12 Principles for Organizing in Rural Communities

12 Principles for Organizing in Rural Communities

This is one of a two part series I’ve written on rural organizing in reflection on Equity Summit 2018. Read “Raising Up a Rural Organizing Agenda for Equity: The Berkshires.”

At PolicyLink’s Equity Summit in Chicago in April, I had the honor of presenting “Small Towns, Big Future: An Equity Agenda for Rural America” (Read the Equity Summit Manifesto). For panelists, our collective takeaway from this session was the realization of how the definition of “rural” meant something different in our four different communities, and how there are even more rural profiles to understand across the U.S.

In my experience organizing in the Berkshires of Western Mass, keeping relational work of any kind in cultural context is of utmost priority. Some "best practices" for organizing in rural communities work almost everywhere; others appear like they may apply, but actually require specific attention to place and context. This is important because if relational organizing work is done with proper care and resources, policy work often becomes much more facile. Activists and communities are able to draw a much simpler, cleaner straight line to implementing policy changes.

Here are 12 principles that have helped my team at BRIDGE, my colleagues, and my fellow coalition members get to policy changes faster.

1. Know Your Context! Working with small numbers in relative isolation can make problems larger. Going against the grain in a small community can turn destructive without enough trust. Voting is a community affair in rural areas. Going by your own rules that fit your community may keep others out. These things can hold true in many different communities, but are more pronounced in rural areas. I recommend always asking, “How do we stay true to the culture of our area while welcoming 'outsiders?'” Plus, rural communities tend to offer more of a package deal when it comes to advancing causes. Finding ways to build coalitions across seemingly different missions and strategic paths is key.

2. Use small group size to your advantage. Smallness is both a curse and a blessing. Small numbers can be used as leverage when it comes to gaining access. The political landscape is different; there may be fewer folks in general and fewer degrees of separation. But this also provides a real opportunity. The threshold for enacting change, even at the policy level, is entirely different than in larger places. For example, BRIDGE’s Trust Policy work was done in an incredibly short period of time. We now have direct access to our representatives, and BRIDGE has established direct access to USAO and the DOJ Civil Rights Division for our team, community members, and coalition partners. One thing I remind myself and others is that we have direct access to our leaders and public safety officials. This provides more opportunities to impact change.

3. Practice zero harm. We have to integrate voices in a way that causes the least amount of harm, threat of harm, or perception of harm. It is tricky to talk about being undocumented or advocating for DACA in the same way it is difficult to address workplace discrimination. For white liberal allies, another part of practicing zero harm is listening to people of color when we confront you (or any other dominant group) about your privilege taking center stage over the needs of those who are underrepresented. This is not easy, but it is imperative.

4. Create Safety for Yourself and Your Fellow Activists. Rural areas often have their own rules of engagement. There are power structures in place involving families that have been there for generations. Some of the most influential people in the work (typically embedded in minority, women-run organizations) are also some of the most vulnerable players in our communities. In my experience, the folks out front are often those with the most privilege and access to power who are willing to use their privilege to protect more vulnerable community members and create change. Wherever you stand in your community, create extra measures of safety for yourself and your constituents while maintaining a balance of authenticity and safety in the work. Bravery and safety are key, and unpacking what “safety” means across different groups is a critical first step.

5. Work in Coalition. Find ways to build coalitions and bring partners into your work. Partnership can take many forms (ex: broad portfolio of BRIDGE programming). BRIDGE’s approach in coalition building is to be true to our values, visions, and mission while finding common ground across partners and sectors. When you do work in coalition, do a scan of who else is doing the work in your area and across the nation. Invite them to join you in your work or ask to join them. Develop good strong practices of collaboration. And, for activists in larger cities—this is often overlooked—it is important to demonstrate interest in smaller communities and join their organizing activities. Travel is a must.

6. Make equity and justice a conversation that everyone sees their interest in. Equity and justice conversations so often are perceived as benefitting only minority groups. These conversations automatically involve educators, doctors, engineers, and public safety professionals, but it is beneficial to address these issues head on every sector. Since 2009, BRIDGE has convened our Race Task Force with leaders from all sectors, including police chiefs from around the county. This has not always been comfortable, but it’s been hugely impactful. I’m proud to say that my BRIDGE team has collaborated on Citizens Academies and been cited by researchers like Andy Tarsey as a best practice partner for community policing (with the Mass Chief of Police Association in 2010 and our local Chiefs at the time Chief Wynn, Wilcox and Walsh). In 2015, Dr. Carolyn Petrosino named BRIDGE as a best practice community-based initiative in her book, Understanding Hate Crimes. Currently, we’re partnering with the US Attorney office in two arenas: in our local schools the topic of education and in community focusing on helping students and community members know their rights and access support.

