Wednesday, September 2, 2015

09/02/2015 at 2:23pm

Nick Tilsen is the head of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in South Dakota.  


"Rural Voices" is part of a series of interviews with people who will be participating in the National Rural Assembly, September 9-11, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Read the first three parts of the series: 
Timothy Lampkin of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
2. Sarina
 Otaibi of Granite Falls, Minnesota.
3. Frank Estrada of Lockhart, Texas.


If you think rural America gets marginalized in national policy discussions, imagine what it’s like trying to talk about Native American issues, says Nick Tilsen, the executive director of a community development corporation serving members of the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

“A lot of people don’t [even] understand rural issues, and tribal areas are mostly rural,” Tilsen said. Without a background in rural topics, policy makers have a tougher time dealing effectively with Native American issues. “They’re not even in a place to understand tribal issues,” he said.

Tilsen, founder of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, will be attending his first National Rural Assembly next week in Washington, D.C. He said he hopes the event will create connections with rural groups that are working on poverty, development, education and other issues that resonate on Pine Ridge.

“We can potentially share what we’re doing and also learn what other people are doing, so we can improve our understandings of our own work,” he said.

He also said he wants to address disparities in philanthropic investment in Indian Country. “I feel philanthropy has a responsibility to take a bigger leadership role in investing in [Native and rural] places,” he said.

The Yonder asked Tilsen to describe his part of rural America and what he thinks it takes to build stronger rural communities.


Breaking ground for a Thunder Valley CDC sustainable housing project.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
The part of rural America that I’m in is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It’s home to the Oglala Lakota people. It’s a place rich with culture and language. It’s also a place that is experiencing very, very entrenched poverty. Here on Pine Ridge the unemployment rate is over 60%. It’s historic, generational poverty. Oglala Lakota County [formerly Shannon County] has historically been one of the poorest county in all of America. There are high rates of suicide amongst young people. There is an extreme housing shortage: an average family could be having 12 to 17 people living in one home. And you have the impacts that come from that.

But we’re here. We’re not leaving this place.  Our culture and our identity are tied to this tribe and this place. Our work here at Thunder Valley CDC is trying to improve those issues. There is also something in the language and culture of Pine Ridge, something beautiful here: the Black Hills, the Badlands, and this beautiful Lakota culture. And then there is an extreme layer of poverty – isolated, generational poverty.

09/02/2015 at 7:00am

Ronnie "Stray Dog" Hall plays with kittens.

Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall is a Vietnam veteran who rides motorcycles and runs an RV park in rural southern Missouri. He’s easy on his tenants and understands when they can’t make payments. His granddaughter is having a child; she works two minimum-wage jobs and can barely make ends meet. This bewilders Stray Dog. He fought in Vietnam to make his country better, and his granddaughter, has it worse than he did when he was picking cotton in the 1950s.

These are the elements of Stray Dog, a documentary film by Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik.

It’s a timely movie. Last month researchers with the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study released new findings on Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. More than a quarter-million Vietnam vets still suffer from PTSD symptoms, and one-third of them battle major depression. For a number of reasons – declining health, but also absence of proper medical treatment in the immediate years following Vietnam – many of these veterans will likely experience increased PTSD symptoms over time.

Granik does an excellent job of adding dimension to Ronnie’s trauma. Instead of obsessing over his guilt, she examines his awareness of the injustices that were done to him and that he did to others. “Somebody got money and wanted to make more money,” he tells his wife, Alicia. “Old men start wars; young men who don’t have money go fight the war.” In a deeply emotional scene with his therapist, he links his individualized trauma to the nation’s imperial ambitions: “What happened to these people [the Vietnamese] that I was even a part of – I don’t have a right to just say that was OK and I’ll just let it go.”

The veterans at the center of the story – Stray Dog and his biker friends – are equally accessible. They ride around the rural Ozarks visiting veterans’ funerals and families, helping out where they can. They are open-minded and selfless. They trade Viagra tablets like M&M’s while belittling their own war medals. They break down crying in parks and parking lots, and rebound with jokes and acts of kindness.

