What Rural America Can Teach Us About Civil Society

In their quest to cultivate a renewed sense of civil society, Americans often look to urban areas for examples of what is and isn’t working in terms of bridging divides and bringing people together. This makes sense, since approximately 80 percent of us live in urban areas. Many also point to a perceived rift between urban and rural as a bright line of division in our country, which poses a threat to our civil society writ large. There is a popular, longstanding perception (among urban folk) that rural America is somehow separate from the rest of us—either by choice or ineptitude. Studies by the Frameworks Institute have shown that most non-rural dwellers perceive rural America as either one large, poorly educated and impoverished backwater (a rural dystopia as in the film Deliverance), or a self-segregated, agrarian utopia, where life is idyllic and residents want nothing to do with “city folk” (à la the sitcom “Green Acres”). Post 2016, another frame has emerged: that of rural America as an angry white mob that votes counter to its own interests.

These perceptions are patently inaccurate, and they deny the very real fact that rural America is both incubator and innovator when it comes to creating and maintaining civil society.

We believe civil society exists when people who live in a defined geographic proximity work cooperatively—even when they strongly disagree with or dislike one another—to sustain mutually beneficial conditions. Think of civil society as a magic flying carpet that, to hold a community aloft, must contain many different fibers. Ideally, everyone in a community supplies at least one fiber to help weave this carpet and get it off the ground. Once in the air, some fibers naturally break off and float away, so all passengers have a responsibility for continual care and reweaving. In densely populated areas, there are enough citizens to supply fibers so that others can coast along for free. In small rural towns, everyone must contribute multiple threads and stay especially vigilant when it unravels to keep it from crashing to the ground.

Here are five lessons these rural carpet weavers can teach us:

1. Civil society is rooted in actions, not words. Despite having worked (and sometimes lived) in rural America for nearly 25 years, we have never heard anyone use the words “civil society”—not once. Nor, until very recently, have we heard mentions of “equity,” “built environment,” “food deserts,” or “capacity deficits.” The academic terminology used at the confluence of philanthropy, social justice, research, and advocacy isn’t meaningful in the rural context. It’s not that rural people aren’t educated enough to understand this lexicon; rather, they’re too busy engaging in the work of building a civil society to get bogged down in the wordplay. And it’s not that they don’t think deeply—to imply that they don’t would be the ultimate in urban elitism. Instead, while some urban researchers, thinkers, and pundits may spend time developing and analyzing theories about civil society, people in rural communities are spending time imagining and incubating the “real-world” conversations, partnerships, mutual understandings, and trust necessary to create it. In Washington state’s rural Pend Oreille County, for example, local cross-sector partners are working on a range of projects to improve community health and wellness—and it’s just one of dozens of local partnerships we’ve seen.

2. Civil society abhors siloes. Crossing lines of disciplines and duties is an important standard of civil society in rural America. Individuals play many roles concurrently to keep rural places running. We’ve met a Louisiana pastor who drives a school bus, pastors a 150-member church, runs a daycare, and is part of every civic committee concerning troubled youth. There’s also a school board member who pieces together three jobs and coaches a team vying for the small school state championship. In many rural communities, juggling these multiple civic roles is the norm rather than the exception. This provides a breadth of awareness and civic knowledge that can be elusive in larger urban settings. (It’s also true that individual rural towns can function as islands unto themselves, missing opportunities to build mutually beneficial relationships with neighboring towns. This may be a new frontier for expanding civil society in rural areas.)

Rural communities also can be perfect laboratories for understanding myriad ways in which social issues intersect and how to address them in a multi-faceted context rather than a hyper-focused one. An effort to create a school-based nutrition program in a small community, for example, can more rapidly surface interconnected issues such as transportation, oral health, or parental substance abuse. And a common local understanding of causes and available resources to address these problems can create a ripple effect of positive, community-wide impact.

3. Civil society can become a bastion of the privileged. In many cases, civil society in rural communities has been controlled by a few, much to the detriment of the whole. This is generally less due to nefarious intent than to a strong charitable impulse of those in power, who may feel a deep sense of responsibility to their hometowns. Those in power are quick to serve on boards, run for office, donate to local organizations, and speak their minds. While this may ensure some consistency in leadership for civil society, the downside is that this small group of people ultimately control the community. And while alternative leaders usually exist, they may not feel encouraged to engage.

Fortunately, rural communities can change this dynamic to foster civil society. For example, traditional leaders in one rural North Carolina county never realized that the county’s one community recreation center was in a place many people considered inaccessible or unwelcoming. These leaders brought new voices to their decision-making process and now have a new county-wide recreation master plan.

4. Civil society requires constant adaptation. Shifting trends in population, such as influxes of immigrants, are more readily apparent in rural communities than in urban ones. For example, a town of 10,000 is more likely than a city of millions to notice a hundred new neighbors from Senegal. We know of one Colorado community that welcomed immigrants into the fold and, in doing so, kept an important local employer in business. We also know of a town that has become harshly anti-immigrant, weakening the seams of community fabric. Scenarios like these are highly instructive for the rest of America. Communities are living laboratories for issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

5. Rural communities clearly demonstrate the link between economic viability and a strong civil society. The demise of locally owned businesses and their leaders—both main street stores driven out by big box chains, and small enterprises obliterated by the likes of health system conglomerates and corporate agriculture—has diminished the civic energy of many rural communities. In addition to diversifying rural economies, locally rooted institutions often are the first to support local ideas, give young people their first jobs, and participate in efforts that help the community move ahead. As they disappear, they pull mightily at the fibers of the civil society magic carpet, which communities must invent new ways to reweave.

We often hear the question, “If rural communities are struggling so hard, why don’t people just leave?” Time and time again, rural residents have told us that they would rather stay and work to build the future for their communities than abandon them. They are more than willing to work cooperatively, even when they strongly disagree with or dislike one another, because they recognize that they are ultimately neighbors who will fly or fail together.

In a time when the overall fabric of our civil society appears to be unraveling at an unprecedented pace, we believe rural communities can remind the rest of us how to reweave, lift off, and, subsequently, soar.

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