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A Year Out from 2020, Don’t Forget About Rural America

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In his op-ed for the New York Times, George Goehl, Director of People’s Action, describes the need to and how to connect with often-overlooked voters in rural communities. If progressives don’t, white nationalists will fill that vacuum and use “racism to help make sense of the changing economic conditions and racial demographics.”

Organizations like Goehl’s People’s Action are putting boots on the ground to ensure that working-class people of diverse backgrounds in rural America come together, rather than be pitted against each other, to secure economic and racial justice. We cannot give up on rural communities in the run-up to 2020, Goehl writes.

Goehl’s piece is excerpted below and available online here

For those who have given up on rural communities: Please reconsider. So many of these places need organizing to win improved conditions. Despite the stereotypes, rural people are not static in their political views or in the way they vote. Single white rural women and young rural white people represent two of the greatest leftward swings in the 2018 midterms, moving 17 and 16 points respectively toward Democrats. They played a key role in Democratic wins across the Midwest.

In front-porch conversations, the most common thing we hear is, “Nobody ever asked me what I think.” That’s a problem. Because white nationalists are filling that vacuum. They’re organizing around people’s pain and using racism to help make sense of changing economic conditions and racial demographics. We are also up against the outsized influence of Fox News and right-wing talk radio, as well as the white nationalists online.

Roughly speaking, we encounter three broad categories of about equal size when we’re door-knocking. The first is the group of people who are with us on economic, racial and gender justice, but often feel unseen by big-city progressives. A second group is as conservative and in some cases as openly racist as you might expect. And then there’s a group in the middle who supports expanding public health care, raising wages and taxing the wealthy, and is conflicted about immigration, and possibly about race, guns and religion.

We start by engaging with people around the issues that came up most often during our front-porch conversations, like polluted water, health care, low wages or addiction. When enough people say, “There are way too many factory farms in our county” or “We need to raise wages so people can make ends meet,” we work together to create a plan to get results. That may be urging local officials to pass a resolution for a moratorium on factory farms or a living wage at the county level.

The groups that form are almost always multiracial — small-town America is more racially diverse than many might think — and in the organizing process people build relationships often across economic, religious, racial and ethnic lines and begin to develop trust.

As we make tangible impact, people start to see one another in a different light. That’s when we start having tough conversations about how racism is a big reason we haven’t been coming together all along. To be clear, some folks leave. But an amazing number become part of a growing community of people who choose to defy expectations and live in a more inclusive America.