2021: Highlights, Lessons, and Challenges
It’s been a momentous, often stressful, and exciting year. The year began with thrilling wins in the Georgia special election that transformed the US Senate. Just weeks later, the anti-democracy faction fueled a deadly attack on our nation’s Capitol. We’re ending the year with historic infrastructure funding and a promising increase in new jobs. While COVID and new variants are a continued threat, hospitalizations due to COVID are significantly down compared to the start of the year. This is thanks to the community organizing from grassroots groups around the country as well as the Biden administration’s improved public health policy and expanded vaccine distribution.
Throughout this high-stakes year, the Rural Democracy Initiative has built permanent civic and political infrastructure in small towns, small cities, and rural areas. Groups are organizing around urgent issues such as voting rights, access to healthcare, and climate justice with strategies that build power over the long term.
The sobering election results in Virginia demonstrate both the importance and the challenges of rural organizing. Those results stand in contrast to rural municipal wins in places like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Montana — communities where effective groups have been running year-round engagement campaigns.
It is challenging to raise funds in “off” years to maintain the strong year-round organizing and civic engagement efforts that rural communities need. We are incredibly grateful that our donors enabled us to grant $11.5 million to groups in our network and build momentum for 2022.
We thank you for your support and are excited to share some highlights of what we’ve accomplished together. We hope you are moved to consider an end-of-year donation that will help us jump start the urgent work ahead!
*Photo at top: MOVE Transformative Conversations Canvassers in Missouri
Rural Democracy Initiative’s grantees helped elect progressive leaders in small towns and rural areas across the country. These victories are the product of year-round organizing. The winning formula includes base-building organizations, messages that resonate, and strong candidates. These wins in critical swing states will directly impact people’s lives while also building momentum for future campaigns. We’re excited to spotlight just a few of these important campaigns:
- Georgia began the year with momentous wins in the Senate. Then in November, Democrats flipped 48 seats in 25 counties, including mayorships and council races where our grantees worked. New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, 1000 Women Strong, Black Male Voter Project, Faith in Georgia, and all our Georgia grantees continue to show what’s possible in rural communities.
- Pennsylvania United recruited and supported 20 grassroots candidates in Western Pennsylvania. 14 of them won!
- In Michigan, We the People Michigan and their partners won 8 municipal seats in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
- In Montana, our progressive partners protected all their targeted municipal incumbents, picked up seats in Billings, Helena, Bozeman, and Missoula, and elected progressives in Red Lodge, Livingston, and Lewiston.
- In West Virginia, rural voters elected 4 new West Virginia Can’t Wait candidates. Plus, 2 incumbents joined the slate — bringing the total to 18 West Virginia Can’t Wait elected officials.
- In Utah, the Rural Utah Project-endorsed candidates won extremely competitive Moab mayor and city council races.
- In Alaska, AKPIRG worked with the Alaska Railbelt Energy Coalition (AREC) to elect 6 pro-renewables and pro-transparency members to rural energy coop boards.
PASSING HISTORIC POLICY AND LEGISLATION
This year, it was essential to establish progressive, climate-friendly economic recovery efforts. In rural communities, we particularly need policy to support working families, family farmers, and small businesses.
We convened rural advocates from across the country to create The Rural Policy Action Report. Identifying the top rural policy priorities for the year, the report was widely publicized and was shared directly with policymakers and key decision makers in the Biden administration.
Many of the recommendations were adopted and have made a significant impact in people’s lives. The American Rescue Plan and Infrastructure Bill funded key programs for public health, economic recovery, and job growth. The Promoting Competition Executive Order established critical protections and opportunities for working families.
However, we still struggled to get some of the policies we need. The ongoing debates around the Build Back Better plan, combined with disinformation and media distraction, led to voter confusion and cynicism. Meanwhile, many states passed barriers to voting and measures against public health that roll back progress and hurt millions of people.
In this challenging environment, our grantees led efforts to secure vital policy victories in their communities and issue areas.
- PA Voice was instrumental in abolishing prison gerrymandering. Thousands of people incarcerated in state prisons will be counted in their home communities rather than in correctional facilities when Pennsylvania redraws their legislative maps.
- Manufactured Housing Action established new federal protections for mobile home owners through a new rule by Freddie Mac.
- Iowa CCI passed the first anti-racial profiling ordinance in the history of Des Moines.
- Faith in Indiana secured the adoption of Use of Force policies in Indianapolis and South Bend, statewide de-escalation training for law enforcement, and a statewide ban on chokeholds.
- Wisconsin Citizen Action convinced the Wisconsin utility to offer “on-bill tariff financing” for residential energy efficiency upgrades and is now working on implementation.
- Mano Amiga passed a cite and release ordinance in San Marcos, Texas. The new law makes the community safer by reducing detention and deportation for immigration violations. The legislation was modeled and passed in other parts of Texas, such as Houston.
- Virginia Student Power Network, along with a coalition of partners, helped pass the legalization of marijuana in Virginia, the first state in the South to do so.