7. Come prepared with a poverty/privilege/power analysis. I always start BRIDGE cultural competence trainings by creating personal connection to the diversity conversation alongside the race and gender identity conversation. I work with people and teams to develop a poverty, privilege, and power analysis to engage everyone in these conversations and help individuals and teams work with complexity. We also discuss bias: implicit and explicit personal biases and biases at the cultural and environmental level. All of these things serve as foundations upon which to build our individual and collective organizing work.

8. Focus on building strong relationships. In rural communities, since we do often have more immediate access to our leaders, human service providers, and decision-makers, making this known across demographics and taking advantage of this access is critical. Rural areas have more opportunity to have direct conversations that impact policymaking and decision-making, which takes strong relationship. This includes police, superintendents, etc. Similarly, smallness means everything is relational work as well; we presume everyone is connected. The neighbor who is coaching your son’s baseball team may also be the same person reviewing your grant around a community-related issue. Relationships overlap since there are fewer degrees of separation. This often trumps other considerations around the work and can require careful negotiation.

9. Be ok with disagreement and expect discomfort. We have to build resilient relationships in which we exercise the muscle of healthy disagreement while still showing up for one another. Similarly, in rural communities, we can only do intersectional work. Fragmenting ourselves will make our impact minimal and is pretty much impossible in rural communities anyway. What we always have to be prepared for is discomfort and change. Expect discomfort! Know what changes you want to see and be prepared to mobilize at any moment. We also have to be prepared for the panic some people experience when change finally becomes real. We must be ready to take a stand for what we believe in, and this can mean risking losing a relationship. From experience, however, I know that authenticity is what most often maintains the relationship or even grows it… making the relationship or connection better, stronger, and more evolved in such a way that advances good work.

10.  Reject the myth of meritocracy as you reflect on and measure your work. Linking outcomes to hard work and merit is a prevalent pattern in folks who have lived with generational poverty versus folks who confront less structural barriers to success. Not everyone’s hard work and inherent talent and expertise leads to “success”. Working hard also looks like many different things; distinct types of labor require different culturally relevant measures of success. That is to say outcomes are weighted differently when it comes to gauging “success”  (e.g. longevity and scope of the work, longevity and diversity of partners versus the size of an organization’s or coalition’s annual budget or endowments).

11.  Celebrate every short-term win and commit to long-term organizing. Change does not happen overnight, it’s true, but this is not the only story in rural areas. If you need to move quickly, what may take impossible odds in a larger urban area may quickly become possible in a rural area. Again, this is due to how relational the work is. After years (often generations) of developing relationship, change can seem to happen almost “overnight.” So when there is a win we must celebrate it and practice recognizing the many folks in the relationship-building phase who have been advocates and activists for change over a long period of time. A short-term win often occurs after years of hard work advocating, organizing, and relationship-building.

12. Work alongside organizers already doing the work. When you decide to advocate for a group of people or a cause, ask how you can help and what support people need before you start helping. Work alongside and sometimes offer your privilege and resources to reduce harm. Work together to see how new work may be done. This allows space for different kinds of power, knowledge, and authority within groups. Rural or not, our collective work is still about amplifying the voices and experiences of those individuals and communities most negatively impacted by institutional barriers while recognizing and leveraging the power these populations already hold. And where people are powerless, it's about shifting power and resources (knowledge, money, social capital, etc.) to those communities so they can lead their own communities to thriving and flourishing.

Read “Raising Up a Rural Organizing Agenda for Equity: The Berkshires.” Read the Equity Summit Manifesto


Equity Summit Manifesto. PolicyLink.

BRIDGE - TRJ South and Race Task Force.

Turpin, Petrosino. Understanding Hate Crimes: Acts, Motives, Victims, Defenders, and Justice. Routledge. April 2015.

© 2018 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

Working Alongside Versus Welcoming In: Moving Beyond Inclusion Toward Authentic Integration

Working Alongside Versus Welcoming In: Moving Beyond Inclusion Toward Authentic Integration

Raising Up a Rural Organizing Agenda for Equity: The Berkshires

Raising Up a Rural Organizing Agenda for Equity: The Berkshires