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Commentary: Rural America’s Role In The Energy Revolution

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Participants write down their local energy recommendations at the Itasca County Dialogue in Minnesota. Photo: Chris Palmquist

Rural communities are understandably concerned about the way local development of renewable energy can affect their lives. In Minnesota, the Rural Energy Dialogues offer a way for communities to name their concerns, learn more about the issues and make decisions that reflect their values and identity.

In small towns across America, people are grappling with what the national shift towards renewable energy will look like locally. Some see wind and solar projects as an exciting gateway to road improvements, income for landowners, jobs, lower property taxes and expanded community services. Others view these projects as a disruption to the landscape they love, as big machinery and blinking lights are constructed to benefit developers and power companies. Then, somewhere in the middle, is where most people likely find themselves: unsure about what clean energy could mean for their hometown. There’s a clear need for people across this spectrum to learn more about the future of local energy and identify their shared community priorities.

How can we create this space for high-quality information and in-depth discussion about the shifting energy system?

Build Clarity and Understanding

Since 2014, The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center have convened the Rural Climate Dialogues and Rural Energy Dialogues to help Minnesotans navigate the future of local energy and plan for climate resilience. The Rural Dialogues put community members at the center of the policy questions, giving them the knowledge, resources and time they need to create recommendations. At the end of the multi-day events, their recommendations are shared with local decision-makers and we work with community members, officials and organizations to help bring their ideas to life.

A panel of local utility leaders speaks to participants at the Itasca County Energy Dialogue. Photo: Chris Palmquist

We see the Rural Energy Dialogues as a productive way to help communities address a potential expansion of renewable energy infrastructure, and we’re planning two dialogues in southwest Minnesota in late 2019 and early 2020 to do just that. By convening people in these communities and providing unbiased information, local experts and time to discuss the issues, everyone has an opportunity to share their perspectives and build recommendations together. This approach results in less tension and more thoughtfulness and productivity compared to a town hall on the same topic.

After taking the time to learn more about renewable energy infrastructure and its impacts on residents, participants will work together to identify their key priorities and recommendations. These findings will be shared with energy developers, officials, media and other rural counties to amplify the recommendations and be a resource for similar conversations.

Make People Feel Heard

Clean energy can change a rural community’s identity. For farming communities, building new technology on traditionally agricultural land and changing the landscape can stir complex feelings. That’s why it’s key to invest in a proper civic engagement process with adequate time for communities to discuss and grapple with potential changes. Community members often have personal knowledge about their surroundings and experiences in ways that might not be immediately visible to others. By allowing that insight to enter the discussion early on, we ensure that the community is working with the most complete and authentic information available. When communities are engaged effectively, policy and relationships are better for it.

Two participants discuss local energy at the Winona County Energy Dialogue. Photo: Chris Palmquist

At our Rural Climate Dialogue State Convening in 2016, which gathered citizens from across rural Minnesota, individuals had the chance to meet face-to-face with policymakers. We asked the question, “Does Minnesota’s state government know enough about climate change risks to take action?” Through a two-day process of direct interaction between state officials and rural residents, the number of rural residents that answered “agree” or “strongly agree” to that question increased from 30 percent to 77 percent. Effective meetings and deliberation can help build trust between constituents and leaders, bridge information gaps and restore hope in government decision-making.

Embrace Shared Learning

The Energy Dialogues can also help uncover the range of ideas around renewable energy infrastructure. Whether there is support or opposition (or a mix of both), we’ll be able to identify the beliefs and values that drive that reasoning and share these key ideas with leaders across the state who may be working through similar tensions.

In previous years, citizens and local officials who have participated in the dialogues have become local leaders around climate and energy. Participants have run for city council, become community activists and organizers, or simply grown more engaged and aware as community members. We believe that participants in this next phase of dialogues will continue this trend, building new and committed networks of rural leadership that will shape the future of renewable energy development.

Wind Turbin. Photo: Mathew T. Rader/UnSplash

Support an Energy System That Works for Everyone

We realize that every community is different, and there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution across the United States. Our approach considers local contexts and meets communities where they are. This idea is at the heart of all Rural Dialogues organizing and is essential to developing a renewable energy system that works for everyone.

As states, utilities and towns across the country transition their energy systems toward renewables, we must avoid past patterns of resource and wealth extraction from rural communities. The Rural Energy Dialogues forge a different path.

But we recognize this conversation should go beyond the people we get in the room. That’s why we’d like to hear your ideas. How is the changing energy system affecting your community? What concerns do you have? What excites you about the future? Where should the Rural Dialogues go next?

Let us know by sharing your thoughts with us on social media with the hashtag #RuralEnergyDialogues, shooting us an email or filling out this simple form. With your input, we can achieve a thriving, equitable and just energy future for rural communities.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

Annie Pottorff is the communications coordinator at the Jefferson Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement organization based in St Paul, Minnesota. They partner with citizens, communities and institutions to design and implement informed, innovative and democratic solutions to today’s challenges. More information is available on the Rural Dialogues website and Facebook page.

