“Using the shovel to scrape aside the dirt, I began to reveal, very slowly and carefully, the gold and purple potatoes that rested just beneath the plants. She [my daughter] was enchanted. It’s just like…it’s just like…she said. It’s just like finding gold, I completed her thought. Yes! She said, her eyes wide.”
-Alice Walker “Childhood”
Some of the most passionate, hardest-working, toughest progressive activists I have ever seen come from rural areas, where progressivism isn’t “supposed” to exist; these nuggets of gold are often not highlighted in the world and, more often than not, are still waiting to be unearthed. Many people believe that rural areas are bastions of monolithic conservatism, as many people view the South. Progressive work, though, is being done in these areas, where the work is perhaps the most vital and often neglected. Certainly progressive work in any area should be appreciated and assessed. We should look up more often to progressive leaders in rural areas, have their voices in the conversation, invite them to talk at the table, and truly listen to them.
It seems, though, that even as progressives we tend to neglect the strong leaders that exist in rural areas in the South because the “wins” look different than in larger urban or differently-populated areas. A “win” may look like you had a conversation with someone as opposed to being ignored for once. A “’win” may look like you swayed a voter, or you got that person to think a little bit more about the humanity within progressive work. A “win” may look like you have a gathering of LGBT activists in a coffeeshop telling their stories and explaining what they want to make the county a safer place for LGBT people to live and thrive.
As we look to moving progressivism forward, especially in the South, we should look to progressive leaders in rural areas for strategy more often. While geographic circumstances create their own difficulties with organizing in rural areas, which is perhaps different than in some urban areas, the art of conversation and talking points create a different type of geographic circumstance. The conversational abilities for those fighting in these areas understand not only how to reassure supporters of progressivism to continue fighting, but also how to assess and respond to people who not be supportive of progressive causes. They also know a thing or two about community building since progressive voices tend to be in fewer numbers in rural areas. They have found each other, and they want to continue growing a strong movement. They understand that, despite their reasons for being progressive, they must work together to make change happen.
If nothing else, this commitment to remaining connected and moving forward together is an admirable quality that can be forgotten with inside-debates in larger, more-stratified areas. Progressive people in rural areas understand the importance of visibility and voice. It is never a good idea to be complacent or believe that someone else will write that letter to the editor. That person is you, and if you’re in a rural area, you feel compelled to write that letter because you’re not sure if someone else will.
Courage. Strength. Voice. Collaboration. These are the gems that progressive rural activists remind us all to have, and we must listen.