Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
I first wrote about Anderson Clayton in March, after she worked with RuralOrganizing.org to survey 70 rural progressive organizers in 31 states on their takeaways from the 2020 election. One of the key lessons of that report was this: if Democrats want to stage a comeback in rural places, they can’t just show up around election time.
Anderson herself is committed to year-round, county-level Democratic politics, and reintroducing her neighbors to a party that “meets people where they’re at.” Beyond politics, the 23-year-old homecomer is also pushing to unlock the potential of rural places by working on broadband issues as an analyst at the Center on Rural Innovation.
Enjoy our conversation about coming home, combating disinformation, and Flat River Church Road, below.
Olivia Weeks, Daily Yonder: You’re currently Chair of the Person County Democratic Party in Roxboro, North Carolina, your hometown. You left home for college but returned pretty shortly afterward to get engaged in local politics. Can you describe the way your mindset shifted after years of hearing that common adage that “the best thing you can do is leave,” as a young person?
Anderson Clayton: Well, that’s THE question, isn’t it? And one I’m still trying to figure out a succinct way to answer, because honestly, it’s a culmination of many different events and people I met along the way. Being from a small town, the only dream I had in my life was to get out of one. If you had asked high school me if she could see herself coming back to Person County to live, I would’ve said no, because I was constantly told growing up here that if I wanted to do everything that I did, I had to leave Roxboro. But after graduating from Appalachian State University in 2019, I found myself in the middle of cornfields in rural Iowa working for Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign during the summer of the Iowa Caucus. I was dropped into this tiny town called Belle Plaine in Benton County. Belle Plaine means beautiful plain in French, and it’s true, it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen – with cornfields for miles and miles on either side.
My job was to essentially talk to caucus-goers about who I was working for and convince them to give her their support. The first two people I met on the ground there were Ruby Bodeker and Soren Peterson. Ruby is journalist by trade and a mom of four by sheer might, and Soren is an international education aficionado with a million other skills. These two, along with the rest of the Benton County Democrats showed me what it truly meant to be a rural Democrat: resilient, rugged, and revered in a community. They were fighters – who believed in people not partisanship or politics. They believed in having intentional conversations with folks that didn’t agree with them, because they knew it was about building a coalition of rural people to show that we live in these communities too. And honestly, I had never seen anything like it. Growing up in Person County, no one ever said they were a Democrat out loud, and I knew if there were people like this in rural Iowa, there were people like this in rural North Carolina. I leaned into the Iowa experience, and realized that the way to make changes in places like where I grew up was to go home and actually organize there. Rural Iowans felt forgotten, and I was the first organizer they met who believed deeply in the possibilities of their communities.
So, when I left Iowa, I decided then and there: I wanted to go home again. I didn’t know when or how, but just that I would. And I would organize in order to make Person County a place that young people with bright ideas don’t feel forced to leave, but instead want to come back home to.
DY: I wanna hear about your time in big political campaigns. You’ve mentioned becoming disillusioned at the state of rural Democratic organizing, in particular during your time working for Amy McGrath’s campaign for Senate in Kentucky. Can you lay out your gripes?
When I left Kentucky in November, I knew I needed a break from national campaigns. We hadn’t organized rural communities in 2020. And while folks can rightfully say the pandemic had a lot to do with that, we weren’t exactly organizing in them before that either — at least not to the extent we needed to be. Right now, rural America is facing the spread of disinformation that is killing our communities. Democrats are afraid to even say they are a Democrat for fear of putting a target on their back. So, my issue is that when the Democratic Party abandoned rural America, they gave way to Republican fear mongering controlling our communities. County parties are supposed to be the grassroots, or the “local voice” of the Democratic Party. Yet in rural communities, Democratic county parties are struggling or non-existent, and have been since the national party diverted its attention from focusing efforts on organizing in rural America. And if county parties are the roots, why are we the last to truly feel that investment? Why does it seem like national donors and campaign consultants are the only ones heard by our party sometimes?
