America in the last twenty years, and as our news delivery changed, so did our politics.

The change helped get Donald Trump elected. It helped conservative evangelicals establish themselves as news providers across rural America. And it helps explain why rural people’s understanding of their own self-interest may seem out of sync with what people who get their news in metro media hubs think it should be.

Or maybe the news didn’t dry up as much as it got diverted. At the end of the Bill Clinton administration, there was a small fight in Congress and in the FCC about how to expand the public media spectrum on the FM dial. The fight was about whether to allow religious broadcasters in. Prior to 2000, the lower end of the FM dial had been reserved for secular education and public purpose broadcast. And that changed. In the gaps between NPR stations and nonprofit community broadcasters, new licenses opened the door for country churches and emerging evangelical networks to join forces. Incrementally the licenses begat stations and the stations begat weaponized news and cultural programming that found local audiences. By 2006 those small evangelical radio outlets had become the second-largest radio format in the nation. Only country music was bigger when you measured by station count and not by metro density or population served. Today there are a combined 3,000 commercial and noncommercial Christian radio stations compared with nearly 2,200 country stations and 2,000 talk stations.

I like local radio. My favorite program is on a station in Powell County, Kentucky – “Tradio on the Radio.” People call in to sell you a garage-kept like-new ’99 Mercury Marquis with 229,000 miles or 14 electric pole glass insulators, all for $3. Once I heard a woman say, “I still have that wiener dog that showed up, blind in one eye, and answers to the name of Willow.” (How many names would you have had to try before you came up with “Willow?”)

But not that long ago I was driving through the same Powell County and I picked up another station with a preacher telling a story about a boy who had been helpful at the church. Preacher asked the boy could he come back on Saturday during the revival and help park cars. Boy told the preacher, sure he would. But then the day came, no boy. Preacher said, when he saw him out next time he asked why he didn’t come park cars as he’d promised. Boy told the preacher he was sorry, but it turned out that revival Saturday was his brother’s day to wear the shoes. “They only had the one pair,” the preacher explained, then said, “Well, we bought that boy another pair of shoes,” before going on to enumerate why your local contributions to the station were so important.

And many of those local Christian stations are important. They reach out to people down on their luck. And in a lot of small towns facing addiction, joblessness and dissolution of community, luck is in short supply. Part of the appeal is that these stations blend local ministries and community outreach with on-the-hour national news with a Biblical perspective. What’s under the radar is that the Christian news feed and other programs are nationalized and weaponized by conservative think tanks and by Evangelical church networks. Right now, that news product is some combination of political and cultural discourse meant to push emotional buttons. Today’s topics include: paying reparations for slavery, well-to-do socialists, a billion-dollar Medicare scam, an approaching immigrant caravan and a failed coup to remove the President of the United States. The news can change from hour to hour, but the emotional button-pushing remains constant.

Also under the radar is the accounting that shows these radio networks and affiliated institutions have gone glandular monetizing religious radio stations and media support services like news, sermons and church literature. In 2011 the revenue for Focus on the Family, a service ministry, was reported to be over $95 million. According to Ministry Watch, Education Media Foundation, the network for many of the nonprofit evangelical stations, has net assets of $552 million. The commercial Salem evangelical network lists assets of $559 million on over $250 million in annual revenue. By accepted accounting principles, there should be no shoe desert anywhere Christian radio is on the dial.

Still, it is not just Christian radio broadcast that has moved into the vacuum left in rural communities — after regional papers pulled back and local market TV channels refocused on their more well-heeled suburbs. And it is not just Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting and syndicated AM talk radio either. They may preach to a sizeable choir, both confirming messages and synthesizing community, but they are not digital missionaries finding new converts.

Cutting edge communication technologies have brought with them the precision of seeking out the conservatively curious and the politically disinclined to push them toward common political purpose. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and – most of where you go online to express yourself – have you targeted. You are the change they seek. They take what you like and what you hate and prank with you. (Sources say.)

A while back I stopped in Hazard to visit my sister. My brother-in-law had just built a zip line for my niece and nephew along the river bank. I’d never seen one. Very cool. After that visit, I went down the block and coaxed my brother to fix me a drink. In the chat about University of Kentucky sports and Hazard High sports and by the way how are the kids, the zip line came up. When I showed up at work the next morning, 30 miles away, I opened my computer, and immediately Google presented me with an ad for a zip line. The trick is not figuring out how they do it, but when they are doing it to you. Is that report of the FBI coup real or a feat of news desk prestidigitation? And when should I take the story seriously about that immigrant caravan hurtling toward town on a zip line?

Before the last election, many of us in my town reached out to a friend who was sure that Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine had abused his daughter. Something my friend learned from reliable sharers on Facebook, confirmed at church by others who’d seen the same report. With enough care, you can explain a story like that is several years old, cut and pasted from actor Alec Baldwin’s family crisis, and that no daughter had been harmed in either case. But you can never convince that friend who believed the story the first time that a Tim Kaine is OK to leave your kid or your country with. And when you see that the same abuse news story went systematically unchecked to a million voters, you can begin to appreciate the power of emerging news platforms programmed to hunt down gullibility and sidestep candor.

Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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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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