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Why we must learn from and fight for rural communities in the South: Opinion

Black voters in South Carolina put Joe Biden into the White House.

When the Democratic presidential primary was still up in the air, the Palmetto State is where now-President Biden started his comeback.

While South Carolina plays such a pivotal role in national politics, why is it that nearly 200,000 South Carolina households lack the basic infrastructure to connect to the internet?

The challenge is particularly dire when it comes to our rural communities.

A June 2021 study from the AARP revealed that more than half of rural residents (58%) report difficulty accessing high-speed internet (as opposed to just a third of urban and suburban residents).

The FCC has identified rural broadband access as a major concern with what’s now considered a near necessity as a result of shifts in the workplace and in schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jim Stritzinger, a North Carolina State alum living in South Carolina, has been doing path-clearing work in broadband mapping that’s garnering national attention.

Over in Kentucky, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is pulling together 26 rural counties to reinvigorate the economy in a region long dependent on coal and timber. The Foundation is serving as a sort of pass-through entity for funding from outside the region to support affordable housing, entrepreneurship initiatives and revitalizing Main Street corridors.

A major hurdle to boosting the economy in Kentucky is lacking internet connectivity in the region. The problem is particularly acute in Eastern Kentucky, where the topography of the region makes the installation of broadband especially challenging. Fortunately, organizations like Shaping Our Appalachian Region and KentuckyWired are working to build thousands of lines of high-speed, high-capacity fiber-optic cable across the state.

Next door in North Carolina, similarly severe challenges persist. Among the nation’s second-largest rural population, nearly 661,000 working-age adults are economically insecure.

We also know that eight out of ten states with the highest rates of rural child poverty are located in the Southeastern US. When we look at deeply impoverished sub-regions like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, we see just how pervasive rural child poverty really is.

We’re seeing dire needs in rural communities paired with admirable efforts to address persistent problems–and there’s a lot we can learn from what’s being done to build on the strengths of rural communities below the Mason-Dixon line.

Examples of rural resilience in the US South

Take Chandra Taylor-Sawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center, for example. Disclosure: I’m an SELC Trustee and serve on the board’s exec committee.

Taylor-Sawyer’s team is leading precedent-setting litigation on behalf of Black and brown communities across the South. One early victory (though urban) was the Byhalia pipeline fight in Memphis.

SELC’s impressive work to address pollution in the Lumber River in North Carolina is also a strong example of rural resilience.

Another example is Rural Forward.

They built a statewide network (the North Carolina Inclusive Disaster Recovery Network or NCIDR Network) for organizations to deepen their engagement in on-the-ground disaster recovery as well as broader strategic initiatives such as digital equity.

They quickly created new action teams to tackle acute issues facing rural North Carolina residents. These action teams read like a roll call of rural all-stars changing the game in far-flung communities across the state.

Folks like Juvencio Rocha-Peralta from Asociación de Mexicanos en Carolina del Norte (AMEXCAN) and Lariza Garzon from Ministerio Episcopal de Trabajadores Agrícolas have convened the Defensores de la comunidad Latina en Carolina del Norte to build strong networks of Latinx leaders and allies. This action team successfully urged North Carolina Emergency Management to make timely hazardous weather updates more accessible by also issuing them in Spanish.

On the issue of broadband connectivity, folks like Keith Buchanan of Connect McDowell have been building a coalition of dedicated volunteers across sectors working to increase connectivity and digital literacy in McDowell County, North Carolina. This community-led group offers a new framework for public-private partnership in rural North Carolina and brings expertise in the technical, business, fiber and education sectors.

As we consider rural communities across the entire country, we need to broaden our gaze beyond mainstream media narratives that focus almost exclusively on the plight of white farming communities–without pitting these communities against other marginalized groups.

Whether we look at bolstering the social safety net, offering migration subsidies for rural workers and expanding broadband access in rural areas–there are a number of promising policies already in place in many rural communities to help rural main streets thrive.

Just like the NCIDR Network, the key is to keep our ears to the ground and keep listening to what voices from rural southern communities are saying. That’s where the best ideas for rural resilience will emerge.

As is the case in most communities, the people closest to the problems in rural communities are often closest to the solutions as well.

From Courier-Journal, May 10, 2022

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