In May 2020, I participated in a Black Lives Matters protest, a reaction to the unlawful killing of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality. We came out with homemade signs, chanted till our throats were sore, and marched from the main streets of town to a local park, where those who could, laid on their stomachs in ten minutes of silence, taking the same position as Floyd in his final moments. This protest was not unique, as thousands of protests just like it spread across the nation throughout the summer months of 2020 and beyond. What was significant about this protest was that it took place in Grand Island, Nebraska, a small, characteristically rural, city near the center of the typically conservative-leaning state. Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen Schell’s (2007) classify rural characteristics: “as a quantitative measure, involving statistics on population and region as described by the U.S. Census; as a geographic term, denoting particular regions particular regions and areas or spaces and places; and as a cultural term, one that involves the interaction of people in groups or communities” (p. 2). In June 2020, The New York Times mapped the 2,000+ protests following the two weeks after Floyd’s death (Burch et. al, 2020). What was most stunning about this map wasn’t the vast number of protests, but just how many of them were happening in small cities and towns, places both statistically and characteristically rural, showing up for Black Lives Matters.
As an academic who grew up in a rural Alabama, I have long listened to others mythologize rural spaces only as a homogeneous lost cause. These views are not only damaging, but they are incorrect. “Redefining Rural America,” a 2019 report from The Center for American Progress, states that “significant populations of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx individuals live in rural areas across the country” (Ajilore and Willingham, 2019). The study further states that immigrants are often the lifeblood of rural areas, that 15 to 120% of LGBTQ+ Americans lives in rural areas, and that the disability rate in rural areas is proportionally higher than it is in the total U.S. population (Ajilore and Willingham, 2019). Despite this, elections of both the past and present show an increasing divide between rural and urban voting patterns (America’s urban-rural partisan gap is widening, 2020). Understanding the diversity and complexity of rural America is the first step in acknowledging the significant impacts that rural publics can have on elections and other critical moments of political change. Through analyzing the many rural Black Lives Matters protests during the summer of 2020, I call for scholars and activists to actively work with rural publics for intersectional, deeply coalitional possibilities, pushing us to look beyond our oft urban-centered foci.
The term ‘publics’ encompasses many of the things activist-scholars need to think deeply on when building coalitions—the peoples, politics, texts, discourses, and audiences within a given community. Michael Warner (2002) offers that publics “[are] a kind of social totality, it’s most common sense is that of the people in general” (p. 413). Publics may encompass everything that the people within a community have to offer. At the same time, publics exists within publics, with Nancy Fraser (1990) arguing that “society must contain a multiplicity of publics” (p. 69) For instance, a rural small-town may be a public, but so are the many different institutions, spaces, and various sub-communities within it, each acting as their own, potentially overlapping entities, and as reflections of and/or resistances to the larger public. Acknowledging the plurality of publics recognizes the complexity of place, which can reckon with the myth of homogeneity imposed upon rural communities. Additionally, it shows how rural publics are fertile spaces for publics to discuss their overlaps and understand their place as both the parts and the sum of those parts. In the rural public I grew up in, I witnessed firsthand how a conversation at the post office could transform into a larger dialogue about the recent mayoral race or how an ESL after-school program could turn into a petition for more language-friendly books in the local library. The multiplicity of publics that makes these moments possible also exists within urban contexts, but there is an intimate overlap of publics in rural spaces, where small conversations may transform into bigger initiatives with an ease of effort not afforded to urban centers. These moments of tactical coalition-building present within the intimate overlap of rural publics, which can be both intentional and kairotic, can help us transform our contemporary coalitional moment into a multitude of coalitional possibilities.
In Queer Migration Politics, Karma Chavez (2013) argues that a coalitional moment “occurs when political issues coincide or merge in the public spheres in ways that create space to reenvision and reconstruct personal imaginaries” (p. 8). The rise in rural protests during the summer of 2020 was a coalitional moment, one that reconstructs our personal imaginaries of the publics where coalitions can exist. Learning from and working with rural publics, especially during an election year, is one way to shift from traditional intellectuals to transformative intellectuals. In The Activist Academic, Colette Cann and Eric Demeulenaere (2020) posit that traditional intellectuals “propagate ideas that reinforce the status quo” while transformative intellectuals “not only theorize about activism, but live in solidarity with marginalized, oppressed groups and work alongside them for the transformation of unjust social and material conditions” (pp. 12–13). After the 2016 election, many blamed Donald Trump’s success on rural publics, saying they were a lost cause. Despite a Democratic win, these same arguments are now being made of the 2020 election. Yes, statistics show that more rural voters supported Trump than urban voters, but to use this as an excuse to outright dismiss rural areas only proliferates the rural vs. urban divide, giving into a traditional intellectualism that further supports an increasingly polarized status quo. Instead, academics should be transformative intellectuals that stand alongside rural publics, acknowledging the coalitional moment that first began with BLM-related protests in the summer of 2020.
