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Something extraordinary happened in Ames, Iowa, last Saturday.
On a bright fall day, with the pheasant season opener commanding the front page of the state’s newspapers, over 200 rural advocates from around the country gathered on the Iowa State University campus to talk about the challenges facing rural America. Most were under the age of 30. Many were Latino and African American.
They came together at the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life to talk about the state of rural America: the digital divide; the emerging bio-economy; and the impact of globalization on immigration and rural communities. They talked about the connections between food, farms and healthy communities. They talked about the challenges of being black and brown, and the difficulty finding jobs in rural communities. They talked about their hopes and dreams. And they shared stories about fighting for their communities and their futures.
That afternoon, they had a unique opportunity to spend time with four presidential candidates. Democrats John Edwards and Barack Obama and Republican John Cox each came to the conference in Ames. Hillary Clinton participated from New York using a broadband video connection. (All the candidates were invited to participate.) Each of the candidates spent 30 minutes alone with the group, offering a few prepared remarks on rural policy. But the bulk of the time was devoted to answering audience questions.
The afternoon was unique in one other way. More than 400 young voters at two remote locations, Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, and Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, joined the local audience to participate in the non-partisan forum. They were members of Generation Engage, a technology-savvy bunch working to give young people, especially those who don’t attend college, opportunities to get involved in civic life.
They were in the auditorium, on a screen behind the candidates, watching and listening and being seen and heard through an interactive video link using broadband and Apple’s iChat technology.
During the forum, participants at each location took turns asking questions. They challenged the candidates on immigration, social security, anti-trust enforcement, health care, education, trade and farm policy, energy, and the digital divide. They asked why we grow lettuce in the desert and what can be done to slow the development of prime farmland on the edge of our urban areas. They got answers. Some direct. Some satisfying. Others, not so much.
But the simple act of joining together in political dialogue, rural and urban, young and old, from coast-to coast, and border-to-border was extraordinary and powerful. People from diverse places, backgrounds and political stripes quickly discovered that they shared many of the same concerns. Throw in the opportunity to engage with some of the leading political figures of our time, and the result was historic.
The folks came to Ames to tackle the challenges facing rural America. A little technology and a few dedicated candidates helped make it clear, they were far from alone.
Niel Ritchie is the executive director of the League of Rural Voters, which sponsored the rural summit in Ames.