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‘Cities v. Country’: Focus on Divide Means Rural Voices Go Unheard

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Sarah Smarsh, left, was the keynote speaker at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Life in Rural symposium in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

You probably wouldn’t suspect it, but journalist Sarah Smarsh’s dad’s favorite politician is Maxine Waters.

Nick Smarsh is a fourth-generation wheat farmer and lifelong construction worker from rural Kansas, Waters a decidedly liberal congresswoman from southern California.

Granted, Nick Smarsh isn’t likely among the majority of rural Americans in his unabashed admiration for Waters. But he’s certainly not alone.

Debunking stereotypes of rural America – as monolithic, as “Trump Country” – was a primary topic of conversation at the Life in Rural America Symposium held last month in Charleston, West Virginia, in conjunction with the release of the “Life in Rural America: Part II” report by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from surveys of 1,405 adults living in the rural U.S.

The message emanating from Charleston was clear: Rural America is politically, racially and economically diverse. It’s the mountains of Appalachia, Midwest farmland, the Mississippi Delta, the Great Plains, Hispanic and Native-American communities scattered throughout the country, Mormon communities in the west. Out of that diversity come a myriad of narratives.

Sarah Smarsh, left, was the keynote speaker at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Life in Rural symposium in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

As keynote speaker at the symposium, Smarsh, author of the bestselling Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, shared her father’s affinity for Rep. Waters. And she joined a chorus of speakers and other attendees in emphasizing the importance of hearing the many voices of rural America.

“A problem well-stated is half-solved,” Smarsh said of the issues rural Americans face today, quoting inventor Charles Kettering. But it must be articulated from within.

Narratives, if genuine, matter, she said. “Because the hell of it is, you can start believing in the lie about yourself.”

Debunking the Mainstream View

Certainly, symposium panelists acknowledged, there are issues common to the whole of rural America. Among the “Life in Rural America” report’s findings are that 64 percent of rural residents believe that better long-term job creation would be most helpful to their local economy, 61 percent believe that improving the quality of local schools would be most beneficial and 55 percent point to improved access to health care.

The report also suggests that the solutions lie within rural communities. While a majority of those interviewed in the survey acknowledged that assistance from the federal and state governments is required, more than half said they’re active in solving problems in their community – with younger adults reporting higher levels of participation – and two-thirds said their neighbors have helped them in times of need.

Ed Sivak, executive vice president of policy and communications for the Hope Enterprise Corporation, presented data that could help move rural communities toward equity. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“The way I look at it,” said Ed Sivak of the Mississippi-based Hope Enterprise Corporation, a nonprofit community development financial institution, “there ain’t nothing wrong in rural America that can’t be fixed by what’s going right.”

Smarsh spoke of the “promising picture” of rural America that she encounters in her travels – of people coming together as communities across political boundaries and “working in a space of what I would call localism, of, ‘How do we solve these problems locally, when we’re feeling sort of not only misunderstood but perhaps even scorned and scapegoated on a national level?’”

The story that’s told in the media about rural America, she asserted, is largely a false narrative. “There’s a great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground,” she said.

“If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country – which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate tribal identities – then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state.”

In fact, Smarsh pointed out, in the 2016 election around 40 percent of voters in a majority of states selected the candidate who lost that state in the presidential election. “So we’re sort of rendering invisible millions of people when we use terms like ‘Trump Country’ and reduce regions to political monoliths.”

Local Talent   

Rural communities are staking claim to their future.

Ines Polonius, CEO of Communities Unlimited, Inc, a not-for-profit that provides economic-development assistance in southeastern states, said that community development should begin with a focus on assets, not deficits. This approach “begins to shift mindsets, and it begins to create hope.”

Polonius spoke of structuring “entrepreneurial ecosystems” that allow communities “to build their economies from the inside.”

“A lot of times what we find is that as we identify leaders that have really creative ideas and we bring them to the table, they’ve never been in a position where they’ve had the opportunity to lead,” Polonius said. “They’ve never had an opportunity to be in a room with other leaders and actually work together and work through implementation.”

Lisa Mensah, president and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network, a national association of community development financial institutions, or CDFIs, joined Polonius in a panel discussion of capacity building and advancing economic opportunity.

In a recent op-ed piece for The Daily Yonder, Mensah reported that 85 percent of the nation’s 353 persistently poor counties are rural. CDFIs, Mensah wrote, play a critical role in lifting rural economies. They have “proven experience and the conviction that decent housing, clean drinking water and life enriching community facilities and opportunities can happen in even the remotest and poorest areas.”

“We know how to solve problems in rural infrastructure, housing, banking, small business and healthcare,” Mensah wrote, and underscored in Charleston. “The solution is capital, resources and perseverance.”

Jen Giovannitii, left, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, joined a panel at the Life in Rural symposium to discuss how rural communities can move toward solutions. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Jen Giovannitti, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which provides grant assistance throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, spoke of the importance of making disruptive investments in rural communities – by investing, for example, in CDFIs.

“Banks are not providing all of the services that we need for small businesses, housing and health care,” Giovannitti said in a post-symposium interview. CDFIs are making that investment.

She cited as an example investing in young family-practice physicians, dentists and pharmacists who want to settle in a rural community. They’ve accumulated enormous debt from their education and the cost of starting out on one’s own can be prohibitive. Banks consider them a poor risk.

Investing in those practices, Giovannitti said, is an investment in both the health and economy of that community.

“So this, for us, disrupts the system,” she said. These young health care professionals “might not be able to make that happen in a traditional setting. But these intermediaries,” the CDFIs, “can make it happen.”

A Seat at the Table

The well-stated consensus in Charleston was that the foundation for development in rural communities is capacity building and leadership training. But there then must be a seat at the larger table.

“One of the reasons why rural America doesn’t get the resources it needs is because it is not really at any of the tables where those decisions about rural America are made,” Brian Dabson, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Government, said.

“We go through the motions of putting our arms around and saying we care for each other,” Dabson offered, “but that’s not the reality in the way the large-scale resources are allocated. It’s who’s got the power. And until we redistribute that power, then we’ve got to put a Band Aid over it and deal with it at the local level and take care of ourselves within that unfair context.”

Demanding “equal voice, equal power,” he said, is of the essence.

“We don’t want to be in denial,” Dee Davis, founder and president of the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, said, “but we also know that you really can’t build a way forward unless you’re working with an understanding of your assets and lifting them up.”

He’d made a list of assets discussed throughout the day that he felt are “worth hanging onto.” Among them: diversity, family, heritage, humor, entrepreneurial spirit, common purpose, striving for a better world for one another’s children … that “the mountains are our grandfathers” (“I want to be a mountain for someone,” Davis avowed.) … “that we aren’t supplicants, that we have standing to negotiate” … “our connections in systems and connection in story.”

Davis was encouraged by what he’d heard and experienced this day.

“People are very certain of who’s going to make it and who’s not,” he said. “But we should be a little careful in making these projections, because there are a lot of balls in the air, and we’re not sure how they’re going to fall.”

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Strategies produces The Daily Yonder, a publishing partner of 100 Days in Appalachia.