This week’s blog post is a special one: It’s LIP’s first GUEST CONTRIBUTION (!) and it’s from our volunteer-extraordinaire – Anna Grace. In it, she discusses and details her continued efforts to define what it means to be rural. After recalling a story from her high-school days, Anna walks us through her experiences as an out-migrant in college and how that experience has impacted the way she sees and understands rural places, people, and herself as a rural person.
One of the most striking and important things about her story and the way she tells it is how she works to identify and disrupt deficits associated with rural people and their cultural practices.
Thanks for your contributions to our community, Anna!
If, like Anna, you’re interested in thinking through aspects of what it means to be rural, please consider submitting a guest contribution. You can learn more about possibilities and how to submit here.
Telling My Story: Seeing Past Deficits to Elevate Strengths
By Anna Grace
It was high school, and I was on my way to the principal’s office. I started every other day there, but that was to read the announcements as part of my student council duties. This was a being-called-out-of-class summoning. As I walked the short way there, I tried to think why I would be in trouble. I’d settled on “yelling at a teammate for not running drills hard enough at basketball practice” by the time I was there.
It was not for that. I had won a brand new Apple laptop and $5,000 for my school! Having not entered any sort of drawing, I was pretty confused. The HyVee representative and I pieced it together. I had been entered in the “HyVee Smiles for Education” program, which gave prizes to students and money to schools. He said that it was a little hard to read the name, but they figured out who entered me — a neighbor up the road from me. I told him it wasn’t that surprising her handwriting was a bit challenging to read — she was 99 years old at that time.
This story came to mind as I thought about what being rural means to me. Getting my first laptop, a top-of-the-line Macbook, because the neighbor we stopped by for Halloween, took holiday cookies, and saw on the times we went to church just kept entering my name at the local grocery store. After I got the laptop, we went to show her – this woman who had been alive since before the first World War. She was excited for me, even if she didn’t quite grasp what a great prize it was.
I took the laptop off to my first year of college, in a “small town.” Or, everyone there thought it was a small town. It was ten times the size of my hometown. It had two McDonald’s and one Walmart to our….zero and zero. I knew of the world beyond my small hometown, and consider myself fortunate to have, but this was the first time I was fully immersed in people who were mostly not rural.
There are some serious perks. For example, not worrying you’re related to your crush. Being in class with people you hadn’t had to be around since they were five years old. Teachers that didn’t know your sibling and would never speak to your parents. There were a few other students from around back home, people I had despised from afar because we played against them in sports — turns out they were cool and I’d often have plenty in common with them.
It’s good to be around people who are different from you. And yet. I stopped saying supper, I stopped calling it “pop.” When other students said “There’s nothing to do here,” I said, “You think there’s nothing to do here? Let me tell you about my town…” when in truth, we always had fun swimming in ponds, playing sports, and cruising around town. I would pull out the milk-tasting knowledge I’d learned from FFA as a party trick, which yeah, it’s a good one and I earned that right, but FFA is also partly where I learned how to public speak and did practice job interviews. Most people were surprised when they found out I was from a small town.
In this group of people, I also began to better understand some of the biases swirling under the surface in the way we talk about rural people. People I knew who were proud to be open and welcoming to a diversity of identities didn’t recognize “rural” as a culture or identity. Though they were working to address blind spots, move beyond stereotypes, and confront biases toward other groups, and admirably so, but they didn’t extend this to many members of the community they now lived in.
I was certainly finding my own blind spots, too. My small town was not diverse. I learned from those around me about different life experiences and world views, and I hoped they learned from me too.
Midway through college, I began coaching and volunteering in schools in the community. The kids were awesome. People I worked with were awesome. As I got towards the end of my college experience and went on to graduate school in the same town, I began to feel the warm sense of community that comes with knowing parents, brothers, sisters, families and seeing them grow up. I started knowing my cashiers at the grocery store and adjusting what and where I bought publicly. (No one loves seeing you buy alcohol more than a teenager you’re coaching.) I earned some street cred substitute teaching middle schoolers by telling them about the buck I shot during deer season. I learned about cultural identity development in my grad classes, never considering (or learning) that it might apply to me, my former classmates, or some of the kids I was working with.
I stayed in that town to teach my first years. The schools were unexpectedly diverse: culture, class, and language. I saw first-hand the power of acknowledging diversity, but also the monoculture of our heroes and main characters that flourished without constant and intentional reflection. (Though at the time, “rural” did not register as an identity I should have been elevating.) I experienced great joy alongside frustrations. But it was clear that people did the best they could for their families, regardless of who they were.
As I thought about how to conclude this post, it became very clear that I’m still on my path of understanding my rural identity. I want to see past deficits and leverage and elevate strengths. I want to honor and respect my rural background and share my experiences, and not as a joke. The challenges facing multiple identity groups are often experienced by rural people. For example, there are food deserts surrounded by farmland and by city blocks. It seems vital to me that these disparate groups work together. But where to start? I believe in the power of sharing and listening to stories to build understanding. And I’m going to work to get better at telling my own story, elevating others’, and listening.
More than that, I want to do something. I want to be like the woman down our road, who, at ninety-nine, was repeatedly doing something, entering my name in a drawing for me and my school, because she wanted to help. Because she had a ready list in her head of people to support and acted on it. Not that rural people are the only ones who do it, but I’m learning that maybe that’s what being rural means to me — having a list in your head of people you help — family, friends, those who share your zip code, and supportinging them, even if sometimes you don’t even really like them.
So, in the end, maybe it’s not always all bad that everybody knows everybody else’s business.