Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an 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.
In March, I got word that Benevolence Farm, a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated women I covered for the Yonder last year, had been named a national Innovation Site by the Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC). The farm, which provides transitional employment and housing alongside wraparound social services for women in the North Carolina criminal justice system, will work with the RJC to increase the replicability of their project through educational materials and visits with other leaders in the rural justice space. The RJC is working with 19 other innovators this year, including a domestic violence advocacy group in Puerto Rico and a Montana project to incentivize and prepare young attorneys to practice in rural areas.
Enjoy my conversation with Tara Kunkel – of Rulo Strategies and the RJC – about what innovation in rural justice systems can look like, and the conflicts inherent in working within the criminal justice system.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: First of all, I’d love it if you told me a bit about yourself, your company Rulo Strategies, and how you got involved with the Rural Justice Collaborative.
Tara Kunkel: My interest in supporting rural communities stems from my time as a Senior Policy Advisor in a federal grant-making agency. I saw over and over that rural communities struggled to access federal grants. They often did not have the staffing capacity to apply for, and successfully administer grants. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make grant funding more accessible to these communities and how to connect rural justice stakeholders with other rural justice stakeholders to discuss common issues and shared solutions.
When I left the federal government and started my own company, this issue was very much on my mind. I was fortunate to partner with the National Center for State Courts for a series of listening sessions with rural judges. During those conversations, judges identified several issues unique to rural settings and from there, the National Center for State Courts applied for funding to the State Justice Institute to continue to explore the issues.
DY: Why is it important to focus on rural justice?
TK: One in five Americans live in rural America and relate more to the realities of living and working in a rural community than they do the issues of large metropolitan areas. For those people, it’s far more relevant to talk about what justice looks like in their community. This means talking about what opportunities there are to access mental health treatment or victim services where they live and the challenges they may face around the availability of those services. It means talking about long commutes to the courthouse and all the other things that people who live in a rural community inherently understand. It also means talking about the unique strengths of rural communities – there are fewer layers, less bureaucratic decision-making processes, and a tighter-knit community with more shared values. The ways things get developed in a rural community can be different than the ways initiatives are launched in urban settings and we spend a lot of time talking about this.
DY: In choosing Innovation Sites this year, what were the most important criteria the Council looked at? What is most exciting to you in a rural justice initiative?
TK: We have looked for easy-to-replicate solutions to common issues justice practitioners face. We also look for programs that were developed in rural communities for rural communities. That may mean a program that emphasizes pooling resources or collaborating, it may mean a program that transcends barriers often associated with access to services, or a program that builds upon an available resource, such as farms, to address justice-related needs. We also see, over and over, a focus on partnership in the sites we select.
It is exciting to discover these programs and then elevate awareness about the sites so that other rural communities don’t have to feel like they are alone or that nothing works. These aren’t sites that brag about themselves or issue press releases when they innovate so we have to work hard to find them and raise awareness about their work. We continue to invest the time in this area because we want the RJC to be a place where rural justice practitioners can turn for easy-to-access solutions that can be implemented in other rural communities.
DY: Can you highlight one of the projects the RJC is working with this year?
TK: The RJC is collaborating with several partners to convene an amazing group of approximately 30 rural justice practitioners from all walks of life – judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, public health, behavioral health, and representatives from the faith community – at the end of April. This group will help inform the development of a roadmap for how federal funders and stakeholders can help address the funding, training, technical assistance, and research needs of rural justice practitioners.
Among the Innovation Sites is Benevolence Farm, located in rural North Carolina. It is not uncommon that people end up back in the [criminal justice] system due to limited resources after leaving incarceration. Benevolence Farm offers housing, employment, and assistance with basic needs to facilitate community reintegration for women impacted by the criminal justice system. It is rare to find all of those elements in one place, yet so incredibly beneficial. The farm has proven to be an excellent stepping stone for women to rejoin society after incarceration. The women learn life and job skills while they are immersed in the restorative power of nature. Benevolence Farm serves as a great example of what other rural areas can do to improve outcomes and reduce recidivism rates.
DY: How do you deal with the tensions inherent in fostering collaboration between restorative, innovative local projects and a retributive, bureaucratic carceral system? Is there a typical way most of those conflicts present?
TK: We were recently interviewing a rural prosecutor who said something that is relevant to this question. She said that in her rural community the people she is prosecuting are often her neighbors or the sons and daughters of people she sees frequently at the grocery store or in her daily travels. There is little to no distance between her and the people she is prosecuting in her small town. Because this is her reality, she doesn’t approach her job as a prosecutor arguing to the court, “we have to put this bad person in jail.” That approach or that thinking doesn’t work for her or her community because the people she is charged with prosecuting will continue to be members of her small community long after the case is over.
When you think about things through that lens, it leads to a very different conversation that is less about retribution and more about restoring the individual and the community and keeping people safe. I don’t think she is alone as a rural practitioner in being more connected to the people before her in the courtroom and thinking about ways to create more opportunities to treat and address underlying issues within the community where she lives and works. I don’t think the conflict outlined in the question is the way that many rural practitioners would frame the issues that play out within their community.
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.