The Rural Reconciliation Project out of the University of Nebraska College of Law is less than a year old, but it’s bringing together scholars from different backgrounds to study rural America.
The project seeks to answer questions about the structural forces and collective choices that are affecting the sustainability and viability of rural communities going forward, said Jessica Shoemaker, professor of Law at the University of Nebraska and co-director of the project.
“There’s a lot of work happening in different disciplines at different research institutions around the country and internationally,” she said.
“But that tends to be kind of siloed within that discipline. And so, part of what we’re also trying to do is kind of make the table bigger, and bring more people around and kind of build a common language across disciplines. Because sociology, anthropology, law, economics, agronomy, agriculture, natural resources – all of these different disciplines have so much to add to this conversation.”
But part of that conversation may be a tough one for some people.
Anthony Schutz, associate dean for faculty and associate professor of law and the other co-director of the project, said there are questions about why such small communities were created and why some still exist today.
“For example, a lot of those little towns were created in order to build railroads, and then they persisted after that. But a lot of those rail lines aren’t even running anymore,” said Schutz, who grew up in a rural community in Nebraska.
“That’s kind of a dark view of it. But those are the sorts of questions that we’re trying to figure out…we got to this place because of policy choices that we’ve made. And are we under some sort of an obligation to continue down that path? Or is it time to change course?”
The Rural Reconciliation Project is in its infancy, Shoemaker noted, but it already includes some programming initiatives, including The Rural Review, an online digest of studies and stories pertaining to rural America and its residents.
“It’s intended as an interdisciplinary online journal,” she said. “And it’s supposed to be accessible for scholars across disciplines.”
They also host discussions among scholars and this year’s theme is rural infrastructure, including jobs, power in terms of electricity, renewable energy transition, transportation and more, Shoemaker said. The discussions are and will be open to people live online and shared on the project’s website.
Schutz noted that law shapes many aspects of rural life because it creates policies that create programs and agencies tasked with shaping the life of rural Americans, everything from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the tax system.
“Policy is sort of a choice about perhaps competing values, and maybe goals that we want to achieve, but law is the means by which we make that happen,” he added.
The future of rural areas has always been an area of timely discussion, but more so recently with increasing demographic changes, said Richard Moberly, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law. He added that part of the value of the project is its intention to deconstruct past efforts at pursuing rural policies.
“With such an understanding, the project will be able to reconsider the path forward in light of what we have learned from the past,” he said in an email interview. “The college has unique expertise in these issues, but the project also seeks to draw from the expertise of other disciplines and from among the people who live and work in rural areas. It will provide us with a better understanding of where we have been and, hopefully, provide us with concrete and effective ideas to deal with current inequity and build a more equitable future.”
The title of the project comes from the idea that reconciliation is a process of repairing relationships after a period of deep community conflict.
“Rather than simply sanctifying or evangelizing either side of this geographic equation, this project is about boldly creating space for a more truthful, and critical, assessment of what has transpired and is transpiring in rural America,” according to the project website.
Shoemaker, who grew up on a chore farm in Iowa and comes from generations of Wisconsin farmers who grew everything from strawberries to ginseng, said she believes the narrative of rural decline is false.
“But of course, there are challenges of population decline, economic challenges, changing energy systems and resource dependent communities, a lot of ecological and environmental concerns with climate change and changing systems of agriculture,” she added.