How to Organize Rural America

How to Organize Rural America

Photo: Red tractor (Hanomag C115 Greif) by Ole Husby via Wikimedia Commons, cc-by-sa-2.0.

This article originally appeared in Democratic Left. It is reprinted here with permission.


Whether you’re talking to your own family or friends and neighbors or strangers, here are some factors to consider when you’re in rural spaces.

  • Align with the groups and efforts already in place. Who else is active in the area? How can you show up for them and establish a shared sense of purpose and commitment? What resources are already available or in short supply?

  • Avoid jargon and theory. Your use of leftist jargon and theory can be ineffective at best and alienating at worst. Chances are there are local traditions of organizing and solidarity to which you can appeal rather than name-dropping theorists and movements. There’s a long tradition of socialist organizing in the Midwest and South. Draw on those names.

  • Aim for conversations rather than debates. For many people, difficult topics of politics or social justice operate at two speeds: complete avoidance or full-on debate. It is impossible to build a movement without addressing the issues, but we are equally unable to create change if our interactions flare out with arguments. The goal is to keep the pot simmering and not let it boil over.

  • Ask questions and be ready to incorporate what you hear. Part of establishing trust and reciprocity is listening and responding appropriately. If someone you’re talking with can feel that you are waiting for the chance to interject your own opinion or dismiss their experience, they have no reason to spend their time with you. Even if you have lived in the same area as that person, they may have a different view of what is happening and what needs fixed. Age, race, gender, sexuality, ability, class—these differences exist everywhere, and solidarity can’t exist if those differences are flattened or excluded.

  • Anticipate challenges, but apply compassion. We spend a lifetime developing our ways of thinking and living in the world. External circumstances and information have led community members to the politics or lifestyle that seems to work best for them. Workers might be opposed to the idea of protesting the company that signs their paychecks every month. They may even feel more loyal to that company than someone appealing to the interests of working classes. The only way to swing that loyalty is to prove that you care more than the company about the long-term well-being of that worker, their family, and their community.

  • Accept that differences will persist. Let’s say that you make progress with an individual or an overall campaign—unity in the face of one exploitative company or law doesn’t mean that you will agree with every idea represented within your coalition. There are too many ingrained biases and systems of power to “win” every issue at once. You could be excluding potential help or never getting an effort off the ground for fear of including someone who does not meet a purity test.

Note: It IS essential to make sure that people feel safe in your organizing. Vulnerable individuals should not be forced to work alongside anyone who wishes them harm or debates their humanity. When in doubt, organize around the needs and desires of the people most at risk in your community.

  • Appeal to common values. In conversations and local tactics, organizing benefits from appealing to the common values that exist between individuals and groups in spite of apparent differences. This is the core of the most successful connections, because it allows you to agree on something, to have them say “yes” when they are used to saying “no” about certain issues.

Right-wing politicians and conservative institutions have spent decades trying to corner the market on tradition, work ethic, family values, rural identity, religion, agriculture, and even things like disaster preparedness. Leftists in rural places have as much a claim to these areas as any mega-church, corporation, or politician.

For every objection to an issue like “political correctness” or unions, there will be an example of something more familiar to rural life that operates on the same principles. People already censor their language when they don’t swear around their elders or tell dirty jokes at church. Farmers understand the good of bargaining as a collective when they operate as a co-operative or commission for better prices on certain crops. There is a history of leftist organizing in rural spaces and “Middle America” that has been obscured since the mid-20th century. Countering decades of propaganda and marketing will be challenging, no doubt, but rural America needs socialism, can be reached by socialism, and will be an asset for other socialists.

Articles express the views of the authors and don't necessarily represent the position of Lexington DSA.