If you were to only rely on national news outlets, you might think that in communities across rural and small-town America, there is an on-going war between two political factions composed of right-wing conservatives and social justice activists. The truth is much more complex.
It’s true, there are real disagreements on the role of government and civil liberties in our communities, many of which are deeply embedded in a history of institutional racism, especially for our Native community members. But it’s also false because as organizers committed to building power, we see firsthand – every day – that it’s not just possible to bring people together across the political spectrum to address both community problems and the biggest challenges of today, it’s already happening.
Equally true: the trillions of dollars of federal funding coming to rural and small-town communities is an extraordinary opportunity to bring even more people together – people who do not generally find themselves aligned — to win concrete, immediate improvements in their communities.
This opportunity was powerfully articulated at the Small Town Summit, a gathering of more than 250 rural community organizers that occurred earlier this summer in Missoula, Montana. As a co-convener and a participant at the summit, we stood alongside community, Native, youth, and labor leaders and identified the successful implementation of federally funded programs embedded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Iaw (BIL), Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and CHIPS Act (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) as once-in-a-generation opportunities to build nonpartisan community power, win life-changing programs and policies, and demonstrate that democracy and good government can not only solve small-scale problems but can also address crises as existential as climate change.
But we also raised an alarm: This monumental opportunity will undoubtedly be lost without a robust infusion of more skilled organizers, a stronger organizing infrastructure that fosters the sharing of innovative tactics unique to rural settings and small towns, and deep grassroots relationships that develop and sustain leaders from the ground up.
Just imagine what we could win with an infusion of human and infrastructural capacity that’s at the scale needed to meet this extraordinary moment.
To make this case, it’s important to lift up the exciting work that’s already happening in rural and small-town communities across the regions where we work — the Upper Mid- and Mountain West.
Like in rural Michigan, where organizers campaigned for and won federal funding dedicated for broadband to support an existing but unfunded — and much needed — statewide High-Speed Internet Office.
Like in Alaska, where organizers also working on the equitable implementation of broadband funding in BIL and IRA defeated a potentially devastating policy that would have eliminated a telephone subsidy, causing bills to triple and ultimately destroy telephone and broadband infrastructure in rural and Native communities.
At United Today, Stronger Tomorrow (UTST), and Western Colorado Alliance (WCA), we’ve also had statewide and community-level success leveraging the organizing opportunities in these federal funds. By integrating innovative digital tools and strategies and strong community organizing focused on local leaders, we were able to win American Rescue Plan funding for community needs in Grand Junction, Colorado, and for a statewide Office of Just Transition.
For us, born and raised on the coasts but transplanted to this region either personally, professionally, or both, the opportunity presented by BIL, IRA, and CHIPS has been a long time coming.
In the coming months, the work of United Today, Stronger Tomorrow will grow to include building a strategic campaign and organizing hub focused on the Upper-Mid and Mountain West. The Western Colorado Alliance will look to the next 40 years, building a future where engaged local voices are leading communities across Western Colorado that are healthy, just, and self-reliant. Led by members and leaders on the ground, we — along with organizers and partners across the regions – will identify opportunities within the influx of federal funds to guarantee that the goals of BIL, IRA, and CHIPS are realized equitably and justly in rural communities and small towns.
But we must heed the alarm raised at the Small Town Summit. To meet this moment, we need to build a deep bench of organizers and strengthen and expand the organizing infrastructure from town halls to state houses. We need policy experts, grant writers, door-knockers, and decision-makers, and so many more who understand the complexity of the funds and the opportunities they bring with them.
We also need to invest in slow, relational, and deep organizing work with our Native neighbors, especially if we want to develop a real partnership that delivers wins and supports their efforts to bring prosperity and end racial discrimination in tribal nations. We need to provide the space for structured conversations between labor union leaders and members whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels and the community leaders and young people desperate to address climate change. We need to forge a path together to transition to a new clean energy future and invest in workers and communities impacted by it. That path is paved with opportunities embedded in BIL, IRA, and CHIPS.
As we write this, celebrations of the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act are happening across the country. We join them in acknowledging the historic opportunity that it provides. But we also recognize that opportunities that are wasted and promises that aren’t realized can disenchant Americans, especially those living in frequently overlooked rural and small-town communities.
Rather than make a wish and blow out the candles, we’re going to continue the work that was started at the Small Town Summit and fight for and win the goals of these federal funds: equitable implementation that improves lives today and tomorrow and restores faith in good government and democracy.
Jeriel Clark is the organizing director of the Western Colorado Alliance. Paul Getsos is the project director of United Today, Stronger Tomorrow.