Photos of Rural Assembly Strategic Advisors, clockwise from top left, Lyndsey Gilpin, Oleta Fitzgerald, David Lipsetz, Carlton Turner, and Carol Blackmon. (Daily Yonder graphic)

As President Joe Biden takes office this week, big changes could be in store for the rural policy priorities of the U.S. federal government. In December, as the Biden transition first got underway, our team connected with a group of rural community leaders to ask them what they expect to see under the new administration.

The learnings of 2020 and a historic pandemic loomed large in what they had to say. Of course, more unprecedented events have happened since then.

President Donald Trump has been accused of inciting violence at a rally in Washington, D.C., which led armed protesters to storm the Capitol in an effort to change the results of the presidential election. The House of Representatives has impeached him for a second time, with some Republican support. The president’s social media accounts have been suspended on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more. And pro-Trump protests are expected at state capitols around the country on the day of Biden’s inauguration.

Although the community leaders we spoke to couldn’t have predicted these events in December, their messages of community, trust, and hope are perhaps even more important now, as the country undergoes a presidential transition unlike any in our history.

Toward a New and Better Normal

“We’ve moved so far away from normal that the desire is just to get back to normal,” said Carlton Turner, Director and Lead Artist of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production (Sipp Culture). “But I see this as an opportunity, and many of our colleagues see this as an opportunity, to re-establish a different type of normal, a normal that works for the people, that works for communities, that works for the health and wellness of everyone. And I think that will make this presidency a defining presidency versus just another presidency.”

Who We Spoke To

The rural leaders featured in this story are Strategic Advisors of the Rural Assembly. The Rural Assembly is a program of the Center for Rural Strategies, the nonprofit organization that publishes the Daily Yonder.

Carlton Turner, Director and Lead Artist of Sipp Culture.

The work of Turner and Sipp Culture aims to “promote economic empowerment and self-sufficiency of low- and moderate-income people through education, technical assistance, training, and mentoring in agribusiness” in its hometown region of Utica, Mississippi.

“I think our role is to continue to advocate on behalf of our communities to be staunch in the face of the despair and speak about our needs, both transparently, but also with a very thundering voice,” he said.

David Lipsetz, the President and CEO of the Housing Assistance Council, agreed that change is both possible and necessary for rural America at this moment.

David Lipsetz, President and CEO of the Housing Assistance Council.

“Normal before was not all that cool,” he said. “We always say zip code dictates your outcomes in life. Well, guess what? Many of the zip codes we should be worrying about are in small towns—86 percent of counties in persistent poverty are rural. We have some awesome, vibrant, growing, wonderful, amazing places to live in small towns. And they are the model that shows it’s possible … but it is unconscionable that we would have a system that is called ‘normal’ that has perpetuated such a depth of persistent poverty.”  

“I’m hopeful for enlightenment,” said Oleta Fitzgerald, the Southern Regional Director of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“I’m hopeful that we can somehow undo the damage that we do, because we’re either racist, or we don’t care, or we care more about money than we care about people. I’m hopeful that something will happen in our communities so that the divisiveness that we see, and the animus toward certain groups of people is assuaged.

Oleta Fitzgerald, Southern Regional Director of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The Power of Stories and Turning Hope Into Action

For Turner, storytelling is essential for building and understanding and rebuilding communities.

“We’re motivated by myths,” he said. “Stories are the way that we relate and the way that we make meaning. And I think our ability to create spaces where the community can tell their stories provides multiple perspectives on issues that are important to us. And that democratic space, that space of plurality, allows us the ability to see an issue from multiple perspectives. And it means that our understanding of the issues become more nuanced and we’re able to create more sophisticated solutions to the challenges that we face.”

Carlton Turner, Director and Lead Artist of Sipp Culture.

Lyndsey Gilpin, the founder and editor-in-Chief of Southerly Magazine, agrees that storytelling is vital to moving forward at this time of transition.  

Lyndsey Gilpin, Founder and Editor of Southerly Magazine

“We have the power to tell stories that we want to tell and that we think are important,” she said. “And I think this year has really shown how critical those stories are. Like when you see local journalists, for instance, telling these stories of people and what they’ve lost during the pandemic and the people they’ve lost to the coronavirus, things that we just would never know without people on the ground kind of relaying this information and making sure that light is shed on the injustices that there are.”

Hope, these rural community leaders say, is essential. But hope alone is not enough.

“I always feel hope. I guess that’s the curse,” said Turner. “I think the people who have lost hope have already all left. So all that’s left is the hopeful, but hope is just a small part of it. I think we tend to put too much energy on hope and not enough on working and organizing and actually manifesting. And so I’m hopeful that more people will turn to manifesting the culture that they want to be a part of… I think that is different from hoping for change.”

Carol Blackmon, a senior consultant for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative and Mississippi coordinator for the Black Voters Matter Fund, knows firsthand how much work is required to make change. But that’s never stopped her.

Carol Blackmon, Senior Consultant for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative

“What I’ve learned is that change is possible,” she said. “Quite often, we can actually decide that we think that it’s not going to happen and then it won’t. But if we work toward change, I’ve realized that it can take place …Sometimes you think you are actually fighting a losing battle, but every day you see very small increments of success, and that makes a huge difference.”

Whitney Kimball Coe contributed reporting to this story.

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