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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Rural organizers’ strategy for seat at table in 2024 election


Welcome to Take Action Tuesday!   There are some very exciting things happening on the rural America front.  While the challenges remain immense, people are rising up and organizing in a strategic way to gain power.  We’ll talk a bit about the approach, what’s being done, uniting city and country to fight for legislation, and related change in the Democratic Party.


A story in Barn Raiser,  part of an upcoming series of interviews on the subject, gives a peek at the present situation.  There is an outfit called the Rural Democracy Initiative or RDI (“we are changing the political landscape of rural America”). Last spring they held the second annual Rural Policy Action Summit, featuring more than 50 strategists, researchers, organizers and elected officials, in Omaha, Nebraska.  The product of that summit is the Rural Policy Action Report  (“a roadmap for rural progress”). 


Who are these folks?


RDI, which sponsored the summit, supports the work of 150 rural-focused nonprofits in more than 20 states, including Barn Raiser.  RDI is supporting coalitions doing some fantastic work, including increased funding for power building in critical swing states AZ, GA, MI, NC, NH, PA, and WI, and successfully organizing workers at some of the biggest employers in rural areas: Amazon, Walmart, Target, and restaurants.  The folks at the summit included leaders from the East, the Midwest and the South.  People’s Action, SiX, AFT, and Small Business Majority are some of the organizations involved.


What do they want?


The vision is, “Working together, we can build an economy from the bottom up and middle out, not the top down. We can build an economy that doesn’t leave rural communities behind. And we can end an era of unrestrained corporate power, level the playing field, and ensure people have the power to set a course toward clean air and water, better health, and a more prosperous future for everyone.”


Organizers see the plan as a way to hold candidates and elected officials accountable to rural communities, and to put their issues on the table in upcoming elections.


The Policy Action Report is extremely well thought out and designed to deliver results.  It details 27 legislative priorities for rural and small town America, based on legislation that has already been introduced in Congress.  It provides tangible legislative and executive actions that are both popular and winnable in the next couple of years.  And, it features many policy solutions that would be equally popular in cities and suburbs.


Example of a target bill in the report


“We must end the targeting of rural communities as sites for polluting industries, which disproportionately harm people of color.


Pass the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice For All Act, which ensures that communities who experience environmental harms have legal avenues to hold polluters accountable, mandates federal agencies provide early and meaningful community involvement for all National Environmental Policy Act processes, funds health equity research, and supports equitable access to the outdoors.”


Now, you might guess that the reason I am mentioning this little guy is because communities of color in big cities are ALSO targeted as sites for polluting industries. 



Rural people have to work with others to win their agenda


The organizers here say that “we traditionally haven’t empowered people in rural communities to demand what they need and so it hasn’t happened yet.”  That’s true.  They must demand what they need.  The fact remains, though, that though rural people grow the food we all eat, they make up only about 14% of the country’s population.  While they are somewhat over-represented in some legislative circles, they are still a minority.  They have to work with others to get public and legislative support for their agenda.


Stereotypes need busting on both sides: city people’s belief that rural people are all MAGA idiots, and country people’s belief that city people are all “woke” nut jobs who look down on them.  Focusing on shared problems and real solutions ought to help people put all that aside.


Kellon Patey, the Rural Strategies Lead Organizer at People’s Action Institute, put his finger on one key problem: “For too long, rural America has been miscategorized as a conservative monolith that is averse to progressive solutions to local problems and afraid of big ideas.”  The plan here shows that they got PLENTY of progressive solutions and big ideas. 

Patey says, “You go anywhere in the country and people talk about housing… Housing is an issue across the country, yet in rural areas there is a need for smaller scale affordable housing solutions that can accommodate the lack of municipal sewer and water systems.” 

We ALL need federal money for housing.  City folk need more high rises and reclamation of vacant buildings and spaces.  Suburban folk need higher-density housing near transit and more flexibility in existing land use, like re-purposing malls and tiny houses in the backyards.  Country folk need sewer and water infrastructure and smaller scale buildings. It’s all housing. 


If they get some of these bills across the finish line, others could build on that success to take the policies to urban and suburban areas.  And where they meet resistance, perhaps they could expand the scope of the bills and build coalitions in these other areas to expand support.


The political upside


Erik Hatlestad works as the Energy Democracy Program Director for the Minnesota nonprofit CURE! focusing on rural energy issues.  In his Barn Raiser interview, he noted the critical role the Democratic Party has played in the abandonment of rural America. 


He said, “There hasn’t been political leadership…coming from rural parts of the country. The Democratic Party been disconnected from these communities in part because the people who would be a part of these movements in rural areas have left. And part of it is the acquiescence of Democratic Party leaders to look more and more like their opposition and buy into the ideas of so-called free trade, which has accelerated the decline and disinvestment from rural communities….A summary answer would be, the Democratic Party’s loss of soul, its loss of identity as an institution.”


City and country people making common cause can not only help bring good policies home, it can help bring better representation for all of us, replace the corrupt and timid Democratic establishment, change the balance of power in Washington and in state capitals over the long term.


In the swing state of Georgia, for example, about a third of the population lives in rural areas.  With support across both constituencies, progressive candidates and elected officials who lead on these rural/urban issues could have a leg up on winning statewide.  The same in districts that have both rural and urban or suburban components.  Such candidates could have great appeal to independents and occasional voters, who can be the difference between winning and losing.

In state houses, there often is a real zero-sum game between rural and urban areas and there is a lot of hatred.  Urban progressives finding common cause with rural progressives could be a real game changer.


There’s so much opportunity here to make life better for everyone.  I am so excited about this rural initiative, and will keep my eye on it.




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