Theologian and civil rights leader Ruby Sales said American communities need "Hope Zones" -- places where people can imagine and enact a better future. She was interviewed by the Reverend Jennifer Bailey (right) during the last day of the 2018 National Rural Assembly in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Shawn Poynter | Daily Yonder)

It’s a lot easier to be courageous when you know how the story ends.  

For the past three days, I’ve been surrounded by people who have been courageous during the most difficult times – when the results are uncertain, the stakes are high and the final words have yet to be spoken. If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like how things are today, you aren’t alone. 

The 2018 National Rural Assembly concluded Wednesday in Durham, North Carolina, after three days of sessions focused on the theme of civic courage. There was plenty of bravery to go around among the participants, who numbered 177 from 35 states: 

  • Liz Shaw stood up to a racist principal as a high school senior during the civil rights era.  
  • Connie Stewart brought out the best in her community with a risky effort to get people on opposite sides of a fractious land-use debate to sit down and talk. 
  • Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald organized black communities in the South to seek representation on the boards of local power cooperatives.  
  • Maureen Holland was part of the legal team that took a marriage-equality case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 
  • Olivia Pearson put her home, livelihood and freedom on the line to fight a criminal voting charge because she knew she had done nothing wrong. 

Today, these folks have lived these stories through to some sort of resolution. Even when they didn’t achieve victories, at least the stress of uncertainty has been released.  

But these examples of courage are not ancient history. Just three months ago, for example, Pearson didn’t know a thing about receiving an ovation at the National Rural Assembly. But she did know she could face years in prison if she was convicted of helping a new voter learn how to use the voting machine. Pearson knew she had done nothing wrong, but that didn’t mean a jury was going to reach the same conclusion. 

For so many participants at the Rural Assembly, the jury is still out. When people push forward under those conditions, they personify civic courage. 

  • Abraham Diaz of South Texas is uncertain about his U.S. residency status after the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Diaz and other “dreamers” have chosen to speak out about the issue rather than fade into silence and anonymity, where they might be less vulnerable. 
  • Diana Oestreich, a veteran of the Iraq War, is helping build bonds of love between enemies in the Middle East. It’s risky for a soldier from a strong military tradition to set aside the familiar weapons of war and try new approaches to creating peace. 
  • Anita Earls left her position as the founder of a nonprofit voting and civil rights organization to run against an incumbent for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Maybe a well compensated private lawyer can afford to step away from work for a year. I don’t know a lot of nonprofit leaders who can. 
Allie Bohm of Public Knowledge speaks at a session on overcoming policy barriers for rural broadband access. (Photo by Shawn Poynter | Daily Yonder)

Even the less dramatic acts of civic courage are built on a willingness to take a chance, try something different and fight the community’s urge to just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.  

  • David Toland and Thrive Allen County in Kansas literally mowed ditches when that’s what the community said it needed. It takes some fortitude to set aside your own ideas about priorities when community members have something else on their minds. 
  • Theologian and civil rights leader Ruby Sales said communities need to establish “hope zones” that overcome fear and despair. 
  • Michelle Osborne, participating in one of two Wednesday sessions focused on rural faith-based initiatives, said churches can challenge themselves to move beyond charity to address the underlying need of struggling communities – justice. 

Throughout the three-day gathering, each person I met exemplified some aspect of civic courage: arts programmers who are looking for ways to support rural programs when high-brow urban programs are the ones with the clout; rural leaders who are risking their reputations by trying to overcome generations of distrust and rivalry between county and city governments; Native Americans who are building on traditions to address current concerns; organizers and artists who are focused on cooperation and shared values at a time of political divisiveness. 

Few if any of these folks know how those stories will end. Some will thrive on the anxiety that uncertainty creates. Others will barely tolerate it. Most will endure. And when their work reaches some resolution, I bet the majority of these people will have already started blazing their next trail into the unknown. In fact, I’m certain of it. 

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder, which is published by the Center for Rural Strategies. Rural Strategies also coordinates the National Rural Assembly. 

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