Perfect or damaged beyond repair? Those are the two ways media talk about rural America. Young leaders explore ways to get beyond the same old frames to talk about rural issues in ways that can change policy. (Photo of Ada Smith of Kentucky (right) and Rebecca Haider of Minnesota by Shawn Poynter.)


When rural communities show up in the news, they often get depicted in one of two ways: pure, beautiful, and perfect, or hopelessly mired in poverty and despair.

Neither view is very helpful when it comes to motivating people to understand and get involved in rural policy, according to information presented in a young leaders workshop on the first day of the National Rural Assembly in Washington, D.C.

If it’s perfect, all public policy can do is mess it up, said presenter Jane Feinberg. If it’s hopeless, well, why bother to try to change it?

About 25 young adults from across rural America learned approaches for reframing the stories that define rural America. The goal of the daylong workshop was to help them talk about their communities and work in ways that have a greater chance of affecting public policy.

The National Rural Assembly, which continues with events through September 10, seeks to bring together diverse leaders and organizations working on a wide range of issues, according to organizers. (Disclosure: The Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.) Young people in the communications training workshop included artists, economic and environmental policy groups advocates, data researchers, public health advocates, and entrepreneurs.

The young adults came from all over the national rural landscape: Southwest Indian Country, Alaska Native lands, the Mississipp Delta, New England, Appalachia, the Midwest, and beyond.

No matter where they are located, the participants said their communities frequently get pigeon-holed in the metro-based media coverage that influences public policy.

Young people identified the challenges they face when trying to present their issues to policy makers.

Eric Dixon, who lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky, said discussions of poverty frequently aren’t helpful in creating solutions.

“It’s important to remember that poverty in rural places was not inevitable, that it was created by a set of policy decisions, ” said Dixon, a policy coordinator for the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center. “Policy makers don’t understand that it’s systemic, that it’s not people just as individuals who are facing these issues.”

Young leaders identified other challenges in effectively communicating with policy makers, from the lack of accurate and accessible rural data to the difficulty accessing elected officials.

Rebecca Haider, who manages data research and outreach for the Center for Small Towns at University of Minnesota in Morris, said survey data for small towns is often inadequate. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, for example, can be misleading or inaccurate because it does not sample enough residents to be statistically valid for many uses, she said.

By the end of the day, workshop participants were turning stories upside down. One group pitched a story that changed the approach of an infamous New York Times Magazine article about rural poverty, “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky.

Claire Boyd, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, said the region wasn’t an economic dead-end, as portrayed in Lowery’s article. She said there’s a surge in youth led businesses, like Roundabout Music Company, a worker owned cooperative in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

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