On election night, I huddled in front of the television with a group of close friends, sitting in utter disbelief as we watched a sea of red creep across the greyed-out counties of our United States. One of them was mine. I wept as the weight of our new reality descended. I felt an immense wave of fear and anger as I considered the heavy burden that will be carried by the young, people of color, the LBGTQ community, illegal immigrants, and those who are most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change.
In the days that have followed, I have felt the heft of my heartbreak, wondering how to move forward with courage and conviction. I have found it difficult to focus on work, or even to feel hope. Everything in my life has been called into question, including whether spending my time on RealSmallTowns is the best use of my energy. There is so MUCH work to be done.
But after digesting the RST question for several days, I feel more committed to the work than ever before. The takeaway is that there are many disenfranchised people living in rural areas, and they vote! It is important to pay attention to the concerns and anxieties of those living in small towns. There has never been a better time to focus on rural America.
In his book “Tribe” Sebastian Junger writes eloquently about our shared, deep human need to be meaningful contributors in our communities. We all desire connection with those around us and wish to be valued and respected as members of our society. Last Tuesday’s election was a wake up call to the vast numbers of people who have increasingly felt that their work does not matter and that they do not have a voice in the realm of national politics. The work at RST is an attempt to examine small, rural areas which are, by and large, working. Places where there is still a stable middle class, places where creative and industrious people are coming together in an effort to build healthier social and economic models, places where we embrace many of the traditional values that underpin rural areas —the values of hard work, land stewardship, frugality, and the willingness to help a neighbor in need— but balance them with the demands of an evolving global reality —one which is increasingly diverse and open and which embraces the need for ALL people to come together in a committed effort as stewards of our earth and its resources. At this time in our history it is urgent that we form a united, global force of common effort so that the generations who follow might have a just and habitable planet.
It is clear that those of us who would like to see the country move forward on a healthy and positive trajectory will be called to take action in new and unfamiliar ways. We must begin by getting involved at the local level; we must stop hiding behind the safety of our screens and be willing to engage in personal discussions —however uncomfortable they might be. We must be willing to listen and to stretch far outside of our comfort zones. We must work to build bridges, we must sing and pray together, and we must fight to bring ALL marginalized groups together in an effort to shape a just and equitable future. I am still uncertain what the path forward will look like exactly, but I hope that by continuing to share stories of the creative and pioneering solutions that are coming from small towns across the nation, I will be doing my part to provide inspiration for those who feel disenfranchised, —encouraging them to tap into the wellspring of connection and solution. I also hope that I will help my city-dwelling friends to better understand the values of hard work and independence that emanate from rural America.
Now more than ever, we need to shine a light on the innovators, the artists, the makers, and the bridge-builders who are helping to create more socially and economically resilient futures —especially in the rural communities that feel so overlooked. I cannot think of a better way to be spending my time, and I hope you will join me here. Please share your stories of the ways that everyday people are working to build a stronger future. Please help shine a light on those who are bridging the gaps –valuing the traditions connected to land and community, while embracing the values of a pluralistic modern world.
Beautifully said, Sheila! This should inspire us all.
Pundits have said that a lot of Trump voters in rural counties ” took Trump seriously but not literally while his opponents in liberal enclaves took him literally but not seriously. ” If the Real Small Town voters for Trump turn out to be correct; there will be less to fear.
Thank you Sheila. In a time when I can having so much trouble reconciling my heart and my soul to the reality I find myself stumbling within, your words are wise, comforting, and inspirational. My hope is that we can regroup and find strength in each other, and listen, listen, listen. And then listen again.
From and old family friend, Jenny Burwell
As always Sheila, you express so eloquently the feelings so deep within many of us. Thank you for your ongoing work with RST. May it inspire each of us to have those meaningful conversations with one another – no matter how uncomfortable they may initially feel. “It only takes a spark…. to get a fire going.”
thank you for this! And yes! Stride on with this work of helping us all reimagine a rural America that is thriving and inclusive!
Sheila, your comments are really thought provoking. I agree we need to talk with each and often. So, my question to you is do we do this organically, as people move into our lives, or do we have meetings where all walks of life can attend? Just curious as to how you see bridging the divide will happen. Thanks.
I am not entirely sure yet, Kris. I imagine it will end up having to be a combination of both. I know people in our community are organizing right now to try to figure out how to have some kind of organized discussion group, but there are many people who are either too scared or too hurt to be ready to participate. It might take more time for some than others to be able to sit together with others whom they feel are hostile. Ultimately, I do think that face to face interaction, when it can be achieved with kindness, is what we need. As the middle class dwindles, as we spend more time behind our computer screens and as fewer and fewer people interact in their neighborhoods, churches etc. is it increasingly difficult to find open common spaces in which we work, play, celebrate and talk together. But those are the places where we used to get to know each other in the broader spectrum of our humanity. We now need to both seek out and create these spaces, and when we are in them, do our best to listen more than talk. For me at least, when someone is challenging what I value most deeply, or when I have difficulty understanding a different perspective, this last piece can be exceedingly difficult but I am committing myself to working on it.
Finally, as important as tolerance and compassion may be, it is equally important that we be willing to stand up to bullies. Reports of racist, sexist and xenophobic attacks since Trump was elected have soared, and silence in the face of such bullying is as good as complicity. In the end, it is going to be a complex and fraught journey, but a shared one. We can start with our ourselves —examining both our beliefs and our reactions and carrying those insights out into the world.
In my limited experience, I have found community singing to be a powerful form of togetherness. I don’t go to church, but singing together (as opposed to talking) with a group of people is spiritually uplifting. As many diverse voices join together in a single song, community singing is a powerful metaphor for what is possible. It is also fun, and feels good! Here are an article and a video about community singing.
Also some practical tips for protecting those who are targets of bullying and racism:
Thanks for your contributions Sheila!
Great job, Sheila. Years ago when you started this site, you asked for recommendations of small towns. I sent you a description of Waikoloa Village on the Big Island, where I live part of the year. It fits all your criteria and is a wonderful place to live.
Thanks Linda! I guess I’ll just have to come visit 😉