HILLSBORO, Ohio — The geographic remoteness of the homes, farms and businesses of millions of rural Americans leaves them underrepresented in power centers such as state capitals and Washington and, too often, victims of stereotypical narratives in the media.
That might sound wrong to anyone narrowly focused on the design of the electoral college and other aspects of our federal system, but it’s simply an obvious reality to those forced to watch from afar as one major public-policy decision after another gets made in urban locales.
One person who recognizes this disparity is Mike Gecan, senior organizer at Metro Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago. In something of a unique social experiment, Gecan is attempting to address obstacles faced by populations who are disadvantaged by residing in far-off areas of the map.
IAF was founded by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky, author of “Rules for Radicals” who has been portrayed as a socialist villain by conservative stalwarts such as Newt Gingrich. Indeed, Alinksy often fought for liberal populist causes, but his organizing techniques have been used by the tea party and other conservative movements.
Gecan visited me a year or so ago while I was still publisher and editor at the Times-Gazette here. He described his bold idea — to apply the same organizing techniques to rural America that have proved successful in big cities. Gecan didn’t strike me as a radical. He insisted he wasn’t interested in telling local residents what to think, but merely how to maximize their influence. We bonded over a shared belief that people from across the political spectrum can and should work together more often, as he detailed in a recent op-ed for the New York Daily News.
A couple of weeks ago, Gecan emailed to say he had just visited several southern Ohio communities — Ironton, Gallipolis and Portsmouth — where “the organizing is going slowly, but I think I’m beginning to get a handle on it.” He added that my prediction “that miles would be my main obstacle [had] been exactly right. The distance between places really works against any critical mass of leadership and momentum.”
Gecan has found that one of the most effective ways he can reach people is by using an institution many see going by the wayside in the Internet age — the public library. In Gallipolis — population 3,641 — Gecan described the local library as “extraordinary” and “the new town center.” He wrote that the facility “has a wonderful meeting room” and “300 hot spots that people take out to have internet access (and a six-week waiting list for more of them).”
Those hotspots are significant. Thousands of residents in southern Ohio and millions in other rural outposts across the United States still lack broadband Internet service, despite an increased focus on “last mile” initiatives by state and federal government.
It’s impossible for people in more densely populated regions to understand how disconnected rural residents can feel. They’re seldom covered by the media, especially television — the nearest TV stations can be located as far as 70 to 100 miles away — unless it’s for a grisly murder or natural disaster. The coverage they are afforded is usually centered on crime, poverty or drug abuse.
Case in point: In April 2016, eight members of one family were tragically shot to death near Piketon, Ohio — just 40 miles east of Hillsboro, in the general vicinity where Gecan is working — and TV news crews swarmed in from the closest stations, including Columbus (70 miles), Huntington, W.Va. (70 miles), and Cincinnati (95 miles). The story soon made national news.
While much of the reporting was sympathetic, many residents still felt that in too many cases they were portrayed in the worst possible light, with visuals that focused on dilapidated structures and narratives that highlighted poverty and the opioid epidemic. Rural places everywhere are easy pickings for story lines steeped in stereotypes when they’re covered only after tragedy strikes.
But towns such as Piketon, Portsmouth, Ironton and Gallipolis include beautiful neighborhoods, successful businesses, thriving college branches and modern government buildings — not to mention stunning natural landscapes. They are made up of people and organizations lifting up their communities through amazing volunteer work, but their efforts seldom get the attention lavished on similar accomplishments in metropolitan areas. In short, they lack a megaphone.
Gecan’s objective is to empower small, rural communities using the same basic philosophy that Metro IAF has employed in big cities — to “connect individuals and organizations to multiply their power, and organize people by the thousands to make their voices heard,” according to its website. Nowhere is such influence more lacking than in the isolated regions of rural America and most of Appalachia.
I’m sure Gecan is encountering a certain level of resistance because he’s an urbanite bringing a newfangled idea about community organizing to a population steeped in traditions of self-determination and independence. But heartland residents should remind themselves of the collective power they demonstrated at the polls in the 2016 presidential election. If they’re willing to adopt some big-city ideas, they might exert that influence more often — perhaps with just a visit to the local library.