Much ink was spilled over “Trump Country” in the wake of 2016. Rural counties that helped elect President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 had seemingly switched over to Trump in 2016. At People’s Action, the grassroots organization I direct, many of us grew up in or live in rural communities, and we had a gut instinct about what had happened: The Democratic Party (and organizations in its orbit) retreated from rural America.
We wanted to understand what motivated people in those counties to swing so dramatically—up to 25 points. What were they feeling and searching for? And what about all the folks who didn’t vote?
Certain that pollsters were not going to find those answers for us, we started organizing. And the best organizing begins with listening.
From the Iron Range in Minnesota to the Piedmont of North Carolina, we had thousands of conversations in rural communities and small towns across 10 states, starting in 2017: Alabama, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. We learned what we already knew: People are struggling and trying to make sense of those struggles.
Our listening campaign started with People’s Action affiliate Down Home North Carolina going door-to-door to talk with working-class people in the backyard of growing neo-Confederate and white nationalist groups. In the hills of Appalachia or on (former) family farms in the Midwest, we heard the same refrain: “No one ever asked me.”
With few exceptions, there was no progressive infrastructure where we went knocking. The power of organized labor had weakened, local Democratic Party offices had closed and much progressive philanthropy had directed its dollars to urban enclaves.
The unwillingness of mainline Democrats and corporate media to name the true causes of rural people’s pain left folks feeling alienated. Runaway corporate economic power, mixed with racism as a tool of division, created a vacuum. Trump and his fellow white nationalists simply filled it.
These conversations informed our work on the issues people told us were most important — access to healthcare, quality jobs, clean air, clean water and addiction. By organizing on these issues, we came together in multi-racial organizations and have won real tangible changes — Medicaid expansion, a rural living wage, factory farm moratoriums and more. From there, the trust and relationships grew into tough conversations about racism — as a system that creates different outcomes for people based on race, and as a tactic that sows division to block powerful majorities. Racism creates incredible pain, suffering and loss of life for people of color, but the 15 million white Americans who live in poverty — often in rural communities in so-called red states — are rarely its beneficiaries.
Still, we kept running into one subject that seemed a bridge too far: a more welcoming immigration policy. We launched a deep canvass program in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan, hoping to learn more about how people understood the changing demographics of the country and their economic realities.
Caitlin Homrich-Knieling, a canvasser with People’s Action affiliate Michigan United, describes deep canvassing — which she has practiced in small towns surrounded by corn and soy like Imlay City (pop. 3,577) and Emmett (252) — as relationship-building. “[We’re] strangers, [we’re] starting with a blank slate,” she says. “And in that conversation, we … really honor their story and their wisdom and their dignity.”
Most people welcomed the opportunity to explore a complicated issue in a non-dogmatic and non-judgmental way. In many cases, it was as if we canvassers had offered a gift — a chance to finally be listened to. Often, people would acknowledge they didn’t have much lived experience of undocumented immigrants, that they were informed by television. These conversations, driven by sincere curiosity, opened up a space to reexamine things.
Our deep canvass effort was extremely effective, with a 15% increase in support to include undocumented immigrants in public benefits — which has lasted at least 4.5 months, the most recent time we measured.
Down Home North Carolina, Michigan United, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, New Jersey Organizing Project, Pennsylvania Stands Up and Hoosier Action have all, in different ways, modeled what multi-racial, multi-generational organizations and movements can look like. In Michigan, we are deep canvassing around immigration. In Iowa, we are fighting for clean water. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, people are standing down white supremacy. On the South Jersey shore, folks are coming together on wind energy. In my home of southern Indiana, people are fighting a pitched battle with addiction and learning to be vulnerable, to see each other and to build the power needed to win.
We’ve learned the hard way that, if we are not present, others will be. That is not a lesson we need to learn again.
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George Goehl is a longtime community organizer. He is the host of To See Each Other, a documentary podcast about rural organizing, and the former director of People’s Action, a national people’s organization working in urban, suburban and rural communities.