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.
Chloe Maxmin is the youngest female state Senator in the history of Maine, where she represents District 13. Formerly, she was the first Democrat ever to represent the state’s House District 88. Originally from Nobleboro, Maine (pop. 1,791), Chloe attended Harvard College where she founded Divest Harvard, the successful campaign to end Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels.
Canyon Woodward, Chloe’s former classmate and campaign manager in 2018 and 2020, helped her build a “politics as unusual” approach to campaigning that included deep canvassing and DIY-everything, and ultimately resulted in two upset victories in rural Maine districts.
Enjoy our conversation about coming back to Country music, the restorative elements of capture the flag, and the promise of rural mutual aid networks, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: So the three of us share something kind of big in common, which is that we’re all rural transports to Harvard College. You guys graduated in 2015, and I’m still here. But I think one common experience among people like us is that your relationship to your hometown changes a lot throughout the course of college. I know mine certainly has. So that’s where I want to start: How did you guys come into college thinking about the place you grew up? You both have really continued to engage meaningfully with your hometowns and I’m wondering if that always seemed like the obvious option to you.
Chloe Maxmin: I think I definitely remember coming to Harvard and feeling kind of just really shocked and displaced, and not so much being a city, but that the culture just felt so different from home – really polarized and more surface. I felt like there were lots of different things that were going into assessing a person rather than just like, are they a good person, and it felt hard to get to that deeper level that I just kind of feel in my hometown. So moving through college, I always knew I wanted to go back home. And the part of the reason I went to Harvard is so I could go home on the long weekend and all breaks, and I went home whenever I could. I always knew I would go back after graduation. But I think when I moved home, what I wanted to work on was really different than what I what I left desiring, I really wanted to be able to bring the power and the inspiration of the social movements that changed my life back to my hometown, and see how they, they felt so inclusive to me at Harvard. But I knew that they weren’t inclusive of my rural hometown, I knew that the language and tactics wouldn’t really land. So I kept thinking about, you know, what would it look like to have a social movement in a rural town?
Canyon Woodward: For me, I think growing up as a liberal atheist and conservative Bible Belt part of Southern Appalachia, I felt somewhat disconnected from parts of the culture here in North Carolina, like I remember hating country music. Growing up, I felt like it represented the dominant culture that I didn’t feel a part of. And then I remember going to Harvard and not really thinking about the difference much as I was heading there, and then feeling it more and more as I went through college. I remember specifically like, getting on campus and, I don’t know, making eye contact and waving at strangers in the early days and people would think that was really weird. Slowly, I started to realize, “okay, it’s different here.” And I slowly began loving country music. I was like, wow, that reminds me of home. I never really imagined moving back here after college as a kid or high schooler. But more and more since finishing college, I’ve felt a really strong gravitational pull back to these places. And I think a lot of that is love for the mountains, and for this area and the pace of life and the feel of relationships and community. Where I grew up, and also at college, I noticed that, in retrospect, a lot of my best friends also came from rural places. I think it’s interesting that we gravitated towards each other in an institution that doesn’t have particularly strong rural representation.
DY: It’s funny you mentioned that about country music because the exact same arc happened to me. I wonder how universal that experience is, like, rediscovering The Chicks as a 19 year old.
CW: Yeah, hell yeah.
DY: Now let’s talk about the book a little bit. My two main emotions while I read the book were total overpowering inspiration and total overpowering exhaustion. Just reading about the hours of effort and constant conversation that you guys underwent, throughout both of your campaigns, I was like, holy cow, she must be the most extreme extrovert of all time. I was especially overwhelmed when I was reading the part about Chloe writing personalized postcards after spending the day talking to people. This isn’t to minimize how hard some of those moments must have been and how totally burned out you were at various points in the campaign. But I think there is something exceptional about energy and the circumstances that you guys had going into your campaigns, and one question that arose for me was just like, what would it take for you guys to be less exceptional? What would it take to make progressive organizing in rural places like what you guys accomplished less exceptional, and truly sustainable?
CW: I think we’re still figuring it out as we go. You know, are we burning ourselves out? Are we putting the right amount into it? Are we working hard enough? Are we not working hard enough? I remember getting a text from Chloe in like October saying “Are we working hard enough?” And we were working a crazy, crazy amount. But the first things that come to mind for me are then the importance of community and having fun with it. I guess that’s obviously taking for granted that you care a whole damn lot about what you’re doing. But taking that piece for granted, what makes it feel sustainable to me is, you know, having really strong bonds with the people that you’re doing the work with. Chloe and I draw a ton of energy and wherewithal from our friendship, but also the broader community around us, and the volunteers, especially in 2018 before the challenges of Covid. But in 2018 we had so much fun having friends up from Portland and in Boston and New York, as well as nearby. We’d spend all day canvassing and then coming back and playing capture the flag or wiffle ball or what have you. So I think, yeah, to me, building a community that sustains you and having fun together is the biggest thing.
