A screenshot from the Rural Assembly Everywhere panel, "Redefining Rural America," shows Reyna Lopez (top left), Ash-Lee Woodard (top right), Sarah Eagle Heart (bottom left), and Mónica Ramírez (bottom right). (Rural Assembly)

When the stories we hear about rural America focus only on white men, they erase generations of community-building work conducted by rural women of color. Setting the record straight by having diverse rural people tell their own stories can help repair the damage and build stronger communities, according to Indigenous, Black, and Latinx women leading a conversation at the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival.

“There’s this picture that is painted about who is rural America, and often we aren’t counted in that description,” said Mónica Ramírez, the founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women and moderator of Thursday’s panel.

The October 19, 2020, panel was titled “Redefining Rural America: Elevating Voices and Building Power with Justice for Migrant Women.” The other panelists were:

  • Ash-Lee Woodard, co-executive director at Highlander Research and Education Center, which serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South.
  • Sarah Eagle Heart, co-founder & CEO of the Return to the Heart Foundation, a grantmaking organization which empowers visionary Indigenous women-led initiatives.
  • Reyna Lopez, executive director at PCUN, an advocacy group for Oregon farmworkers and working Latinx families.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, one in 10 African Americans live in rural areas, while one-fifth of growing rural areas owe their population growth entirely to immigration. Many Native American communities are rural, and an estimated 15 to 20% of LGBT Americans live in rural areas as well.

But the diversity of rural America is rarely recognized, panelists said.

The Redefining Rural America panel highlighted the presence of women and communities of color in rural America and the central role that Black, Brown, and Indigenous women play in building their communities and organizing resistance against injustice.

When it comes to her community in South Dakota, “women are the ones that are organizing,” said Sarah Eagle Heart. “Of course they’re doing Covid relief. Of course they’re doing get-out-the-vote. They’re also doing the census.”

The panelists spoke about the interconnected nature of their movements. “We try to also raise awareness about the fact that a lot of what we do have—the little maybe that we do have—is thanks to the Black sharecroppers who really fought for a lot of the things we have today,” said Reyna Lopez. “I think connecting the dots between movements is really important.”

Stories Matter

In the second half of the panel, the conversation turned to the importance of storytelling.

For Ash-Lee Woodard, storytelling is the key to social change. “I don’t know how you would be able to believe that you could transform the material conditions of our people in this country without the use of stories,” she said.

But those stories don’t always have a platform. “The question isn’t, am I telling my story?” she said. “The question is, are you hearing it? And what stories are you making up in your own mind about where I’m from?” 

Unfortunately, the portrayals of rural America that do manage to reach large audiences have typically been more likely to reinforce harmful stereotypes than subvert them. One famous example is the 1972 film Deliverance, in which four city-dwellers on a canoe trip in rural Georgia are violently attacked by the locals. More recently, Hillbilly Elegy, which has sold well over 1 million copies and has been adapted into a movie by Netflix, has sparked outrage among some Appalachians.

According to Woodard, stories about rural America are harmful when they focus exclusively on poverty, deprivation, and violence instead of generations-long legacies of resistance, grassroots organizing, and community-building. “Who does that serve?” she asked. “Because it certainly doesn’t serve us.”

That is why organizers and community members must take storytelling into their own hands, argued the panelists.

Eagle Heart has done exactly that, and even won an Emmy for it. When the success of her interactive virtual project, “Crow: The Legend,” gave her a new platform, she recognized an opportunity to help open the doors for other women who are artists and storytellers. “It’s really about scaling, and multiplying the opportunities for more women,” she explained.

“We have voices. [Activists] are not a voice for the voiceless. We can talk for ourselves,” Woodard said. “But those of us who now have platforms have a responsibility to use them in the service of the transformation of this country by making sure we’re bringing our folks along with us.”

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