A progressive state legislator who won upset elections in rural Maine has left the statehouse to create a nonprofit to help other candidates win campaigns in rural areas.

Chloe Maxmin, who co-wrote the book Dirt Road Revival about her experience campaigning in rural Maine, has formed Dirtroad Organizing with her co-author and former campaign manager, Canyon Woodward.

Dirtroad Organizing is a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization whose website states that “the future of progressive power depends on investing deeply in rural organizing.” The group will focus on training organizers and candidates who support politics that is “rooted in community and values, not partisanship.”

Maxmin made a name for herself by becoming the first Democrat elected to Maine’s rural 88th House district and the youngest female state senator in Maine history. She centered her campaign around door-to-door canvassing, kindness, and talking to voters about their values, not just what policies they support. 

During the Dirtroad Organizing launch event, which occurred over Zoom, Maxmin and Woodward presented a roadmap that emphasized long-term support for rural organizers and candidates. 

I interviewed Maxmin and Woodward via email about their goals for Dirtroad Organizing and their views about the importance of relationship building in rural communities. Enjoy the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you observe in your previous organizing work that led you to create Dirtroad Organizing?

Canyon: There is deep hope and dormant energy in rural organizing. People are hungry for ways to come together and build power in their communities to effect positive change. The establishment has talked down to and ignored rural communities, and it has created an enormous divide in our country that did not exist 15 years ago when Chloe and I were growing up in our small towns. But as rural voters got the message that they’re not prioritized by the Left, a toxic narrative took hold that casts rural voters as “ignorant” and “voting against their own self-interest.” It’s a counterproductive, condescending story that only demonstrates how out of touch those folks are with rural communities. But it’s a story that took root nonetheless and resulted in many people writing off an enormous swath of our country in its entirety. 

Progressive leaders were largely nowhere to be seen in rural America throughout the past decade plus. We were not listening. We were not cultivating relationships of trust. We were not telling a story that spoke to the sharp pain of the struggling rural working class. And most importantly we were not building durable movements in rural communities to organize for a just and resilient future. So a huge void opened up. Into this newly uncontested battlefield rushed right-wing activist groups, inflammatory media personalities, and then the rise of toxic leaders and a lurch towards authoritarianism.

What we’ve found is super hopeful – that when we really invest in organizing, and going and creating meaningful relationships with folks across the political spectrum, we can find common ground and build power in places that have been written off.

Chloe: Oh gosh, so much! In my experience doing issue organizing, I fell in love with the power of social movements, what can happen when people come together in solidarity for change. I learned these skills organizing in college. But something in me always said: hmmm, I don’t think I can directly transplant that to my rural hometown. It wouldn’t go well. So, how could I translate it? I also did a lot of work on campaigns after college. I worked for incredible candidates and amazing teams. At the same time, I felt like the campaign world was very rote and transactional, focused on data and quantity rather than long-term organizing and quantity. So meshing those two gaps together, Canyon and I started in 2018 to think about an electoral rural movement!

What are your goals?

Canyon: To galvanize the next generation of rural leaders and build individual and collective capacity for rural organizing.

Chloe: Our main goals are to provide customized and in-depth support for rural organizers, staff, and candidates. We know that many local groups doing good work in rural spaces need extra support as they’re building up programs. And we know that staffers and candidates often seek long-term support, instead of a quick training on how to run. DO focuses on quality over quantity, intentionally working with partners for long-term change. 

Many of the attendees of your launch event were themselves local officeholders. What do you think stuck out to them about this program?

Canyon: Organizing and holding office in rural America can be isolating in the divisive times we’re navigating. We strive to be a home for people organizing and legislating in rural communities across the country.

Chloe: From our experience and what we’ve learned from our colleagues: being in office is really hard! It’s hard to run, it’s hard to serve, and it’s hard to rev up the machine again to run for re-election. Almost every elected official that I’ve met is burned out, desperately seeking support, especially in tricky districts that require tons of organizing and work, no matter the year. We want to be the support system that makes this work more sustainable for everyone involved. 

