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HECUA Classrooms: The Rural Dilemma

a tractor stands in a high field of wheat, with a blue sky in the background

HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. This semester, students in our Inequality in America, Art for Social Change, and Making Media, Making Change programs are writing a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. We asked Inequality in America students to consider a theory or reading that intersects with their lived experience. Making Media, Making Change and Art for Social Change students will offer a window into their creative processes, and describe how what they are learning guides their art. Over the next few months we’ll publish a number of these powerful reflections from our students. Please share them widely! You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.

The Rural Dilemma

by Whitney Oachs

Last year the nation saw the rural and working-class white perspective play a critical role in American political discourse through the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election. This perspective, which has occupied the margins of political discourse since deindustrialization, brings to attention the growing disconnect between rural and urban Americans, and the need for political candidates and parties to recognize the diversity of the “American experience.” Yet the challenge to promote community in the face of divisive rhetoric and policies is not easy, and is something I’ve experienced first-hand as a rural transplant into St. Paul life.

I love my country roots. I love that I didn’t have reliable cell phone service at my childhood home until senior year of high school. I love being from a rural Wisconsin town with one stoplight and five churches. I love going home to the beautiful St. Croix river. Yet, growing up, I was taught to resent being from the country. I thought that anyone who ever accomplished anything meaningful made their mark in the “big city,” which meant that I took the first chance I got to move to St. Paul and start my college career.

Whitney with her ice-fishing spoils.

By attending the University of St. Thomas I was trying to become a cultured, middle-class, urban young woman. I wanted to be the type of person I once considered successful, and I thought that meant shedding my rural identity. It did not take long for me realize that letting go of my roots was not only impossible, but counterproductive in my attempt to acclimate to city life. The reason my attempt was unsuccessful was simple: I didn’t know how to be a city girl. To be frank, I had no idea what it was like to go out to concerts, go shopping every weekend, or even be a part of a community that wasn’t always concerned about money. Some things came easy, like becoming a coffee shop connoisseur, but socially adapting to upper-middle class culture was like learning how to swim all over again.

At the start of my junior year I was finally comfortable in my own skin, just in time for the national Presidential election. As the candidates began making stump speeches, I saw many of my urban friends bash country folk for not just their political views, but for their way of life, disregarding the hardships rural people have to overcome. One of the things that frustrated me the most was how elitist many of these critiques were. Instead of trying to understand the way others saw the world, or empathizing with the often arduous lives of the rural working-class, they resorted to name calling and condescension towards the “uneducated.” To me, this patronizing view of my community neglected to consider how classist systems, community values, and access to higher education has influenced me and everyone I grew up with.

To be clear, it’s not as if the election was the first time I noticed differences between myself and my classmates. Most of my friends at St. Thomas come from families where one or both parents has a four-year degree and can afford to help their children attain an education. Most of my friends back home are paying their own way through school–if they chose to go to college in the first place. Many of my friends at St. Thomas are also pursuing degrees in the humanities and arts, where they study with the knowledge that employment can be challenging. Conversely, most of my friends back home chose a more “practical” route such as vocational school, a four-year degree in business, or a career in the military. These differences ultimately led my wealthier, urban friends to look down on the types of lives and choices people in my community make.

I don’t think there’s any shame in the more “practical” path, nor am I neglecting the importance of the humanities and liberal arts. A history student myself, I come from a long line of hard-working laborers, and I know first-hand the nobility in doing the work no one else wants to do. My dad is a construction worker and small-business owner, my mom is a nurse, and many of my neighbors are farmers, mechanics, and gas station employees. To insult them and their level of education was to insult me and my own dual identity.

Yet my loyalty to my community didn’t go untested during this election. Unlike many of my peers back home I did not buy into President Trump’s message, which left me feeling lost somewhere between my liberal, urban friends and my conservative rural home, and terrified of the vitriol I would face if I challenged either one on their beliefs. I wanted desperately to communicate with them both, but often chose silence rather than risk instigating a fight full of inflammatory language.

Following the election I felt so defeated. Defeated because a person who relied on divisive rhetoric for his campaign won, defeated because there was still so much hate thrown in every direction, defeated because my hope of creating a world where we understand and educate one another through empathy felt farther away than ever before. Yet in the time since that initial blow, I’ve begun to realize there is so much hope for the future. I have seen people reach out and admit they were wrong, I have seen entire communities stand in solidarity, and I have seen more people than ever before receptive to my voice and my perspective, and it is in this space that I’ve begun my plans for the future.

I haven’t lost sight of the world where we care about one another enough to listen and lovingly critique, and I see myself as an important part of a movement that is bringing people together. Among other things, J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Family and Culture in Crisis, has demonstrated how many people are going through the same thing that I am. His words comforted me because in them I heard hope, and I heard a voice that in some ways resembled my own.

I saw myself in Vance’s struggle to unpack his past, and I felt like he was speaking directly to me when he said that “social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.” Unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.

What I realized through Vance’s work and through my own experience is that maybe this process of political discourse is supposed to be hard, and maybe it is up to me to turn this struggle into a positive force. For now, I am content to own my experience for what it is: a classic case of rural to urban social mobility, filled with trials I can only overcome through honesty, integrity, and loyalty to myself and the multiple communities I call home.

Scenes from home. 

To learn more about HECUA’s Inequality in America program, click here

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