Commentary

Commentary: Immunizing Against Our Culture of Contempt

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In his first inaugural address in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," and he invoked "the better angels of our nature." Photo: Wikipedia

Today’s public discourse is a petri dish for breeding disgust for people with whom we disagree. Debates about healthcare issues affecting rural America are no exception.

From the left’s “basket of deplorables” to the right’s “send her back,” our public and private spaces have become infected with a culture of contempt. On too many days, I feel I am in a country I barely recognize. I don’t know if conservatives and liberals equally engage in contempt of the other, only that I hear too much of it from both sides.

Tim Size

I take little comfort when individuals say it’s not so bad, that we were more divided during the Civil War. As savage as those days were, Abraham Lincoln knew we could and must do better.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even while coming of age in the riot-torn ’60s, my evangelically conservative family would encourage me “to hate the sin but love the sinner.” And not dissimilarly, at the same time, the left made an icon of a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.

From Fox News to MSNBC, our airwaves are filled with voices competing to be the loudest and the most adept at ridiculing their opponents. The dominant narrative is not to address ideas but to reduce those with whom who we don’t agree to a position beneath contempt. Once we allow ourselves to hold someone in contempt, all that the best of our culture teaches us about how we are to relate and support each other goes out the window.

I have taken heart from individuals who have begun to name this problem and suggest solutions, such as Arthur Brooks, long-time president of a conservative think tank, as he wrote about “Our Culture of Contempt” in a recent issue of The New York Times: “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers–the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.”

If we are to reverse our country’s slide into increasingly entrenched and divided camps, we need to relearn how to productively talk about our differences instead of attacking the character, motive and personal attributes of the “other side.”

Brooks goes on to say that “each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible – no one has ever been hated into agreement–so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

For those of us working in health care, contempt is not theoretical. We seem increasingly less able to make progress on important issues as the rhetoric heats up and the attacks get more personal. Here are a few examples of current health care issues that seem too often to be dominated by attacks on those who hold an opposing opinion rather than the opinion itself.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Collaboration
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Dollars for Medicaid Expansion
  • Medicare for All
  • Race and Geography in Health Disparities
  • Vaccination and Anti-vaxxers

While I know that I have and still can readily discount those who disagree with me on each of these issues, I have renewed my commitment to keep my advocacy based on the facts and our organization’s aspirations, not on trying to tear down those who might disagree. Will you join me in this quest?

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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How Organized Labor Can Reverse Decades of Decline

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A union miner at the rally for pension protection. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collective bargaining has long been one of organized labor’s most attractive selling points.

In its simplest form, collective bargaining involves an organized body of employees negotiating wages and other conditions of employment. In other words, unions are saying: Join us, and we’ll bargain with your boss for better pay.

Unfortunately, traditional collective bargaining is no longer an effective strategy for labor union growth. That’s because employers and many states have made it incredibly hard for workers to form a union, which is necessary for workers to bargain collectively.

My own research suggests unions should pursue alternative ways to organize, such as by focusing on more forceful worker advocacy and offering benefits like health care. Doing so would help unions swell in size, putting them in a stronger position to secure and defend the collective bargaining rights that helped build America’s middle class.

Why unions still matter

Unions reached their pinnacle in the mid-1950s when a third of American workers belonged to one. Today, that figure stands at just 10.5 percent.

A big part of the problem is that employers have used heavy-handed legal and managerial tactics to block organizing and the elections necessary to form a union. And more than half of U.S. states have passed so-called right to work laws, which allow workers at a unionized company to avoid paying dues.

The stakes of this challenge are high – not just for unions but for most workers in the U.S. That’s because weaker unions correlate with lower wages, reduced benefits and greater economic inequality.

Millions stand to gain from a strengthened labor movement, from Uber and Lyft drivers in the gig economy to low-wage employees in retail and hospitality. And surveys show nearly half of nonunion workers in the U.S. say they would join one if they could.

I believe there are three models traditional unions could pursue to add members without relying on workplace certification and collective bargaining.

Advocating for workers

One approach is to build on the success of worker advocacy groups like Fight for $15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Fight for $15, for example, played a leading role advocating increases in the minimum wage in several states, most recently Connecticut, while the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped secure the passage of the domestic workers bill of rights in New York.

What they all have in common is that they engage in protests and strikes to call public attention to the plight of exploited workers while advocating for economic and social justice. Unions, which used to engage in more of this kind of activism, need to recapture some of that militant spirit.

Establishing minimum standards

A second model involves pushing employers to agree to a minimum set of standards for benefits and pay to provide workers.

