Whitney Kimball Coe

What Do Rural Women Want?

Air Date: November 29, 2021

Center for Rural Strategies national programs director Whitney Kimball Coe discusses the diversity of American rural communities and the aspirations of women.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Whitney Kimball Coe. She’s director of national programs at the Center for Rural Strategies. Thank you so much for joining me today, Whitney.


COE: I’m so happy to be here.


HEFFNER: Can you tell our viewers and listeners about the conference that you’ve been organizing this fall?


COE: Oh, I’d love to. We’re kicking it off today. In fact it’s called the Rural Women Everywhere Conference. It’s a virtual event because you know, we’re still living in virtual times. And it’s an invitation for rural leaders from across the country and our allies to come together and celebrate the role that women play in community flourishing, across the country. So we’re expecting over 800 participants to tune in today. We’ve got some wonderful speakers who will be talking about everything from democracy to how do we build more inclusive communities? We also are welcoming some folks from the Biden administration tomorrow. So again, this is this is a free conference. You just go to RuralAssembly.org or to tune in today from 2 to 7:00 PM Eastern.


HEFFNER: And if this is being recorded, they can likely check that out,


COE: Absolutely.


HEFFNER: It won’t just be live stream. So if you’re viewing this now visit that same web link. Whitney, are you joining me today from your hometown where I believe you still live, Athens, Tennessee?


COE: I am. I’m downtown in Athens. Athens, Tennessee is in east Tennessee. It’s between Knoxville and Chattanooga, about an hour is equa-distance from both. And we have a population of about 15,000 people and I was born and raised here, went away for a little while and then worked really hard to get back.


HEFFNER: So let me ask you is, in your mind, is Athens emblematic of any set of rural communities, either in Tennessee, in the Midwest, in the south? I’m not attempting to simplify things or cast some kind of homogeneous net here, but it is interesting to take stock of what is rural America today.


COE: I mean, what is rural is a really great question and people ask it all the time and is there just a single definition, or something we can point to that tells us what rural is? You know, Athens is, I would say it is emblematic of a lot of rural places across the country. It has, you know, more amenities than some places and fewer amenities than others. We do have pretty good broadband access here in Athens, although there are still families that, that don’t because of cost barriers or because they live far enough away that, you know, closing the loop is difficult. We do still have a hospital that’s up and running though it’s been overrun of course, with COVID cases. We do have a number of really important anchor institutions, like a lot of other rural communities. For us, it’s institutions like the YMCA or the public library.


We do have a school system and a baseball field. So there, and those institutions I named, and churches of course, and a Main Street. And those institutions and these markers are where we make meaning of our lives together. And I would say that that’s probably the case for a lot of communities across the country, but you make a good point that often rural is told, or the story of rural is told as a monolith, that it is a place of farmers or mostly white conservative voters or perfect, perhaps a place of despair or someplace that is losing a whole lot of population and people are moving away. And those, you know, there, there are kernels of truth in all of those kinds of stereotypes. And yet that is not a whole complex picture of any one place.


Something we do a lot at Rural Strategies, the organization I work for is try to tell a more nuanced story and also point to the fact that rural people and places are incredibly diverse across history, experience, background, cultures. I expect today that the 800 people or so who are going to turn up for Rural Women Everywhere are coming not only from rural Appalachia, but they’re coming from the Delta, from Native American reservations out west, or in the south, they’re coming from the Pacific Northwest. There are just so many different kinds of communities, but a lot of the things that that bind us together in our rural kind of identity is this notion of how we make meaning together. Even in times where we’re feeling stretched thin.

HEFFNER Regionally, if you want to speak to it that way, or just characteristically, what might surprise folks who don’t spend time in rural America today when it comes to that question of nuance and the realities in these places is far more nuanced than is often simplified or portrayed in mainstream media.


COE: I appreciate that question because it’s something that we need to be asking ourselves about any community, no matter the zip code, no matter the population, what’s, what’s a truer, more human story about what’s going on in these relationships and in these places. And, you know, the notions we have of rural are mostly from mainstream media and from you know Hollywood portrayals of rural offer up this kind of antiquated version of rural as either someplace that’s very pastoral and, you know, you think of like cows and a silo, or you think of, you know, the farmers in the field, maybe think of a Main Street where everybody knows your name. Or maybe you think of the opposite end of the spectrum, which is, you know, a place that is falling apart or is despairing, or is full of poverty and all kinds of challenges that are insurmountable.