The many examples of rural BLM-related activities demonstrate just how rural publics enable a type of civic activity which the overwhelming populations and vast geographies of urban spaces may hinder. Donehower et. al (2007) offer that “social networks in rural areas are where a town’s identity and culture thrive, not just within school walls, but at the bank grocery store, post office, and the like” (p. 123). Each of these social spaces can act as their own publics within publics, and therefore, are places where coalition-building is possible, where both strategic and unintentional activist work may happen. For example, in “When Black Lives Matter Came to White, Rural America,” Hannah Natanson (2020) documented the efforts of Brigette Craighead, a Black activist, to plan “the first Black Lives Matter rally that White, rural, Republican Rocky Mount had ever seen.” Craighead paired up with Katosha Poindexter and Malala Penn, two other Black activists in the area, whose isolated experiences of Blackness in the “nearly 70 percent white” town made them feel it was time for change (Natanson, 2020). Craighead planned the event on Facebook, encouraging anyone attending to share the digital invitation widely. Throughout the day, a few hundred protestors showed up, a mix of different genders, ages, and race—“more people than she’d ever seen at one time in Rocky Mount…” (Natanson, 2020). What was even more surprising was how few of these people had used the Facebook invitation, but instead, came to the protest because it was so visible, located on one of Rocky Mount’s most prominent main streets. While there was intentional organization within this protest, its success was mostly due to the kairotic nature of the moment, wherein members of the rural public simply stumbled upon and then joined in on this activist effort.
This type of civic visibility is seemingly unique to rural publics. In my own experiences in Nebraska, I didn’t hear of any planned protests. Instead, my partner and I passed the protestors while driving down one the most prominent streets in town and decided to join them. As more and more people joined, the city’s local newspaper showed up to live stream the event. I asked around about who had planned this, but most people had no answers. Like me, they joined the protest because in a small city like Grand Island, it was impossible to ignore. In major cities, protesters may show up by the thousands, but they are usually regulated to specific areas of downtown, making them less visible to the larger population of the city. While multiple media outlets may cover events in big cities, it does not have the same concentrated energy as a the only single, local media source documenting an event in a small town. Think about it, what’s more visible—the thousands of people covering a few square blocks in a city with millions of people and huge geographic coverage or a few hundred people protesting in a rural town’s only and/or biggest commercial intersection? This civic visibility in rural areas is how coalitional-building expands, not by the careful, contained, and strategic planning of urban publics, but by the community-centered, kairotic, and friendly contexts of rural life.
In “Why Rural America Is Joining the Movement for Black Lives,” April Simpson (2020) followed a protest organized by teenagers in rural Harlan, Kentucky. Local reporters said that the signs baring the phrase “I Can’t Breathe,” a BLM nod to both Eric Garner and George Floyd, resonated with local Appalachian coal miners with black lung disease, “two inequities, two overlapping movements, but the same message, the same demand for liberation” (Boles, 2020). Simpson argues that “the closeness that happens in rural America often is a mitigating force, if you will, where the work of racial justice can find some fertile ground” (Simpson, 2020). Meanwhile, in “What Does Activism Look Like in Rural America,” Jamie Burgess (2020) documented the work of Indigenous activist, Tanya Blacklight, in rural Paonia, CO who believes “a small town is a place where her activism and interpersonal connections can have a visible, positive impact” (Burgess, 2020). Blacklight also notes that “there are large and important places of overlap between rural and urban places that should be fertile ground not for drawing lines of division or scapegoating, but for exchanging ideas and finding commonality” (Burgess, 2020). Burgess also followed Sista Luna, another Indigenous activist, who co-founded The Young Blood Collective, an artist/activist coalition in rural Routt County, CO, and says “rural communities are very good at supporting each other; interpersonal relationships carry a lot of weight and value because we’re what we have” (Burgess, 2020).
The picture these rural protests and organizations paint is one of an intersectional visibility too, wherein rural black citizens and other communities of colors may show up in solidarity for those in urban centers while also addressing the problems within their own areas. For instance, Sista Luna’s Young Blood Collective started a program this summer called TinyRep, or Tiny Reparations, dedicated to funding the “mental/physical health services, education, groceries, bail, creative/business endeavors, and unexpected expenses” of PoC within their own rural communities (Tiny reparations fund, 2020). Meanwhile, in “Black Lives Matter in Small Towns, Too”, April Solliday (2020) followed the work of Black activist Chadwick Workman, who organized BLM protests in Taylorville, Illinois, a protest that was deeply defined the intersectional intimacies of rural life. Most notably, Workman invited members of the local police force to the protest, because he wanted “new relationships [to] form during the rallies this summer—particularly between Black and white individuals and between Black communities and the local police force—as the key to positive change and equality in their own towns” (Solliday, 2020). Black Lives Matter in rural publics because the struggles the movement works against are vastly more visible in the close, intimate contexts of rural life than they are in urban centers—just as the support for these struggles is more visible. As such, the activist work in rural publics tends to be much more personal and impactful than work done in urban publics. Rather than ignoring work done within these publics, we should acknowledge it for what it is—an intimate form of coalition building that we should strive to emulate.
