Community Organizing

This Land is Our Land

RURAL COMMUNITIES in the U.S. wrestle with many of the same problems facing the rest of the country—persistent unemployment, access to quality health care, air and water degradation, a broken immigration policy. Other issues—such as supporting sustainable farming practices and drawing young people into agriculture, lack of broadband access, and the challenges of small-town economic development—are more unique to rural life.

Even though the 46.2 million people living in rural U.S. counties constitute only 15 percent of the country’s total population (spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area), we are all connected—urban, suburban, and rural—by foodways, waterways, wilderness areas, and our national politics. As one Midwest-based organizer put it, “many progressives fundamentally don’t understand rural America—they don’t even know why they should care about it. You can’t understand the power of the tea party without understanding rural America. It is the key to the House of Representatives, and progressives will be hamstrung until they can make inroads in a few key congressional districts.”

But that organizer and others also draw power and hope from the deep history of populism in the rural Midwest and parts of the South, and the endurance of community-oriented values that aren’t just “heartland” clichés.

While many young people are itching to leave rural areas and small towns—anxious to find better jobs, educational opportunities, or city culture—others have always stayed put or returned after time away. And some “city cousins” move to rural America, enjoying the opportunity to work on issues they care about (with the bonus of a brilliant night sky). Here are four stories of young people investing in rural communities in the Midwest.  —The Editors

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Won't Get Fooled Again

In an attempt to discredit the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a young conservative activist created a fake Facebook page and website for a non-existent environmental group. Then, posing as someone interested in organizing a union, tried to get a local organizer to give him tips on shaking down politicians. The New York Times reports:

At this point, Rhea Byer-Ettinger, an organizer for Manhattan Together, felt her internal baloney detector go on red alert. “Beep, beep, beep,” she said. “I said to him: ‘Well, that’s not how we work. Tell me, why are you asking me about that?’ ”  

As a former employee of an IAF affiliate in Chicago, I’m really not sure what this young guy was hoping to find. I’m sure in any large organization you could find someone to secretly record who might say something that could sound unflattering. But, was he really expecting a nationwide crime syndicate that uses collective bargaining as a tool to extort money or favors from politicians?

Passionate and sincere disagreement about politics is a good and healthy thing but tactics of this young activist and others like James O’Keefe show something dangerous. It’s the assumption that those who disagree with you politically aren’t just wrong, but evil.

On the other end, this means progressive activists should ask themselves if folks like the Koch brothers are “evil” or just some really rich dudes with politics they don’t like. 

For Gulf Coast Residents, the Oil Spill Nightmare Continues

For three months last year the Gulf Coast oil spill was the major topic of news reports all over the world. From the explosion on April 20, 2010, until the capping of the gushing well on July 15, 2010, the headlines were consumed with images and dialogue about the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. Shortly after the news of the capping, the government reported that “most” of the oil was gone, and that things were getting back to normal. The camera crews packed up. The reporters turned in their hotel room keys and gathered their deductible tax receipts. And they all left. Kumbaya, the oil was gone, and the world was normal again. The world could move on to other, more pressing interests. That is … the rest of the world could move on to other, more pressing interests.

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