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.
Gigi Georges’ book Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America follows Vivian, Willow, McKenna, Audrey and Josie as they enter adulthood in Washington County, Maine, the easternmost county in the U.S..
A Brooklyn native, Georges takes up the worthwhile, familiar work of complicating the dominant stereotypes of rural Downeast Maine. She gives a full account of the economy and politics of the region pre- and mid-pandemic, of the ongoing addiction crisis, and the pressures on public schools in persistent-poverty counties. But it’s Georges’ choice of subjects, and her faithfulness to those subjects’ own words, that truly set the book apart.
Enjoy our conversation about rural female mentorship, trade school, and the false binary of staying vs. settling, below.
Olivia Weeks, Daily Yonder: I would love it if you could lay out your connection to Downeast Maine, and then the logic in particular behind your decision to focus on the young women of rural Washington County.
Gigi Georges: So I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by this big Greek immigrant family. As an adult, I lived and worked in urban places until about 10 years ago, when my husband and I made the decision to move to northern New England. And as we began to raise our daughter here, I started to look around and think more about rural issues. I had always worked largely in urban education policy, and I wanted to know more about what was going on in this rural area where we were living. I was also realizing that the dominant downbeat narrative about rural America as a place of hopelessness and despair was not reflective of what I was seeing. To me, it wasn’t telling the whole story. So I reached out to a friend, a good friend of ours, who was the then president of the Maine Seacoast Mission, which is a significant nonprofit in Maine that works with young people and families in Downeast Washington County. We were in Bar Harbor, where the Mission was located, and he said to me, “You don’t need to go far to see what you’re looking for. Just go up the road about an hour away from Bar Harbor, and you’ll find something surprising.” He introduced me to the school superintendent and principal up there, and they in turn allowed me to sit down with a bunch of the students at the local high school. When I sat down with them, I was really taken with their stories and their love of the place they live in, with their bond to their natural surroundings. I thought there was something more to look at, and I decided to dig deeper. So that was the first piece.
The girls are the second piece. I sat down with dozens of students sort of informally and we talked about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and their many obstacles—it’s a very challenged and remote place. I saw that there was something going on with the girls that was special, that they were excelling and in many cases, surpassing the boys in every respect: in academics, athletics, extracurriculars, leadership, inside the school, and even within the community. And I thought that there was something really important there to dig deeper into. The other thing I realized in speaking with the girls and thinking about this was that, as I looked at the other rural literature, particularly contemporary works, in very few cases do we hear the voices of contemporary young women. And that struck me as another incredibly important reason to tell this story of Downeast Washington County, from the perspective of young women today.
DY: I was interested in the section of the book that you just discussed where you’re talking about how girls are surpassing boys in so many official school or community related realms, despite a really macho culture in Downeast Maine. I think there are two sides of that coin and one is that we need to celebrate the really strong and ambitious girls who are forming that trend. You ask the question in the book, “What forces are pushing [girls] to thrive and succeed?” But I think we also need to ask the second part of that question, which is, why aren’t those forces pushing boys in the same way? I grew up in a place where this trend felt present, and I always kind of felt like it was no fun to win competitions the boys refused to compete in.
GG: Despite a culture that, from the outside, does seem to be quite male dominated I think there were a few things going on. I do think there is a legacy of what I would call fierceness, in the best sense of the word, in rural women. There is a generational strength that’s passed on, that may in fact have to do with the strength that comes out of being in a more remote place: being closer to the land, girls and boys working, from a very young age, side by side in in jobs like fishing and blueberry farming and other endeavors that are tied to the land and sea. That obviously is only a small piece of the story because boys are put in that situation as well. I think that the mentorship that I write about in the school, for example by the basketball coach, Olivia Marshall, who is a trailblazer as a lobster fisherman who was captaining her own boat at a time when virtually no women were doing so, plays a significant role as well.
But the question of why the boys are not keeping up is such a central question. Over the course of four years reporting this book, I spoke with literally hundreds of people within and around and connected to these communities. I asked almost all of them that very question of why the boys are not keeping up, or why the girls seem to be surpassing the boys. And I’ll tell you, no one really had a great answer. I think the principal of the high school perhaps came the closest when she talked about the way in which, in trying to lift our girls up in this generation, perhaps, the boys are interpreting that as being somehow pushed down. I don’t know the extent to which that actually plays a role, but I do believe there is something there that’s worthy of further inquiry.