So those two narratives are often the stereotypes that rural gets plugged into. And oftentimes those narratives are used in news articles or in Hollywood productions. And then we just cast people in the roles that fit one of those narratives. But I think the rural America today, the rural and Native American communities of today are, are much more familiar to us than we realize. You know, only 2 percent of the nation’s population actually makes a sustainable living farming anymore. The number one job in rural places is like everywhere else in the sense that it’s, you know, service oriented or it’s in the healthcare system, or it’s in education. You know, we might still know one another’s names on Main Street. But the relationships that we share are just as complex as any other relationship you might have. The other thing I think that’s important to note is, you know, as this country is going through a reckoning around racial justice and dismantling systemic racism, rural is not exempt from that. And it’s not this, the stereotype of rural as all white is not helpful in when we think about how do we bring rural into national conversations about how we dismantle racism, because rural is full of some really diverse populations. Everyone from immigrants to African American populations in the south to Native Americans, I think there’s just deeper conversations to be had. And if we exclude rural from those conversations, then we’re doing the whole country a disservice.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this, Whitney, are you familiar at all with the work of Kathy Cramer at the University of Wisconsin?


COE: Yeah. I admire her a lot. Yeah. I admire Kathy, a lot, and her book.


HEFFNER: Right, now, we have not hosted Kathy since 2016. In fact it was a premonition, in my own experience traveling on a ride from South Bend, I guess at the time it was from Dayton to South Bend. And what she then expressed, even though we were talking about Ohio and Indiana, that I was observing in 2016, what she described in her anecdotal evidence of rural communities seemed to be represented in my own experiences traveling around the rust belt. So I haven’t had a chance to catch up with Kathy, but our loyal viewers know she talks about the culture and resentments, but I like to add to that aspirations and resentments of rural communities. Because again, you can’t castigate or narrowcast it in the way of only resentments. But her work, if we’re being intellectually honest, is about the resentments of rural communities in Wisconsin and the backlash against state initiatives in Madison, in the Capitol. You know, based on all the research and advocacy and organizing that you’ve done since 2016, how do you think about Kathy’s work on the character and consciousness of rural communities right now?


COE: That was such an important year, 2016, and her book came out “The Politics of Resentment” around that time, I remember, and how important it felt to have articulated some of the story that we were seeing play out in the national setting and national politics. What I’ve come to understand more deeply, because she opened the door in a way for us to talk more honestly about these things. But what I’ve come to understand in the last few years is that, that resentment that she mentions, I believe it’s grounded in a kind of grief and a kind of, in a kind of worry and sadness that rural people in places often feel for themselves, for their children, for their communities. When one in four kids in rural is living in poverty and it’s higher for kids of color, you know, one in three really, living in poverty and with food scarcity, when you know that they’re, you know, the nearest hospital is three hours away. And if you have a heart attack or, you know, something that needs immediate assistance, if you need immediate assistance and you can’t get there. When you know that your kids can’t access broadband to do their homework, to participate in democracy in the way that the rest of the country does. When you know that your roads are in need of repair. And when you know that you were not invited into conversations of national import, because you’ve been stereotyped, that, I mean, you could call that resentment, or you could consider that maybe that is some kind of grief and sadness and it’s, and it manifests itself in various ways, but it’s grounded in something that is true. And that is that rural people in places have been left behind in a number of policy arenas. So that’s kind of how I’m thinking about right now.


HEFFNER: Right? Isn’t it also true, and this is not something I had a chance when she was on the program to ask Kathy about, but isn’t it also true that that is a common link between urban and rural, when we talk about the crisis of this pandemic, but even prior to the pandemic, the food deserts, the medical deserts you know, that is a common link and yet Kathy’s work suggested the unwillingness to embrace the common link, at least on the part of rural communities. Now that may be true on the part of urban communities too, but where are we today, looking towards 2022, when it comes to evaluating or re-evaluating that common link, that there are zip codes in rural communities and urban communities that actually are most parallel, in terms of the experience of the constituents and the lacking of the hospital or the food services. How do you assess that common bond right now?