The Writers Guild of America, which represent screenwriters and others in television, theater and Hollywood, exemplify this model. For example, they establish minimum levels of compensation for specific jobs and duties and then require members – both employers and workers – to adhere to them. It’s a collective bargaining agreement with a potentially much wider reach.

That’s because these agreements are negotiated with employers but also cover independent contractors who sign on as well. Their strength comes from the aggressive organizing and advocacy plus the strategic importance of the workers they represent, which puts pressure on employers to take part and meet the minimum standards.

Other unions could expand this approach to encourage workers throughout industries that have little or no labor representation to join their ranks as affiliated members, which should pressure employers to follow suit.

Unions peaked in the 1950s. Photo: AP Photo/Sam Myers

Unions with benefits

Another approach involves focusing on offering special benefits to independent workers in exchange for fees.

Some labor groups already do this, but the workers would benefit from unions combining their collective power to offer more heavily discounted goods and services, such as health care, disability benefits and legal representation.

For example, although the 375,000-strong Freelancers Union can’t negotiate over pay, it offers independent contractors these sorts of discounted benefits. Instead of charging dues, it charges fees for its benefits, essentially operating as its own insurance company. It also advocates for public policy changes that safeguard freelancers from exploitation, such as New York’s Freelance Wage Protection Act of 2010.

This model is probably the approach most likely to succeed in attracting large numbers of new members. The growing gig economy and low-wage industries like fast food are two areas that could receive benefits from these types of collective entities.

The endgame

Ideally, unions would embrace all three of these models, offering discounted benefits to any worker interested in signing on, fighting for minimum standards across industries and putting worker advocacy front and center. By broadening the ways in which workers can join and what they offer, unions will become stronger and closer to the people and communities that they are meant to represent.

But by no means are these models meant to supplant organized labor’s traditional collective bargaining role. My point is that unions should break the straightjacket fixation on traditional bargaining and use alternative models as intermediate steps to the ultimate goal of unionizing more workplaces in order to negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of workers.

To get there, though, unions must mobilize a critical mass of workers. Only then will they break the dynamic of labor’s decline.

[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]

Marick Masters, Professor of Business and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University

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

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Why Do So Many Rural Americans Feel Politics is Pointless?

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Of Jennifer Silva’s sample of 108 working-class people, over two-thirds didn’t even vote in the 2016 election. Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

In sociologist Jennifer Silva’s first book, “Coming Up Short,” she interviewed working-class young adults in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Virginia.

Most had a tough time earning decent wages. Many felt like they were in a perpetual state of limbo, unable to reach the traditional markers of adulthood: job, marriage, house and kids. But Silva was surprised to learn that many blamed themselves for their situations and believed that relying on others could only result in disappointment.

After the book was published, it bothered Silva that she never pressed her subjects further on their politics to see how they might be connected to their worldview.

Jennifer Silva. Bucknell

Now, in a new book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America,” she has made working-class politics her focus.

Beginning in May 2015, Silva started conducting interviews in a once-thriving coal town in central Pennsylvania, which she calls “Coal Brook.” The timing was prescient: A month after she began her research, Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president.

Silva spent over a year interviewing townspeople. She gained their trust, forged relationships and spent time in their homes and at community meetings. After years of declining prospects under both political parties, some of the townspeople she interviewed were drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment message. But for most, their politics had devolved into an abyss of cynicism that couldn’t even be penetrated by a politician who promised to “fix” everything.

In an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Silva describes a community that is racially diverse, hardworking and politically aware. But its residents are also deeply distrustful and shoulder immense amounts of pain and alienation.


Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to study working-class Americans?

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I experienced some self-doubt and discomfort when I tried to integrate into the world of academia.

In my position between two worlds – growing up with more working-class roots, and then building a professional middle-class life – I would cringe whenever I saw upper-middle-class people treat working-class people with casual condescension or indifference. It sometimes seemed like the very colleagues who most loudly proclaimed their commitment to social justice were the ones treating the administrative assistant like their personal secretary or complaining about the cost of their housekeeper. It made me really skeptical of whether people’s stated political beliefs were even a good predictor of how they treat people with less power and status.

What was the hardest part of the research?

Getting people to open up to me. I wasn’t from the area. This is the kind of place where if you knock on someone’s door, they’re not going to let you in. I started off talking to white people. I’d go to football games and addiction meetings to try to meet people, and I was able to get to be known as “so-and-so’s friend.” Then I realized I wanted to have a non-white group in my book, because there’s been an increase in Latino and black people in the area. So I had to find out how to get this population to trust me because the white population and the minority population don’t overlap very much.

You spent months conducting interviews. Then the election happened, and Trump won. All of a sudden, there was a lot of interest in the very sort of community you had just spent time in. What’s your take on the ensuing media coverage of these small towns?