CM: I think on some level, campaigns are just unsustainable, in general, no matter how you’re doing them or where you’re doing them. There’s just an inevitable intensity that comes along with it. Especially as you get closer to the election and more people are paying attention. It’s part of what makes campaign culture trend towards the toxic and often to staffers burning out. I think we definitely brought our best intentions towards making it sustainable and integrating self care into our campaigns, and creating time for ourselves to explore other parts of our identity. I think part of what ended up making it so unsustainable was Covid. Because, you know, we had all of these plans for our Senate campaign, and just the incredible amount of canvassing we’re going to do and maybe even biking canvases. Just so much that we were excited to experiment with. But we couldn’t do any of that. And so the onus really fell onto both of us in a way that we never anticipated, and definitely don’t recommend to anybody. But I think in general the experience is more collaborative. And I think that the emotional work of going and talking with folks every day, who are incredibly different from you, and may have really different opinions from you is kind of inevitable, in what we’re talking about. So I think the questions are, how do we take care of ourselves, when we’re campaigning and having hard conversations? How do we support each other in having those conversations? I don’t think we’ve cracked the code on that. But it’s better to know what you need to do than not know, I guess.
DY: On a higher level I’m wondering, what would you ask for from the Democratic Party to make this kind of “politics as unusual” more sustainable and more common?
CW: One of the reasons that we had to work so, so, so hard to flip these districts is because of the Democratic Party walking away from them, and you know, if the party would spend a fraction of what they spend on advertisements in major metropolitan markets, if they would spend a fraction of that on investing in staff to do organizing in rural places and and pay them a sustainable wage, that would make the lift so much lighter for for campaigns like ours.
CM: I think what Canyon said is right on. If we had had someone to help us design our own mailer content, or create our own videos, or do any of the things that we ended up having to do ourselves, it also would have made life a lot easier. The folks at the state level organizing all of the candidates there, they’re doing good work. I mean, there’s definitely not enough money and all the staffers there are burned out as well. And so it’s, it’s hard for them to be able to cater to all 35 state Senators, and it’s impossible to ask them to create 35 unique mailers for each of their campaigns. But I think we’re making more of a comment on how our campaigning infrastructure is really cookie cutter, really consultant driven, really outcome driven. Instead we should focus on the process and the need to connect with folks in an election year, because that would really reshape how we create this campaigning apparatus.
DY: Are there any political movements or organizations giving you hope in terms of this type of rural, deep canvassing?
CM: Yeah, we’re both huge fans of People’s Action. And they, you know, they’ve really done a lot of deep canvassing work, and deep canvassing pilot programs that demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategy. They also just have such an incredible on the ground presence in so many parts of the country that I find really inspiring. And there’s organizations that we know of like Run for Something, for example, that are really supporting so many different types of candidates across the country, and helping them get on the ballot. But you know, through this work, we’re learning about so many different folks organizing in rural America, and just all of the ways that we’re trying to keep those connections in that cultural life and really bring not only support to rural places, but also that engagement and that investment that we’re really lacking.
CW: I feel like you left out one cool organization called Dirt Road Organizing, an organization we just started to try and fill some of the massive gaps that exists in terms of rural organizing infrastructure. It’s still just a little fledgling baby, so we’ll see what comes of it.
DY: I’m wondering, also about the community events, and the community engagement that you guys were talking about that really helped with the emotional burden of campaigning – do you know if those spaces created during your campaigns have lived on in any meaningful way?
CM: Yeah, I mean, one thing that I find inspiring is that the mutual aid network that we created with our campaign during Covid is still alive, somewhat. Life is a little bit more normal now, but I definitely still have the local hospital calling me because someone needs a ride, or people reaching out because they still need the services that we’re lacking in rural America. We just kind of introduced another support system, which is pretty cool to see. Also, one of the folks who was driving for the network and one of the folks who needed help became really good friends. I get phone calls all the time about how the person who needed help to begin with is hiring the other guy, and they work together and talk together a lot. So that network has continued to thrive. And I know through my constituent hours that people are still really engaged in thinking about politics in a way that maybe they weren’t before because of our campaigns. Coming out of our 2018 campaign, there was a local group that emerged from that community effort to really try and revitalize one of the small towns in the district. They were the folks that we first turned to when we were piloting our Covid phone banking because we knew them and they had a community connection and so this is all still active.
DY: What’s next for you guys?
CW: We’re really encouraged by the initial responses that we’re getting to the book and to this message. As we stare down a midterm cycle that is likely going to be devastating if we don’t make some huge shifts, I think getting this message through to the top of the ticket campaigns and the Democratic leadership and to the donors that, unfortunately, influence the direction of a lot of Democratic Party work, reaching those folks feels really important to whether or not we can shift more resources and more focus into rebuilding rural politics. And then, like we mentioned, we’re starting up an organization called Dirt Road Organizing, which is a nonprofit with the goal of being able to support other folks doing community organizing in rural communities and train them in grassroots organizing skills to be able to carry a lot of this work forward.
CM: Canyon said that perfectly. We’re really excited to be having this conversation and it’s such an important one. We wanna keep really feeling the weight of sharing the stories that folks have felt comfortable to share with us and really doing them justice as we head out on this book tour experience.
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.