These protests are not the only ones I found evidence of. Emily McCarty documented a slew of rural protests across Washington state; Andrew O’Heir wrote about small-town protests happening across upstate New York; Kaliegh Skinner reported on rural BLM events in Mississippi; and Campbell Roberston gave attention to small-town protests happening in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Connecticut. The 2020 election has proved that it is time for us to pay attention to rural publics, to build what Chavez (2013) argues for with coalitional moments, “a coalition and a moment engender temporal and spatial dimensions and refer to the possibility—fleeting or enduring—of a coming together, of a juncture, for some sort of change” (p. 9). The rise in rural BLM protests and the outcome of the 2020 election demonstrated not only a gradual shift happening in rural America but also a critical need to embrace this coalitional moment for enduring change. We are living in a moment of multiple possibilities—the possibility for academics to acknowledge rural publics, rather than just disparaging them; the possibility for activists to make explicit connections within inequalities that both rural and urban areas share; and the possibility of doing the sometimes difficult but worthy work of being transformative intellectuals.
These possibilities are already beginning, slowly, but surely. Following the death of George Floyd, “voter registrations, volunteer activity and donations for groups linked to Democratic causes [were] surging in the midst of protests,” especially in rural areas of key swing states (Schwartz, 2020). In Arizona, the rural counties of Apache, Navajo, and Cocino, all of which overlap with the Navajo Nation, went solidly for Joe Biden (Yurth, 2020). In Wisconsin, Douglas, Bayfield, and Ashland counties—both characteristically and statistically rural—all voted blue (Collins et al., 2020a). In Pennsylvania, rural Northhampton and Centre counties went blue too (Collins et al., 2020b). In Georgia, Randolph, Stewart, Terrell and many more rural counties with predominantly Black populations all strongly favored Joe Biden (Georgia election results 2020: Live results by county, 2020). I could go on and on—for every state that flipped blue during the 2020 election, there were rural counties that voted blue as well. While we can all agree that urban centers are what pushed voting margins over the winning edge, it does not make the progressive votes cast in rural areas unimportant, especially in states where Biden won only by a few thousand votes. However, even while these gains were made in rural areas, across the nation, the rural vote for Trump increased – this has become the dominant narrative (Riccardi and Kastanis, 2020). We cannot let this latter narrative overshadow the first, because when we do, we erase the coalitional possibility of rural publics and the intimate, kairotic power they have shown themselves to hold.
At the beginning of this column, I challenged readers to embrace how understanding rural publics may better help us in shifting from traditional intellectuals to transformative intellectuals. Here, I offer a guide for how to do this work—to take the coalitional moment(s) leading up to the 2020 election and move them beyond temporal and spatial limitations, imagining coalitional possibilities instead. These guides are directly supported by the academic theories presented here on coalitions, activisms, and publics, but also framed through the deep understandings of what rural publics are doing and can do, lying at the crossroads between theorizing and actionable items. I present the following:
- Rid yourself of the notions of rural homogeneity; instead, actively seek out and listen to the diverse and complex voices of rural activism.
- Consider the economic, social, and political overlap within both urban and rural publics. Then, strategically center your activist work around these shared patterns of inequalities across geographic contexts.
- Be open to activist moments you cannot plan but rather, stumble upon; embrace the kairotic, intimate, and interpersonal tactics of rural activisms.
- Write on the inequalities and cite the activist work happening in rural areas; participate in tangible, coalition-building activities within rural publics that bridge the divide between rural and urban spaces; learn from and teach about the visible, intimate overlap of publics practiced by rural activists.
The Activist Academic argues that “the contribution of revolutionary ideas is only one part of their [transformative intellectuals] work; the other part consists of concrete participation in revolutionary change itself” (Cann and Demeulenaere, 2020, p.13). Here, I paint an intentionally broad picture, with guidelines designed to offer a wide umbrella of ways for scholars to be transformative intellectuals regarding rural publics, whether it be actively teaching on tactics of rural publics within academic spaces or by physically doing activist work outside of our own texts and contexts, within rural publics themselves.
Personally, I have tried, and continually try, to enact these guidelines with my own activism and scholarship. In 2020, I participated in rural protests in Grand Island and several other small towns in Nebraska, witnessing the concerns of rural publics firsthand. I centered my activism on the shared issue of the 2020 election by working in phone banks and writing postcards to voters; in both, I requested that I be assigned specifically to rural areas. Currently, I am in the early stages of building civic literacy workshops for several locations in rural Nebraska. And I’m doing this, composing this article about my own experiences with rural publics. Some of these tactics are strategic and intentional, while others, like the first protest I joined in Grand Island, were about being open and answering to the kairotic moments happening in rural publics around me. I offer this not to praise my own efforts, but to put into words that being a transformative intellectual comes from both theorizing about and doing work with and within rural publics. For me, this is easier because I grew up in a rural town and have spent the last few years of my graduate career embracing rural spaces in Nebraska. I am familiar with rural publics, the shared inequalities across geographic boundaries, and the actions needed to resonate in those areas. However, despite personal background, I think that building coalitions should always aim to breach the divides of academia vs. activism, intellectualism vs. realism, and urban publics vs. rural publics, regardless of who does the work. Let the possibilities of rural publics be a lesson in how to do this.
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