The landscape of Grant County, New Mexico, one of the state's many rural and frontier areas (Photo by Jay Hemphill).

As a child growing up in Catron County, New Mexico, Gail Armstrong says she rode a bus over one hundred miles to school each day. Now a state representative, Armstrong (R-Magdalena) is committed to helping rural and remote communities receive the infrastructure they need. “I scream and shout, hold my breath, and stomp my feet every single day for rural New Mexico,” she said. “And sometimes I’m not heard.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by many of the sponsors of a new bill for rural and frontier equity, which was passed into law during New Mexico’s most recent legislative session. Senate Bill 193 (SB 193) allocates $95,000 annually to a “rural equity ombud” who will work to understand and address concerns across New Mexico’s rural and remote spaces. 

“It feels like a long time coming,” said Stacey Cox, director of the National Center for Frontier Communities (NCFC), the organization that drafted the bill. “It feels like there’s some hope for frontier communities to have a say in what happens to them.” 

Seventy percent of land and 24 percent of residents in New Mexico are considered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the “frontier:” areas defined by both low population density and distance from urban centers. With fewer representatives, fewer capital outlay dollars, and fewer grant writers than large cities, frontier communities can suffer from a lack of funding. That shows up in concrete ways for residents, including less data about community needs, precarious broadband infrastructure, and long drives to the doctor or to school. 

The ombud’s role will involve correcting the ways that the frontier can be left out of policy and grant making processes: for example, certain grant programs that require communities to match federal dollars aren’t feasible in sparsely-populated areas. The ombud will also help collect data on rural New Mexico and leverage funding opportunities for communities as the state continues to distribute Covid-19 recovery funds.

In early July, Cox and several legislators who helped promote and sponsor SB 193 gathered outside NCFC’s office in Silver City to discuss their hopes for the bill. Shaded under a sycamore tree, the group reflected on how their communities’ needs have been overlooked.

Senator Siah Correa-Hemphill (D-Silver City) said that as a school psychologist and the mother of a child with disabilities, she’s had to navigate “a real lack of support” in terms of mental healthcare and healthcare services in her community. Representative Luis Terrazas (R-Santa Clara) described a dire broadband situation in his district during the pandemic: families pooling together funds so their children could study remotely and little kids “parked in front of Santa Clara Elementary” trying to access the internet.

The sponsors of SB 193 include both Democrats and Republicans, but Senator Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) said that the group connected over the obstacles they share in common. “Rural communities have different challenges,” said Diamond, “If you look at it that way, there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.”

New Mexico policymakers at an event discussing the rural ombud role created by Senate Bill 193. Pictured from left to right, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, Sen. Siah Correa-Hemphill, Sen. Crystal Diamond, Priscilla Lucero, and Rep. Luis Terrazas (Photo by Noa Greenspan).

When asked what kind of person they foresee in the role, Cox and the legislators agreed on several qualities: compassionate, approachable, and focused on building on communities’ existing strengths. Direct experience in New Mexico’s rural spaces is also key. 

Priscilla Lucero, director of the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments, said that she is “one-hundred percent committed to being a mentor” to the ombud and forging connections between the office and local community members. “Traveling the state, meeting people, and getting hands-on makes you understand what’s going on here,” agreed Representative Terrazas. “It’s like reading about swimming: it’s not the same until you jump in the pool.”

Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales emphasized that the ombud won’t be perfect from the outset. “Issues in Mora County are much different than issues in Hidalgo County,” he noted. “Whoever is chosen is going to have a lot of learning to do and a lot of balancing to do.”

Cox noted that the funding designated by SB 193 is just a start. “It was funny to hear during every discussion on the floor and in every committee that this was not enough money and not enough people. When do you ever hear that?” Cox added that she believes the office can develop into a national model for frontier equity, with activists from several states already reaching out about establishing similar positions.

For now, the Legislative Council, the Lieutenant Governor’s office, NCFC, and the Council of Governments have their work cut out for them as they design the structure for New Mexico’s first rural equity ombud. That planning process begins this month.

“It’s really important to involve communities in setting up the office,” said Cox. “We need to build a structure that amplifies the voices of the people we’re serving. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Noa Greenspan is a student at Princeton University. She enjoys writing environmental non-fiction and short stories. You can follow her Instagram at @noagreenspan.

Editor’s Note: Greenspan’s work covering frontier issues in the west is supported by funding from Princeton’s High Meadows Environmental Institute. As part of this funding, Greenspan serves as an unpaid intern with the National Center for Frontier Communities, featured in this story.