Speak Your Piece: It’s Story Time at the White House

At a gathering of rural-school experts in Washington, the right issues were raised (mostly), but where were the electricity, the characters, and the relish sandwiches? 

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The Obama Administration put together a gathering to talk about rural education on May 22, and  I was there,  traveling from rural south Texas to Washington, D.C., to participate. I went representing the Center for Rural Strategies (publisher of the Daily Yonder),  as well as the Rural School and Community Trust, the Llano Grande Center, University of Texas Pan American, the Community Learning Exchange, and other organizations engaged with rural schools.

Twenty folks convened in a charming room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just next to the West Wing of the White House.  Mostly, guests came representing rural-education interest groups, though some in the room were oriented more toward community and economic development.  The group clearly had a K-Street quality to it, most of the reps having walked from their nearby offices to the White House complex. 

My first impression was that people were happy to be there.  One fellow said he had been to the White House dozens of times before “W” but had been essentially shut out between 2000 and 2008.  Most everyone agreed they were grateful to have been invited and glad that someone at the highest level of government was now willing to listen to rural education concerns. 

The tenor of the conversation, not surprisingly, was policy-wonky, but useful in that particular environment.  That kind of speak moved the meeting along fairly well.  Participants unanimously recommended that an Office of Rural Education be formalized and that an office of rural education research be created within the Institute of Education Sciences. 

Some warned against the unintended consequences of the Obama Administration’s FY 2010 budget request. In particular, they said that the proposed change from formula grant-making to competitive grant-making would adversely impact rural communities.  Participants also explained how Title I funding continues to disadvantage rural schools because the funding formula rewards schools with larger numbers of students (rural schools, of course, tend to have fewer students). 

The group described fiscal needs: to build more school facilities in rural areas, to recruit and retain more qualified rural teachers, and to strengthen and support the government’s federal trust responsibility to Native American schools, most of which are rural. Participants also described the adverse impact of high stakes testing on rural schools.

Clearly, the people in the room were smart, passionate about rural communities, and well informed about the issues.  To talk policy, it seemed that the right people were in the room.  But the conversation also struck me as unimaginative, stuck in a deficit-driven and antiquated discourse on rural communities.  The collective argument was emphatic about the struggle and plight of rural education but devoid of the spirit, vitality, and force of what I have experienced with children in rural schoolhouses across this country. 

I can point to the virtues of south Texas students who have engaged their communities in documenting the narrative of their home towns: youth in Laguna Pueblo who are leading community change efforts through a digital storytelling enterprise; and students in western Montana who have challenged their school’s use of a stereotypical mascot, using the issue to build a youth leadership movement.  Scores of students, teachers, and communities work in exciting, innovative, and transformational ways in rural schools and communities across the country, but this reality seldom informs the discourse on rural education.  We tend to lead with the deficits, with the needs.  To be fair, the group in the room that day did mention a need to disseminate best practices that come out of rural communities, but that was raised as a marginal issue.

Most disconcerting to me were two things:  (1) the omission of English Language Learners from the day’s discussion and (2) the lack of good stories told at this meeting.  For someone who came from Mexico, who was an ELL student, and who grew up in rural Mexico and rural America listening to stories, being socialized and taught through stories, the meeting felt very un-rural.

Perhaps the most urgent emerging concern for rural schools is the rapidly growing number of ELL students and their families in rural communities.  But people at this meeting weren’t thinking about ELL’s.  They care about them, but it’s not an issue high on the priority list of those who talk about policy in Washington; at least, it wasn’t at this meeting.  There were also storytellers in the room, I’m convinced of that, but stories were not really shared, as they would have been in a more authentic rural meeting. 

Rebecca Droke for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ashley Baia worked in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and was featured in one of his speeches. She also welcomed a group to Washington last month to discuss rural education.

One irony on the storytelling front is that the main organizer of the meeting, a young White House staffer named Ashley Baia, worked the Obama campaign and gained renown because of her moving and compelling story.  Obama invoked her name in his Philadelphia speech on race; toward the end of his talk, he spoke of a campaign worker named Ashley, who as a 9-year-old chose to eat relish and mustard sandwiches in order to save money for the family.  Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and medical bills challenged the family, so Ashley convinced her mother that what she wanted to eat were relish and mustard sandwiches. 

Ashley welcomed everyone to the meeting, but nobody really knew she had been the subject of that terrific story in Obama’s speech.  Just like we didn’t know Ashley’s story, we didn’t share stories about rural communities either; we mostly talked policy and technicalities about funding, and the like. 

I’m convinced that through stories we can put faces on issues that
tend to be framed in policy-speak, devoid of the spirit and vitality of what
is genuinely rural. If I go to the White House again for a meeting on rural issues, I hope that people show up as storytellers.

 

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