Our network’s civic engagement work literally saves lives and bolsters our democracy. The groups provide critical health, housing, and food aid to rural communities. They lead year-round campaigns to engage voters on local issues, develop leaders, communicate to the public about critical issues, advocate for progressive policy, and register people to vote. Some highlights include:
- Rural Arizona Engagement’s leadership program teaches youth the critical organizing skills — like power mapping and digital organizing — skills to advocate effectively. These new young leaders are creating engaging campaigns and mobilizing people to vote.
- New Rural Project in North Carolina partners with regional medical providers and other community-focused organizations to organize pop-up healthcare events across the region. These pop-up events are more than a health clinic. They are fun, community events that strengthen relationships and build a base of civic support.
- Many of our grantees continued their rural deep canvassing work, and People’s Action established a new Deep Canvass Institute. These long-form, values focused conversations lead to better understanding of constituents and stronger relationships. Ultimately, it is one of the most effective methods to persuade voters. Some stand-out groups include We the People MI, Missouri Organizing and Voter Engagement Collaborative (MOVE), Native People’s Action, and The Mobilization Center, as well as People’s Action affiliates Down Home North Carolina, PA Stands Up, and Michigan United.
- The Rural Power Coalition advocated for the Retire and Reinvest Campaign, which seeks to retire 300 fossil fuel power plants and fund clean energy upgrades, making a difference for 18 million households in rural areas. They are organizing and supporting the next generation of rural electric cooperative leaders in regions with some of the most carbon-intensive and indebted rural utilities in the US.
- RDI grantees support workers and small businesses that have been especially impacted by COVID and its economic impacts across industries. United for Respect organizes Amazon, Walmart, and Target workers, and One Fair Wage organizes restaurant workers; retail and restaurants are often the biggest employers in rural areas. Meanwhile, Institute for Local Self Reliance led meaningful research and advocacy about how monopoly power hurts small businesses, and Small Business Majority and Main Street Alliance organized small business owners. Family Farm Action and Wisconsin Farmer’s Union advocated successfully for protections for small farmers.
WINNING JOBS NARRATIVE
Responding to what we heard from the field, we partnered with the New Economy Fund and other groups to launch the Winning Jobs Narrative. Working with top narrative practitioners and advocates, we’re creating a compelling progressive economic narrative and a blueprint for successful messaging about jobs and work. In early 2022, we’ll be rolling out a toolkit and sample content, and will work with groups to implement effective and persuasive communications that build support with working people for progressive policies and candidates.
Recognizing the huge opportunity for small city and rural communities created by the new federal funding, we launched the Rural Climate Initiative to provide policy and communications support for climate-friendly local economic development, new clean energy projects, regenerative agriculture and forestry, and cleaner, more representative rural electric cooperatives.
We are actively learning about, and sharing, successful strategies for rural organizing. Our grantees conduct original research that benefits the progressive movement. Through message-testing, GALvanize developed highly effective responses to the current right-wing wedge issues for white women. RuralOrganizing.org polled voters in battleground states and identified significant messaging gaps.
We’ve pulled out the top ten challenges in non-metro organizing as well as what is working in rural and small-town organizing. It’s summarized, with examples from groups in the Rural Democracy Initiative network, in a new report: “Investing in Rural and Small-Town Voters.”
We’re seeing the changes in rural America and continue to call on the progressive movement to see rural people for who they are. 1 in 4 rural residents are people of color. That’s up from 1 in 5 from 2010. Moreover, public opinion research, well-organized electoral campaigns, and issues-focused mobilization repeatedly shows the same thing: rural voters will support progressive change — if we build local organizing and communications that connect with their values and most pressing concerns.
RACIAL JUSTICE AND RDI
In 2021, Rural Democracy Initiative has worked to refine our approach to racial equity. In partnership with W.A. Pritchett & Associates, we launched a racial justice planning process that includes RDI staff, members of our board, and our grantees. This process is helping us understand and address the unique racial equity challenges our grantees and our own organization face in our small town and rural work, and with rural-focused narratives and philanthropy. We started this process with a comprehensive survey of our staff, board, and grantees. From there, we are establishing strategic priorities and will draft a racial equity plan that details how we’ll operationalize these goals over the next five years.
RDI understands the urgency and timeliness of this work. 47% of our grantees are led by or primarily focused in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. We also fund groundbreaking anti-racist work in majority-white rural communities.
In 2022, the RDI network will be on the front lines connecting federal funding to local projects and making sure small town, small city, and rural residents feel the impacts in their lives and connect them to progressive leadership. Our grantees will be doing the person-by-person work of engaging voters who are frustrated with things not changing quickly enough, and who in many cases face crushing voter suppression.
In our new report, “Investing in Rural and Small-Town Voters,” analyst Mike Lux provides a state-by-state analysis and prognosis for achieving governing power. This report and the layered research and understanding we have gained from our partners in the field informs our 2022 plan.
Learn more about supporting Rural Democracy Initiatve
Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI) includes the 501c3 Heartland Fund and 501c4 Rural Victory Fund.