Engaging a Rural Community: Living and Learning

One learns.  One lives, and one learns.  Sometimes, learning comes as the result of patient teaching.  Sometimes, it is the result of hard experience.  Sometimes, one is part of a discussion or one hears something and it’s like the scales fall from one’s eyes.  Sometimes, one suddenly just “gets” something.  For better or worse, it seems like all of these things happen to me with some regularity. 

I’m a curious sort of guy, which led me to my career in academia, so I tend to learn a lot by reading books, newspapers and magazines or watching things on TV.  I also have done a lot of stupid things in my life, so I’ve had lots of opportunity to learn from experience.  I also just get into a lot of different things that I learn from.  By hanging around with people smarter than I am or who have done things I haven’t, I have sometimes come to understand things I didn’t before or to realize I’d been wrong about something for most of my life.  Sometimes, things just happen and all of the sudden I see something in a different light.  These things can be a little jarring, sometimes.  Realizing you’ve been clueless about something (or worse, that you just been wrong about it) for the entirety of your adult life is sort of an emotional experience.  Getting suddenly struck with understanding like a thunderbolt can be exhilarating, or liberating, or maddening, or all of these at once.  But, I digress.

I had one of these opportunities to learn over the last few days.  I read something that frustrated me and made me question important things about what I’m doing with my life.  I stewed on it and got more annoyed and frustrated.  Then I went to an event, tied to what I’d read about.  At first, I was even more annoyed, because I saw everything through the lens of my festering frustration and annoyance and everything I saw just corroborated what I was thinking and, just as importantly, feeling.  Then, like a bolt from the blue, I realized what I was actually observing was not a demonstration of why everything I was trying to do was a waste of time, but rather, I saw something good happening.  I realized the source of my frustration was actually a lesson and the impact of that lesson changed my whole perspective.  I was ready to just say “to heck with it” all (actually something more colorful).  Now, I’m reinvigorated and seeing things more clearly than ever.  One does, indeed, learn.

What I read about in our local paper yesterday was that a group of citizens was going to petition the County Fiscal Court (our county government council) to issue a resolution in support of the Second Amendment.  My personal thoughts about our gun laws wasn’t really the issue, but I’m sure they didn’t help.  Just for the record, I’m not anti-gun.  I own several.  However, I do favor restrictions in who can own guns, how guns are sold and what sorts of guns are available on the civilian market.  But, as I said, that’s not the point.  What really got my goat was that this group had amassed 2,300 members in the space of three weeks to organize, craft their message supporting gun rights and petition the court.  That was the thing I found most annoying.  2,300 hundred people publicly in support of a county resolution on gun rights.  I’ve been trying for four months to get people to publicly support the vision of our community health coalition.  The vision says that we think everyone should have a chance to be as healthy as possible.  It says we don’t think people should go hungry.  It says we don’t think families should be forced to live under bridges.  It says we don’t think old people should have to fear be forced to eat dog food in their old age and dying alone.  It says we will work together to try to make things better.  I didn’t think any of that would be a hard sell when I wrote it all down in a document I called the Declaration for the Future of Hopkins County (www.archcoalition.org) .  I’ve been trying to drum up support for about four months.  As of yesterday, I had gotten 23 local people to sign it, 4 of whom chose to remain anonymous.  I am one of the 23 and two of the others are related to me.  So, in 4 months, I was able to persuade 22 people to publicly support a document that says hunger and homelessness are bad.  In 3 weeks, this group was able to gather 2,300 to support a petition about gun laws that aren’t in any danger of  significantly changing.  Beyond the difference in the number of people engaged was the potential outcomes of these two efforts.  Gun laws are passed at the state and federal level.  The Hopkins County Fiscal Court really doesn’t play much of a role.  A county resolution on the Second Amendment is pretty much symbolic.  The coalition I’m working on has the purpose of trying to improve community health and leverage that to allow our community and the rest of rural America to survive and remain viable in the modern world.  So, 2,300 people in three weeks to support a symbolic resolution of the County Court.  Twenty-three people in four months to support healthier people, a more prosperous, equitable, safe and supportive community and the long-term viability of the rural way of life.  My annoyance grew.

I usually go to our County Court meetings.  Normally, there are eight or ten people in the audience, easily being outnumbered by the county employees and magistrates who are in attendance to conduct the county’s business. I usually just pull into the parking lot outside the County Government Center, walk in and sit down.  Today, the parking lot was full.  The parking spaces on the street were full.  I ended up parking about a block away.  Again, annoyance grew.  As I approached the Government Center, it started to dawn on me that about 90% of the vehicles parked on the street and in the lot were pickup trucks.  For some reason, that added to my annoyance, despite the fact that I’ve owned pickup trucks for over thirty-five years.  The hypocrisy of my annoyance was even more annoying.  I walked into the court room, and it was full.  Standing room only.  I hate that.  Bad back.  Makes standing unpleasant.  More annoyed.  It was mostly full of over a hundred of what would appear to most folks to be classified as “good ol’ boys”.  This, I found only slightly more annoying, because I had already distilled what the audience would be from the trucks parked outside.  Again, the hypocrisy of my annoyance was even more annoying. My family is full of farmers and coal miners.  My brother-in-law, a retired miner, would be classified by most people as a good ol’ boy and he’s probably the best person I’ve ever met. I, myself, aspire to good ol’ boy status in many ways.