On a related note, why do you think it’s important to focus on organizing around local offices?

Canyon: So many of the issues we care about, from reproductive justice to racial justice to trans rights to climate to public education to voter rights, are being decided at the state and local levels. We need strong leaders and well-trained organizers to fight for our communities. 

Chloe: So much of the money and resources during a campaign cycle goes towards statewide and federal races. That forces the campaign calculus to focus on turnout–and, by default, more populated areas. The rural races, the trickier races–and those brave candidates and staff on those teams–are somewhat left behind. Organizing around state and local offices is one way to ensure a focus on local, deep, sustainable organizing. 

What are the differences in strategy between urban and rural organizing? 

Canyon: What much of the establishment doesn’t understand is that rural life is rooted in shared values of independence, common sense, tradition, frugality, community and hard work. Too much traditional messaging revolves around white papers and wonky policy. In our experience, politicians lose rural people when they regurgitate politically triangulated lines and talk about the vagaries of policy. Rural folks gravitate towards what rings true and personal to them: Can this person be trusted? Is she authentic?

We need to remember that despite the narratives that we take in on a daily basis from our media and from prominent figures, we have a lot more in common than we might think. We are fundamentally humans living in the same community who want a lot of the same things for ourselves and for the people that we care about.

We need to be asking questions, listening and sharing our stories. But we also need to be willing to be moved by other people’s stories. When you begin doing that, you’re going to create the possibility of building relationships of trust where before there was a huge divide opening up. Progressive ideas that may feel like non-starters in rural areas can actually find a really warm reception when cross-partisan relationships are cultivated, where both sides feel heard and have some amount of respect for each other.

It is all about strong people-powered movements. Things move at the speed of relationship in rural America. An essential part of the culture of living and organizing in rural America is slowing down and building relationships. It is the touchstone on which our future—and all hope of transforming how we relate to politics and one another—depends. To show up, look someone in the eye, and shake their hand is to plant the seeds of possibility and connection. It’s also what is lacking in today’s politics. A person told us one day, “I don’t identify with either party. I vote for the person. I vote for whoever has the firmest handshake.” And that’s what our approach is all about – going out and bringing things to peoples’ doorsteps and connecting face-to-face in an authentic way.

Chloe: That’s a big question! There is a lot. And I just want to say that we need both types of organizing. One is not at the expense of the other. They need to work together to pursue a just and equitable democracy. Also, not all rural areas are the same, so what I’m about to write are generalizations. Rural areas are just more spread out, which means it takes more time and resources to organize. The culture is different too–from how people gather to the language that people use. More often than not, rural communities are more conservative, and so the tools, language, and strategies for organizing just look different than in a liberal urban space. 

Have you noticed any changes in rural Maine’s political landscape since you got elected?

Chloe: Yes! I’m very proud of the legislation that I passed and the legacy that it left. Maine has the strongest Good Samaritan law in the country because of one of my bill’s from 2022. This means that citizens can call 911 at the scene of an overdose without fear of criminal prosecution, and this law literally saves lives since Maine (like many states) experiences a deadly drug epidemic. This law got passed because of the incredible work of Courtney Allen and the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, talented grassroots organizers that brought their stories and movement power to bear on the Maine legislature. Many Democrats voted against us, but we won because of bipartisan support. When the Governor wanted to veto the bill, we wielded movement power and the voices of the recovery community to negotiate a powerful agreement.  

What would it take for Dirtroad Organizing to succeed on a national scale?

Canyon: We’ve been organizing successfully for years in rural areas that so many people told us were a lost cause. To us, the huge wins we achieved were proof that the dogmas that have long governed American politics could and should be challenged. The success of Dirtroad Organizing is in the people and communities that we touch. It’s going to take a deep concerted effort to turn the tide against years and years of neglecting rural organizing. Our success is based in providing long term support to build individual and collective capacity for rural organizing.

Chloe: Right now, DO is receiving inquiries for support from all across the country. Our challenge will be scaling in an intentional and equitable way to be able to support all the incredible folks doing the hard and good work on the ground. 

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