COE: There are, you’re right. There are certainly parallels I think, between rural and sometimes more inner-city areas. But what we know is that, you know, this country is moving towards a kind of urban existence where population density and capital coalesce, where we are investing in all kinds of innovation hubs, and in some ways ivory towers. And we’re leaving, we’re still leaving rural people and places out of those. In fact, we’re suggesting that they should just get a bus ticket and move in, for those opportunities. So I think where we are now, I’m feeling a little more hopeful these days, even though, you know, I know we’ve been through two years of pandemic, we’ve lost so many people. It’s been a really challenging time for rural places. A lot of the issues that I’ve mentioned, including email, maternal healthcare, education and infrastructure, all of those things have, the issues that we know existed before exist even more so now, thanks to the pandemic, or because of the pandemic. And yet, on the other side, these two years later, this, I feel like this administration in particular, the Biden administration has worked very hard to include rural perspectives in the policy recommendations they’re making.


And some of these packages they’re pushing through Congress, those dollars that came through the Cares Act have made it directly into the pockets of individual families in rural places. And it just seems like there is now a spotlight on the fact that we exist. There’s a heartbeat here and there are families and organizations and people with a lot of really great ideas who just need a little bit of that spotlight shown on them.


HEFFNER: I would argue that that exclusion also includes, when you talk about the exclusion from the ivory tower, people who do live in, in close proximity to that tower, just in neighboring zip codes, in which that tower doesn’t occupy. But I hear you that there is a specific kind of exclusion. And part of that is cultural and undeniably cultural. And some of that is related to political values and how they’ve evolved. You know, there has been a metamorphosis of those values in rural communities, a rural community in Nebraska, or where you are in Tennessee, might think very differently about a political struggle or challenge today than they would have two decades ago or a half century ago.


So how do you help us understand that, the metamorphosis of rural belief or conviction and how much that is tied to Trumpism, how much that is tied to globalization, and you know, the perception of both the kind of monopolization of power within the city, but also within the world, broadly?


COE: You know, I think a lot of the work that we do in my organization Rural Strategies is about telling stories, telling real human stories about the experiences that people are having on the ground in community. And just as you were speaking, I was thinking of, you know, in Appalachia, coal mining is on its way out. And yet people still feel their identity is very much tied to the coal mining lifestyle, the coal mining identity, that was ceded so long ago. And the notion of it, of, of it being pulled away. And those workers being asked to, I don’t know, become coders all of a sudden, or, you know, pick up a whole other set of tools and identities, nobody appreciates that sort of narrative. So understanding and listening to people about what they value is more than just, it’s more than just about, you know, the political gamesmanship that we have at the moment.


It’s more than about, you know, those hard right issues or Trumpism, or you know, our deep-seated political divide, it’s so much denser and more nuanced than that, I mean, we have to decide, you know, are we going to write off rural as Trump country?


HEFFNER: Well, you can’t do that.


COE: Or are we going to talk about it as the right, or are we going to talk about it as grandma’s cornbread? Are we going to talk about it in terms of organizations that are failing or populations that are walking, where are we going to find it as civic organizations like public libraries and schools? You know so these are human lives that are being led every day in relationship with one another and with communities, with their communities. And I think that the conversation has to revolve around that, more than more than those other pieces.


HEFFNER: No, I hear you. I hear you. And I appreciate you’re human and humane focus. I do. My question really is focusing on understanding how much of that personal is really animating people’s views. And I go back to the idea of resentments and aspirations. I kind of came up with that as a play on the whole Ethan Hawke from “Training Day” the movie, smiles and cries? Right? He talks about how he sees the streets. and he is actually intoxicated when he says this but, you know, it was, it was helping him define very concisely, the streets. And it’s not just the streets, it’s any zip code in America. There are people smiling, there are people crying sounds you know, rather simplistic, but in fact, you know, people are consulting their innermost values and emotions in considering personal dilemmas, but I’m just trying to understand how much of the public policy is caught up in their evaluation because as I’ve often said here on The Open Mind, and when I’m out and about in the country, I think what is most germane is the origin of people’s convictions, how they at their final decision or summation of an issue. And when that is driven by listening, and listening to personal anecdotes and experiences, that’s ideal from the perspective of, of the listener, but it’s not always driven by story. Sometimes it’s driven by something other than story. Sometimes it’s driven by policy or a disconnect between real life and you know, how something is interpreted, that veers from, you know, actually the facts, and getting at whether it is facts and or emotions that are driving those human reactions I think is important. But I connect that to Laura Kelly in Kansas being elected governor in response to the previous governor’s decimation of public education. And I, when I asked the question, I was really asking if you had any particular insight into that question of where the personal intersects with the policy and, to the extent that some of those policy convictions have evolved in these last decades, but there are places like Kansas and Kentucky that have voted for Democratic governors, even though they’ve largely followed what they, what they say are the policies of Trumpism. So I just wonder how you see that, that tension?


