The the roundtable discussion hosted by the Rural Women's Collective will take place on March 23. (Photo submitted)

When the pandemic hit the meatpacking plants of rural Worthington, Minnesota, Andrea Duarte-Alonso knew she was in a unique position to shed light on the experiences of factory workers. Thanks to a remote storytelling fellowship for rural women, she was able to do just that.

The types of factories where Duarte-Alonso’s family members had been working for decades were superspreaders in the earliest months of the pandemic, and national attention has not ceased in the year following those first outbreaks. 

Duarte-Alonso had an intimate understanding of how a disease like Covid-19 could spread through a meatpacking plant. The summer after she graduated high school, she had worked as a human resources assistant at a local processing plant, where she witnessed for the first time her father’s role as a supervisor, as well as the extreme conditions throughout the factory. 

In February of 2021, Duarte-Alonso was able to publish an essay through Justice for Migrant Women’s Rural Women’s Collective Fellowship. She wrote a personal account of the toll meatpacking conditions have taken on her loved ones, which was published in outlets like Prism and the Daily Yonder

The Rural Women’s Collective Fellowship is a crash course in communications and storytelling for rural women of color. “What we’re trying to do is to transform that cultural narrative and to be able to create policy changes by elevating the diversity of perspectives from women who are leading rural communities,” said Norma Flores López, chief programs officer at Justice for Migrant Women.

To that end, the fellowship provides a stipend and workshops on pitching stories, public speaking, and digital organizing. “We’re trying to provide fellows with a deep and wide education in strategic storytelling and change focused communication,” said López.

The fellowship aims to bring the diversity of rural America to the fore. 

There’s a harmful perception of rural America as a white monolith, said López. “What we notice is politicians will try to … apply these blanket solutions that don’t fix a lot of complex issues, because the reality is that rural America is actually comprised of individuals from many diverse backgrounds.”

According to López, one solution is to elevate the voices of those individuals from within the community. “A big part of our work is about ‘passing the mic.’” 

For Duarte-Alonso, the opportunity to write about her family, and to tell her mother’s story in particular, was an empowering one. But it never could have happened had the pandemic not caused the proliferation of remote programming. 

Duarte-Alonso has benefited from remote work since she became a Hometown Fellow at Lead for America in 2019. Remote programming has allowed her to reside in her hometown of Worthington after college. 

“I just really want to emphasize the fact that programs that aren’t remote are often inaccessible to rural folks,” she said. 

The Rural Women’s Collective Fellowship will host a roundtable discussion to be shared on the Justice for Migrant Women Facebook page on March 23 at 3 p.m. ET.

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