There is almost a scripted feeling to this documentary, and, perhaps because of the beards and the occasional Confederate flag, I was at times reminded of the popular TV show Duck Dynasty. But the story here is human and complex; whereas Duck Dynasty exists in a vacuum of self-referential conservative memes and jingoistic rural fantasies, Stray Dog asks honest questions about exploitation, stereotypes, and national identity. When Alicia moves her two teenage sons from Mexico to Ronnie’s house in rural Missouri, the teenagers are bombarded with inane questions about freedom and opportunity. Alicia thinks it will be easier for them to find work here, but they’re not so convinced. Their bewildered confusion with America mirrors Ronnie’s. He is constantly questioning who and what he fought for.

Americans can’t comprehend PTSD because we can’t comprehend the Vietnam War, because the history of that event has been radically altered in the four decades since it ended. The Vietnam War was a catastrophic event in America’s class struggle; about 80% of soldiers came from blue-collar backgrounds, and many of them were from rural and farming communities. The majority of them were forced into the war through the draft. The children of the elite did not fight in this war.

09/01/2015 at 4:24am

Frank Estrada.

Part of a series of interviews with rural leaders who will attend the 2015 National Rural Assembly, September 9-11 in Washington, D.C.

If the National Rural Assembly awarded perfect-attendance stickers, Frank Estrada would have a gold star.

The Lockhart, Texas, civic leader has attended each of the four previous Assemblies. And he plans to be there for the fifth gathering on September 9 in Washington, D.C.

“Frank is one of our most devoted and enthusiastic participants,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly. He’s especially active in online social networks that connect local and national leaders.

Estrada heads economic development activities for the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A long-time public servant, he served as mayor pro tem of the City of Lockhart, Texas, for nearly three decades.

Estrada says the Rural Assembly helps him spot the issues that are likely to be on the horizon for Lockhart, a city of about 12,000 residents between San Antonio and Austin.

“I find out what other communities are going through and I try to get ready for what will happen here,” he said.

In turn, he’s able to share how Lockhart has dealt with its issues. A big one this year is how to take advantage of a new major highway that connects Lockhart with two major metropolitan areas.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
The City of Lockhart Texas has a population of 12,000. Lockhart is actually known as the best barbeque in Texas. I had some guys come in from Austin, and everyone knew that we had the best barbeque right here.

In my area there are broadband issues and the affordable housing issues. Our county is one of the poorest in the state of Texas. It’s sad, but more than half our population lives in mobile homes. It’s not easy to find affordable places to live, especially for lower income families. I don’t know what it’s like in other rural communities, but that is one of the things of concern here.

Most of my concerns at the other Rural Assemblies I’ve attended were around broadband in the rural communities – the quality but also the affordability. I was fortunate to attend the convening with the staff of the active chairman of the state legislator recently, and we expressed our concerns and I told him stories about what was going on in my community to try to get small rural providers the ability to provide access to broadband for rural communities. With broadband, people in rural communities could go on the internet and efficiently talk to their doctors and get diagnosed online. A lot of people can’t drive to the cities easily. And a lot of those people are not covered on insurance either. I want to find ways to address those issues. 

And, of course, this is history, but I was concerned about fracking oil. Just recently our state legislature voted to allow fracking oil and banned local governments from doing anything to regulate fracking. Those are some of the things of the concerns here.

I just want to address these issues, to find more efficient use of land, deal with infrastructure and give people affordable choices.

08/31/2015 at 9:09am

Lea Marquez-Peterson, director of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, talks about expanding business with Mexico at the Arizona Rural Policy Forum.

The story of the Verde River cleanup in Arizona, which helped spur growth in the recreation economy there, could show other rural leaders in Arizona how to work collaboratively on community projects, said a participant in a statewide meeting on rural policy.

Royce Hunt, the director of a nonprofit in Safford, Arizona, said she thinks the lesson of the Verde Valley could help her community located two hours to the southeast.

“Seeing [the Verde River project] work here really encourages me to go back home and see what we can do to copy this example and have the same level of success that they’ve had here,” Hunt said.

Sharing stories of success is one of the goals of the Arizona Rural Policy Forum. The annual forum, held for the last nine years, is sponsored by the Arizona Rural Development Council, an initiative of the Local First Arizona Foundation. The event gathers hundreds of rural economic development professionals, nonprofits, community leaders, business owners, and other rural stakeholders who are interested in sustaining rural communities.