DY: I mean, it seems like the course feminism is on is full of those sort of pendulum swings, or overcompensations. That’s a metaphor used a lot in talking about reportage of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, and such. I don’t know if it’s correct, either, but it’s an interesting way to think about it.
GG: It is. But I also saw another tendency I found interesting. I think, for example, about the young woman McKenna in the book who is the lobster fishing, softball pitching phenom. She is very strong, and she’s right there with the boys in every respect. From the time she can walk she’s begging her dad to fish, and she captains her own lobster boat by the time she’s 17. McKenna is this young woman who loves the boys. She loves competing against them, she loves hanging out with them, she is connected to them. Yes there is competition, and in some ways she seems to be surpassing the boys. But there is also a camaraderie around it. And I thought that was also a really interesting part of the story, because there was an acceptance of her. I talked to boys who know her well and they don’t view it as anything other than “Sure, McKenna’s good.”
DY: It’s definitely more hopeful to think that we’ve outgrown the girls versus boys framework. Another thing that I really enjoyed about the book was the forgiving tone that was taken as the girls went into college, and many of them transferred once or twice, and really took some time to figure out where their place was. For many of them, that was closer to home than they had anticipated upon leaving high school. In rural places, that can be one of the most shameful things you can do, to go away to college and come back. And that really was not the attitude taken by the book in that section. I wonder if you could reflect on that a little bit.
GG: Yeah absolutely and this is one of the really big takeaways for me. Folks are not only forgiving but they are welcoming of a decision by young people to stay and build. That is not to say that for those who make a decision to leave, it’s not the right decision. But it’s important to recognize and honor the choices of young women and men who leave and make a decision to come back, or who have a choice and decide to stay. And that bodes well for the future of these towns because there are so many young people who feel that way. I have in my head this image constantly of this poster in the high school that’s placed prominently as you walk into the central hallway that says, “Staying isn’t Settling.” Underneath, they have the photos of young people who have made the decision to either stay or return and build a life and a career in Downeast Washington County. It celebrates that, and it sends a signal to the young people who want to stay, that it’s not only okay but it’s welcome. We see that in a couple of the stories of the young women who make the decision to come home. Particularly Audrey, who gets that coveted scholarship to Bates. She’s on the basketball team there and she’s doing well in her first year academically, and still, that’s not what she wants in her heart. She knows she wants to go back. She wants to be a speech pathologist, which there is a real need for in her home community. And she makes a decision that may seem unlikely to outsiders, but for her is the most natural decision in the world. It made sense for her and for her community. And she’s thriving.
DY: Yeah and it seems like the people around her granted her some trust that she actually knew what she wanted.
GG: They did and you’re so right to pick up on that because one might imagine that the folks closest to her would really discourage her. I think that’s right that the encouragement of those around her made a real difference.
DY: I know that you’ve worked in urban education policy in the past, but you stay pretty far from policy recommendations in the book. I wonder if you coupled any of your more personal reporting with forays into education policy solutions for places like Downeast Maine and if you have any takeaways about that that didn’t make it in.
GG: Sure, so two things. One is I deliberately stayed away from making policy recommendations because I thought it was important to let the voices of the young women speak more for themselves. I didn’t feel that it was my role to dictate or pretend that I knew better, because I think a lot of this has to do with what the community believes it needs and wants from the ground up. That sense of autonomy, about how to make things better, is a critical piece of it. Having said that, if I were pressed, I would say a couple of things that I think are important for the future of places like Downeast Washington County. One I write about, which is the pursuit of career and technical education as one avenue of opportunity for young people. I watched as the high school gym overflowed with parents and community members at meetings about the siting of a Vocational Education Center in Downeast Washington County. Those folks were clamoring for that option. There are many many jobs and opportunities in rural places where the best match is a career technical education pathway. And I strongly believe that policymakers would do well to be supportive of those, especially where communities are begging for them. So that’s one thing I feel strongly about. I also saw the work of tremendous nonprofits, small nonprofits that do tremendous work that have been built from the ground up by community members, and by folks who intimately know the region in which these nonprofits work. And I think encouragement and support, financial and otherwise is another piece that’s really important because those are the folks who people trust in towns like the towns I wrote about. And they just need encouragement, skills building technical help, and seed money to help them get on their way, as opposed to having larger entities come in from the outside. The only other thing I would say is that, without even pointing to specific policy prescriptions, I do also strongly believe that engaging in this thread of discussion, which points to the strength of rural communities and that encourages young people who want to to stay and build, is incredibly important in the broader narrative, and would allow for more specific policy ideas to come out in a context that’s welcoming to those pursuits.
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.