COE: I mean, I don’t know, I have so many thoughts about this conversation. And sometimes they change by the day, when I’m, you know, reading another article or, or discerning myself how much of my own convictions are based on emotion and values and heritage, you know, versus the facts of the matter right in front of me. So I just want to be honest about that. But also, you know, when I think about, even in my own town, our, our newspaper has now gone down to two days a week delivery. We have a daily fax that comes out that is mostly ribbon read news from the national level. We have a radio program that is mostly funded or created by kind of far-right folks. So, you know, a lot of this I think has to do with the information we’re receiving.


And if we believe that perception drives policy, then you know, what are the tools and what are the access points that we have to shape our own perceptions? And, you know, this cycle of disinformation is really troublesome, and the closing of kind of these democratic stronghold newspapers, it’s really troublesome. You know, so we’re all in a way we’re all flailing about trying to make sense of all the things, right? The facts of the policy, our emotional response, where we seed our identity, and also the fact that it, for us, for those of us living in rural, we know that’s you know, most of the country was rural until 1912. So I think all of us have, even those people living in urban America have these roots. We all share these same similar roots in what was a rural society. So it’s not something that’s easily set at the wayside, you know? So those are some of my jumbled thoughts about how this plays out. But I keep coming back to, if we’re all equity is the goal of my organization, which it is, and it, and it should, I would hope it would be the goal more broadly, then I think rural equity looks a whole lot like inclusion and imagination and an ability to see the human and champion our one another’s experiences. We, if we don’t champion one another’s experiences then we can’t truly understand where we’re all coming from.


HEFFNER: Do you see though, the paradigm of Thomas Frank’s work still applying in some instances of, you know, what’s the matter with people who are voting, and I don’t mean to say this pejoratively, but what’s the matter with anybody in urban America, rural America, suburban America voting against their interests ? and… And we’re almost out of time but, you rightly point out that it was a mistake of politicians to suggest that coal miners were going to just become coders overnight. That was a mistake, morally. It was demoralizing to a whole generation of, of tried-and-true American workers, West Virginians, but in the case of West Virginia which seems to have a higher profile than Tennessee or Kentucky now because of Joe Manchin’s role in the United States Senate. I just wonder how much of that phenomenon continues to be true of the kind of oligarchic class purporting to represent middle America, although, again, let’s not say represent rural communities and yet denying those same communities franchise, or opportunity in the policies that they’re supporting. Is that still a problem? Politicians denying the problems in their own community?


COE: Sure. It’s, I mean, it’s a problem across all zip codes and, you know, the conundrum of voting your interests. It’s not, in a way it’s not very helpful because he even, you know, Democrats voting for certain agendas, it may not necessarily benefit their pocketbook. So I, you know, when I think about even my own state, that those folks in power, the preservation of power becomes the most important thing beyond public policy, beyond the common good, beyond coming into some self-awareness about how we’re all linked. So I think what we’re up against now, and it’s not just a rural phenomenon, is kind of the dismantling of this notion of preserving power for power sake, as opposed to, yeah, as opposed to supporting the flourishing of communities that doesn’t answer all the questions.


HEFFNER: Whitney, I know you have to run and to manage this amazing Rural Assembly conference of rural women leaders. I urge our viewers to check out Whitney’s work connected with the Center for Rural Strategies and Rural Assembly, Whitney Kimball Coe, thank you so much for your time today.


COE: So good to talk to you. Thank you.


HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.