“Our goal with hosting the Arizona Rural Policy Forum is to hear strategies from national experts as well as learn about success stories around Arizona that will give our rural leaders the tools, resources and relationships they need to face current challenges,” said Kimber Lanning, director of the Local First Arizona Foundation and the Arizona Rural Development Council. “We want Arizona’s rural communities to learn best practices form each other in order to build real prosperity for all.” 

Forum attendees took field trips, like this train ride through the Verde Canyon.

This year’s forum drew over 200 attendees from every corner of Arizona to the small town of Clarkdale, a former mining town located in the Verde Valley about 90 minutes north of Phoenix. Arizona isn’t just all desert and saguaros; the Verde Valley sits at over 3,000 feet and is home to one of Arizona’s burgeoning wine regions. Some attendees enjoyed special excursions outside regular forum programming, including a tour of the Verde Valley aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad, touring the historic downtown and local businesses, plus dinner and a show with the cowpokes of Blazin’ M Ranch.

Every year, the Forum explores an array of topics relevant to rural communities across the state. Many of the sessions this year focused on how rural communities can build wealth for themselves. Participants explored a variety of strategies that rural towns across the country could employ to build wealth and prosperity for their communities: 

08/28/2015 at 2:21am

Video directed by Joel Cohen/Semaphore Media and produced by the Center for Rural Strategies.


It was a lousy time. The coast was wrecked. The houses were flung like match sticks and families were flung like houses, just farther. The institutions that we look to for help in disasters – the government, Red Cross, private foundations – were at best dysfunctional and at worst perfidious. Katrina, then Rita, left a 300-mile wound across the Gulf Coast. The healing would not come painlessly.

I was in Australia when Katrina hit, there to give a speech, lay around the pubs, and frolic on the beach. But the storm back home made for compulsory TV viewing, and I sat to watch it all, listening to the foreign-service journalists sputtering out questions about why America couldn’t, wouldn’t take care of her people.

Guys like me who grow up in the South think of New Orleans as the other place they need to get back to, a universal Plan B. I’ve never met anyone who longs for Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Lexington for that matter. As Tom Waits sings: “Well I wish I was in New Orleans, I can see it in my dreams.”

When I got back to the U.S., I flew to Memphis (New Orleans was shut) for a meeting of national and regional funders to strategize their disaster response. With $60 billion dollars of federal money on the table for recovery and rebuilding, the assembled program officers took that moment to squabble about which plan-of-action/theory-of-change was best for the Crescent City and for the Gulf. Some wanted to fund ACORN, others community foundations, still others community colleges, universities, and the list went on. The director of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Community Foundation stood up and said she had just been speaking to a colleague who had come to advise them. He had witnessed the Indian Ocean tsunami of the year before (the one that killed 228,000). She said he told her that Katrina was like their tsunami, just worse: that when the tsunami came, it brought the garbage in, but it took the garbage back out to sea when it left. Katrina, he and she agreed, had brought the garbage in and left it. She then talked about missing all the porch pots of flowers she saw before the storm. I wanted to puke.

Whatever chance foundations had to leverage the Bush administration’s billions to a more inclusive, thoughtful, or greener redevelopment was soon washed away like garbage after a tsunami. The billions in contracts went to big concerns like Haliburton, which subcontracted work to smaller outfits. And instead of the federal government lining up to support a common agenda for the region, the administration funded hand-picked cronies and propped up political allies like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who had hidden in an undisclosed location while his people were on rooftops waving to the skies for rescue.

08/27/2015 at 10:11am

Because we lack dependable national data on broadband access, we may never know the answer to a pressing question:

Are residents of Polvadera, New Mexico, less likely to try to cheat on their spouses than residents of Nikolai and Perryville, Alaska – or anywhere else, for that matter?

All week long, data hounds have been poring over the user data leak to find public figures and high-profile hypocrites. But this is Big Data; there are always larger questions to explore. Geographic distribution, for example.

Out of all the Zip codes in the United States, only three lack any accounts on Ashley Madison, according to Gabrielle Bluestone of Gawker, a site noted for its gossip reporting, if not for data analysis.

