By different routes, participants at the 2013 National Rural Assembly reach a similar attachment to rural people and places.
The Rev. James Patterson of West Virginia addresses the National Rural Assembly. Click the video to play.
To get to rural America, their families used many different forms of locomotion – transatlantic steamers, trains, automobiles. One even took an inner tube.
But whatever route they took to the American countryside, they were all looking for the same things: opportunity, the chance to keep families together (or build new ones) and a brighter future.
Speakers at the Monday session of the National Rural Assembly related personal stories about their connection to rural places. Many spoke of the journeys they or their ancestors took to get to the rural communities that became home.
The stories established a common theme across the day’s sessions, which covered immigration, demographics and the role rural communities play in important political issues of the day. The 2013 National Rural Assembly continues through Wednesday, June 26, in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Rev. James Patterson said he tried to trade in his rural upbringing for an urban life, but the change didn’t stick. “I want to tell you that being poor in New York City was just as bad as being poor in North Carolina,” he said.
Patterson grew up a Southern sharecropper’s son. After half a year in New York City, he returned to the South, where he was called to go into the ministry and serve a smaller community. He now lives in West Virginia.
Doug McKalip, a White House rural policy adviser, said his connection with rural America began with his grandmother, who took care of him when he was little. “Before I started elementary school, I grew up going to ‘rural America daycare incorporated,’” he said. “I went and stayed with my grandparents.” He said he suspected many rural residents had similar daycare arrangements.
McKalip’s great-grandmother got to rural northwest Pennsylvania from Eastern Europe via Pittsburg. She took a steam ship from Europe and worked in Pittsburg, where she married a man from her native Slovakia. They saved their money – he working in the steel mills, she doing cleaning – and purchased a dairy in northwest Pennsylvania.
Edyael Casaperalta spoke of coming to the United States in an inner-tube floating across the Rio Grande when she was 12.
Angelica Orbe, a member of the United Farm Workers Foundation, also immigrated to the United States and said she didn’t know she was undocumented until she was 14.
“My grandmother was leaving to go back to Mexico after a visit, and I asked why she had to go and why I couldn’t go with her,” she said. “My mother said if you go there, you can’t come back. That’s when I first learned about being undocumented.”
Stories of families that were separated by immigration policy inspired Patricia Ice with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance to work on immigration issues. She helps undocumented Mississippi residents achieve legal status and get on a path to U.S. citizenship.
She said deportation damages families and the communities where they live. “One of the reasons I do this work is that I love families,” she said. “I love my own family, and I want these families to be together.”
Erik Stegman with the Center for American Progress’ Half in Ten campaign traced his rural story back to his great-grandfather, who went to an Indian boarding school in Canada. Because of poor conditions at the school, he ran away to the United States, but not before acquiring skills as a typesetter. He became a leader in the Chicago American Indian community and helped other Indians who were new to the city.
“But he was always looking for a way back home,” Stegman said.
Stegman’s project at the Center for American Progress is attempting to reduce the number of people living in poverty by half by 2020. He said he hears people express skepticism that they can reach the goal. “But we’ve reduced the poverty rate by half before,” he said. “In 1964 we established the public and political will to reduce poverty. We know how to do it.”
Stegman said rural stories need to be part of the discussion about how to improve American communities and reduce poverty. “There are a lot of important policy discussions around [Washington, D.C.] where rural America doesn’t have a seat at the table,” he said. “We need to think about how to leverage these stories and get the faces behind the numbers that we are trying to tell about.”