It seemed like there was one dominant story: older white men, angry and in pain, were feeling bad about not having jobs and blaming racial minorities or foreigners.

And an element of that certainly emerged in my research. But the overall picture was just so much more complex. One of the things that was very striking to me was how much distrust there was. Among everyone I interviewed – white, Latino and black – there was a fierce distrust and hatred of politicians, a suspicion that politicians and big business were basically working together to take away the American Dream. Everyone was very critical of inequality.

So it wasn’t this idea of “dumb white people voting for billionaires because they don’t understand it’s against their interests.” Almost everyone was aware that the system is rigged against poor people. They blamed politicians for refusing to raise wages to a level people can live on. Many wanted higher taxes to support education. I heard a lot of that, across all of the different groups, and I didn’t read a lot of that in the articles about these communities.

You interviewed 108 people and only 37 of them actually voted, with 26 voting for Trump. Of the 41 black or Latino people you spoke with, only four voted. So to me, one of the major stories wasn’t necessarily support for Trump. It was a refusal to participate in politics altogether.

Two-thirds of the sample were nonvoters. They knew the election was happening but they just viewed political participation as pointless. They thought of it as a joke. And they said, “Look at what’s happened in my lifetime, it doesn’t really matter who’s been president.”

One of the critiques I heard a lot was that everything’s about money now. If you have money, your life is good. You can buy anything. But if you don’t have money, the system is stacked against you. I heard that from old white men. I heard that from young black women. And it was interesting, because it’s not untrue, right? If you kill someone and you’re rich you’re more likely to get off.

So I think for them it was almost like, “Well, if we participate, we’re just playing along and pretending. But we’re not naive. We know already that politicians are bought off by corporations. No one actually cares about us.”

There’s that great story in the book where you showed up to an interview wearing your “I voted” sticker.

He laughed at me! Like, “Why would you vote? Are you crazy?”

And yet of those who voted, Trump did emerge as the clear favorite.

Well, Trump and Bernie Sanders. But Sanders wasn’t an option in the end. The general take on Trump was, “We like Trump’s personality, we like his aggressiveness, we like how he doesn’t care about the rules.” And then they liked Bernie Sanders for his authenticity and his heart. But for many who even ended up voting for Trump, they still didn’t think it would matter if they voted.

Where does this disillusionment come from?

There’s a sense of betrayal by a number of social institutions – education, the workplace, the military – all of these things that they thought they could trust, but, for one reason or another, ended up disappointing them.

So they turned inward. No one was really looking for external collective strategies changing the world. Many wanted to simply prove that they didn’t have to rely on other people. There was this sense that any kind of redemption is only going to come out of your own efforts. And then you’ll see some blame other people who don’t seem to support themselves.

Before and after the 2016 election, J.D. Vance, with the publication of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” was held up in the mainstream media as an oracle for dispossessed rural Americans. But in your book, you vehemently disagree with his worldview.

Vance seemed to look at other people in his community and think that the reason they were suffering was because of their own choices – that they weren’t really strong enough to face the truth about themselves, that they had to stop blaming the government and corporations and actually take responsibility.

And that just wasn’t the story that I heard. I heard a lot of self-blame and a lot of people who wanted to take responsibility for their own fate. There was a lot of soul searching and a lot of pain. Vance makes it seem like everyone just needs to be like him – a lone hero who escapes his difficult past on his own. It’s not that simple or easy.

Can the pain people feel be used as a bridge to bring people together? That’s how I end my book. And I saw signs of it. Families suffering from addiction were coming together and wondering, how can we change the ways that doctors prescribe medicine? Or how can we challenge pharmaceutical companies to stop making these medications that get our children addicted? Can we get the police to help addicts instead of arresting them?

That sounds like the stirrings of political mobilization. But what’s the biggest obstacle that’s preventing working-class voters from organizing en masse?

I think that it’s the absence of what you could call “mediating institutions.” The people in my book have a lot of critical and smart ideas. But they don’t have a lot of ways to actually connect their individual voices. So they don’t have a church group or a club that they would join that would then give them political tools or a louder voice. And I don’t even know if they would join one if these did exist, because of their distrust of institutions. So it just ends up being turned inward rather than outward.

Within academia, what are some of the most common misconceptions you encounter when it comes to working-class politics?

I have heard some liberal academics talk about how self-defeating and misinformed working-class white people are. They seem to believe that if these people just knew the facts, they would change their votes immediately. Or they dismiss all working-class white people as angry and racist.

The working-class people I met were often radically critical of inequality and deeply skeptical about whether we live in a meritocracy. It was important to me to show that the people in my book of all races are creative and thoughtful – that they arrive at their positions by piecing together their histories and experiences in meaningful ways.

Sometimes these ways are destructive and divisive, and sometimes they have the potential to be transformative and healing.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Nick Lehr, Arts + Culture Editor, The Conversation

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

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