Then, just before the 10 o’clock meeting was scheduled to start, the cameraman from the TV station in Evansville (the nearest town large enough to have a TV station) showed up.  This, I found particularly annoying for a couple reasons.  One, my home county was going to be on the regional news for having a count resolution on gun rights.  This sort of stereotypical rural characterizing always bothers me.  One of the reasons city people think rural folk are insignificant rubes is that the only things they ever see are things like gun rights rallies.  The other is that I haven’t even been able to get the local radio station to do a piece on our coalition, much less a TV station from Evansville.

So, there I am.  Annoyed.  Scowling.  Mad at everything.  Then the meeting starts.  We do the pledge and the invocation.  I was afraid the invocation would go off on a tangent of guns and God, but it didn’t.  After a few minutes of normal county business (the meetings are usually only 15 or so minutes long.  It’s a small county and there’s not a huge volume of business to tend to on a bi-weekly basis), the Judge-Executive (leader of our county government and all-around stand-up guy), in a bit of a break with normal procedure, recognized the spokesmen for the group to address the court.  He did, using all the same arguments against gun control of any sort that gun-rights advocates always use.  He used a non-existent quote from Admiral Yamamoto about the impossibility of invading the US because everyone was armed. He even acknowledged Yamamoto probably never said it, but he quoted it anyway, since it supported his argument.  The audience was well-behaved and perfectly proper throughout.  The Judge then read the resolution, which basically said that the Hopkins County Fiscal Court supported the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  That’s not a big reach for most political bodies. The resolution was unanimously adopted.  There was a brief pause, then a perfectly reasonable and restrained round of applause.  Upon a motion to adjourn, one of the magistrates made a comment that they had acted as representatives of their constituents and that if they ever stopped doing that, they should be replaced.  The Judge added that the county really had no significant role in gun laws and that everyone should be sure to contact the state and federal representatives to make their feelings known.  The meeting was adjourned.  Looking back, I was privileged to be there.

As I was walking out, I realized that I was no longer annoyed.  I actually felt a little buoyant.  This surprised me, because I did not notice when the transition occurred.  On the walk back to my car, I cogitated on this phenomenon and realized some things had made themselves clear in my mind.  What I had just witnessed was a good thing.  Actually, it was a great thing.  It was our democratic process in action.  A group of citizens, joined in common cause, wanted an action from their representatives. They prepared a petition, presented it properly, and their elected representatives acted on it.  After the spokesman said his piece, the Judge asked if anyone in the room would care to offer any other comments.  There were none (duh), but if someone had wanted to speak, they could have.  This is how things are supposed to work. 

I also came to realize that It is not at all unreasonable that these folks were able to gather the support of 2,300 gun rights advocates in three weeks in Hopkins County.  I’m sure they could have gotten more, if they had needed to. Gun rights are the top-shelf item for many people, rural and urban.  It is an important issue to them and they are engaged with the subject constantly (why and how the issue is constantly there could be the subject for another article).  It is, from their perspective, an existential issue for their cultural identity and the future of the country as they know it.  On the other hand, my coalition and the issues we are placing before the community are, if not actually new, then issues that are not at the fore of most people’s thinking.  We have a long way to go to bring the issues and our ideas about change to the public mind.  As I considered things, I came to realize that we’ve actually made a lot of progress.  The County Judge supports us. Like I said, he’s a stand-up guy. Every week, more and more things are happening that tell me that people are starting to hear us.  And it’s not just people here locally that are hearing us.  I was contacted, just in the past few days, by two people of considerable influence on a state- and nationwide level and who could be of great potential benefit to us and our initiative.

I had another meeting shortly after the County Court meeting.  It was our county Interagency Council, which is made up of organizations in the county that do things for people.  Quite a few of these agencies are already members of our coalition and I’m working on most of the rest of them.  Anyway, we had a nice presentation from the Red Cross and afterwards, we go around the room and everybody has a chance to mention any events, programs, updates, etc., that their organizations would like to share.  I told the story I’ve just told you.  I told them that it was unreasonable for me (or us) to expect that we could just put our message out on a web page, blog post or in a newspaper article and expect a great groundswell of support.  It’s difficult, even for the people who are most in need of our help, to grasp what we are proposing.  How could we expect people who may be in second, third or even fourth-generation poverty to even be aware of what we are doing?  Even if they were, why should they believe that life can be any different?  All any of us knows is what we learn, from what we are taught and what we experience.  These people know nothing else but poverty.  They don’t know there is any way to live except on welfare.  They don’t believe there is any other possibility for them. Things like obesity and sickness are normal in their world. We have much work to do to change this perception and then to help change the reality.  Both are massive tasks.

We also have to engage the rest of the community.  We have to help them understand things they probably haven’t given much thought to, like the effect of other people’s poor health and poverty on the entire community and even the long-term existence of our hometown and our way of life.  Again, a massive task to make the case, and an even bigger one to make the change.  Once we make these connections, we, too, will have 2,300 people, and more, standing with us.

Those good ol’ boys in the Fiscal Court Room are not my adversaries.  They are my people.  We may not agree on all the issues surrounding the Second Amendment, but there is much more we have in common than not.  It’s not reasonable for me to expect them to believe everything I believe or to know everything that I know.  There is a great deal to talk about.  A lot of listening.  A lot of learning.  These are (mostly) great people.  Strong people of good character.  If they weren’t, then why am I even bothering with this?  It’s easy to get frustrated and tired and despondent when you’re trying to do something really hard that doesn’t generate a lot of tangible positive outcomes you can hang your hat on.  I forget that, from time to time.  Then I inevitably learn something new and all becomes clear again. Today was a good lesson.

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