All three of these Zips are decidedly rural.

The question is why?

Let’s look at what the data have to say, but first two caveats:

  • The Daily Yonder has not independently reviewed the data to verify Gawker’s findings. This is not best practice. But do you really want to open a file that has been shared around the Dark Side of the Internet? 
  • Second, there’s the question of that data’s validity. These user accounts were created by would-be marital cheaters. Cheaters lie. That's how they got to be cheaters.

Assuming Gawker is correct, and assuming cheaters don’t lie (admittedly, large assumptions), there’s still not much to say about rural values and the Ashley Madison user data.

There are those who will use this data to support claims of rural moral exceptionalism. These are the folks who say rural people are nicer, kinder, more wholesome, more honest – that sort of stuff.

But as tempting as it might be to argue that rural values are the reason, other data sets containing information on rural morality contradict that conclusion. Count the country-music Top 40 songs about infidelity, for example. There are an awful lot of cheating hearts, boots under the wrong bed, and folks taking their love to town.

So maybe it’s connectivity – the virtual kind, I mean – that limits the search for low-rent rendezvous in these rural places.

08/26/2015 at 10:01pm

Photo by Vince Crunk Everton Elementary School in Everton, Missouri, gets a new roof. The school district covers five days' worth of instruction in four days as a way to contain transportation and utility costs.

As the new school year begins, students across the country are gathering their supplies and lining up for the bus.

But young people in the southwest Missouri town of  Everton won't be in class this Monday. Or any Monday.

Two years ago, the Everton R-III school district's board voted to switch to a four-day-a-week schedule, as allowed by a change in Missouri law. Students get the same amount of instruction, but the time is scheduled into four school days instead of five.

The board reasoned that closing the school one extra day a week would save enough money in utilities and transportation costs to more than make up for disrupting the time-honored Monday-through-Friday schedule.

Cost savings is a big consideration for the small district, which has fewer than 200 students in grades K-12, according to With a tight budget that has been frozen for years, the change gave the district a little breathing room, said Vince Crunk, vice-president of the local school board.

With two kids in the Everton system, Crunk also knows what it's like to be a parent of children who are in class Tuesday through Friday each week.

We asked Crunk how the schedule is working for his rural district. He said the district made the change carefully, and the results have been good. In fact, nearby districts are switching to the four-day schedule this year, as well. 


Daily Yonder: How and why did Everton adopt the 4-day school week?
Vince Crunk: In 2009 the school successfully passed an operating levy increase for the school. But as time and years passed, prior decisions made on major purchases and insurance, among other things, left the school with a squeaky tight budget. It should be noted that even though Everton R-3 is considered a “hold harmless” district, which protects funding levels from falling below those of the 2005-06 school year, the funding levels for this formula haven’t increased above the 2005 levels.

By 2013, new Superintendent Dr. Karl Janson, who began with the 2012-13 school year, and the board began looking for other options to reduce costs.

In 2009 the Missouri Legislature passed SB 291, which among other things granted local school boards control of the school week format. As the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri’s website notes, “This option is desired by many rural school districts that seek more flexibility, lower transportation costs and the ability to implement innovative ideas.”

Superintendent Janson had been following Lathrop, Missouri, a northern suburb of Kansas City, which implemented a 4-day-week in 2009, the same year as the enabling legislation permitted.

Based on information from Lathrop’s website they have seen some improvement in scores and testing but some areas of concern as well. Attendance figures have improved. From a dollars-and-cents perspective, they have seen actual savings of 1.3% of their budget.

After conducting surveys of staff, students and parents, in 2013 the Everton School Board voted to adopt a 4-day-week. As with any change, there were concerns but also some positive feedback as well. More than 80% of Everton parents supported the change. Student support was even higher; at least 95%. Concerns expressed included the expected question about daycare, with working parents now having to consider what to do with younger children when there is no school. Like a snow day every week.

At this stage, only two full years in, Everton has not compiled enough data to prove things one way or another. But anecdotal evidence indicates the experiment is successful. Days are longer. Discipline issues seem to be down somewhat. As Janson has noted, “Tuesdays do not feel like a Monday!”