I feel lucky to be Chair of the Person County Democratic Party for many reasons, but one of the most important ones to me is I get to show my community the Democratic Party that I believe in – one that celebrates rural people, and all that the small town has to offer. But I also get to show the national party what a rural Democratic Party is all about. A party that shows up everywhere, meets people where they are (on their front porch), and cares deeply about the community they call home. This fight isn’t about winning or losing to me, it’s about saving the place where I grew up. And that is going to be a long battle, but one that’s worth fighting each and every day. I don’t have to win rural communities for me to feel we’re making progress in them. But we do have to start speaking up and holding our local government accountable to the people who live there.
DY: You also surveyed lots of rural organizers nationwide after the 2020 Presidential election with RuralOrganizing.org. What was that experience like and what were your more solutions-oriented takeaways from that process?
AC: This was by far one of the coolest projects I’ve had the chance to work on. It is vital we collect data on what happened during an election, especially one with such magnitude as 2020. Too often, organizers, who are constantly engaging the grassroots, are let go afterwards and that information goes with them. I’m so grateful to those folks, the ones who showed me how passionate they were about organizing and making change in their own backyards. These are the folks who inspired me, taught me, and helped me really and truly find my way back home.
Campaigns should care about what organizers have to say. Here were some major solutions-oriented takeaways:
- Organizer goals should differentiate according to turf type. There is a difference between working in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Yet, personally, every campaign I’ve worked on has expected rural organizers to pull the same weight as their urban/suburban counterparts. It’s not feasible. And we have to stop treating it like it is. I talked to organizers who were constantly doubting themselves and their abilities because they couldn’t compete with the goals of the campaign. I’ve had bosses that have understood this, and some that didn’t. But if you’re a field director who has never worked in a rural area, talk to someone who has before you set those goals. The mental health of your rural organizers depends on doing that research.
- Messaging. I can’t say it enough, when candidates don’t have a rural platform but have a rural part to their district, how can they expect those voters to think a candidate really sees them? “Republicans celebrate rural voters whereas Democrats ignore them.” A robust rural platform is essential to winning rural voters, and it needs to be more than overviews and blanket statements. Be specific, make a plan, and train your organizers to talk about said plan.
- In March of 2020, no one knew what campaigns would turn into. In rural communities, Covid-19 made it hard or impossible to show up there. But showing up in rural communities is the only way to effectively win them. We couldn’t gain trust and talk people out of the disinformation they were hearing.
- Hiring local talent matters. Investing in training local people matters. What I would love to see the Democratic Party do in rural areas is run an outreach and organizing training program. Young, rural people exist. Start with high schools and teachers, get the word out about a fellowship opportunity to learn how to organize on behalf of Democrats. Natural organizers exist in rural communities. They just didn’t grow up with the civic infrastructure to understand how to get involved with a political campaign or that organizing is even a job.
- Uplift, organize, and train county parties. An effective county party is what I believe to be the place to start in rural communities.
- Rural policy issues that were named as most important to rural voters: job creation, access to hospitals and affordable care, broadband connection, anti-corruption, economic stimulus, racial equity, education quality, easy pathways to citizenship, small business assistance, etc.
DY: What gives you hope, in spite of keeping a clear-eyed account of the disadvantages of rural areas?
AC: I started a new job this month as a Broadband Analyst for the Center on Rural Innovation, an organization dedicated to developing and bridging the digital divide in rural America. And I wanted to work here because everyone that did spoke of rural America as an opportunity. Every day, I get to work with folks who are there to ensure people see that rural America is ripe with potential and opportunity, and actually is the future of this country in so many diverse ways. I believe that deeply.
DY: Lastly, where do you find joy at home?
AC: I tell folks all the time, I do this work because of people – and that is exactly what politics should be about. I love going out to someone’s house, sitting down on their front porch, and asking them to tell me everything about themselves. I believe in the people of Person County. And that’s also where I find my joy. My volunteers and the folks who have been fighting this battle much longer than me. So, this is my shoutout to: Tammie, Howard, Tawana, Mary Helen, Mary Ellen, Julie, Vonda, Marg, Marti, Vicki, Wayne, David, Jim, and so many other dirt-road Democrats who are coming out of the shadows to make our voices heard.
My mom once told me, “Home is a place to rest your wings,” and I’ve always felt that on Flat River Church Road in Person County. No matter where I’ve been in the world, there is nothing like coming home.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.