Thursday, November 14, 2019

Summit highlighted rural women's often bold, unconventional approaches to problem-solving in their communities

A presentation at the first Rural Women's Summit. (Photo by Shawn Poynter, Center for Rural Strategies)
Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows have roamed the country in their small plane for years, reporting on small towns and their residents (and sometimes their papers) for their Our Towns series in The Atlantic. Meeting a wide variety of exceptional women along the way has been a particular joy, Deborah Fallows writes. Recently she "hit the motherlode" when attending the first ever Rural Women's Summit in Greenville, S.C., in late October.

"They met to talk about civic life, incarceration, health, water, education, poverty, faith, relationships, conservation, family, entrepreneurship, all in the context of women living in rural America," Fallows writes. "They framed their comments from their experiences as women in the military, as organizers of movements, as filmmakers, journalists, artists, nurses, lawyers, civic leaders, mothers, convicts, politicians, faith leaders, actors, and more."

Fallows grew up in a small town near Cleveland, but remembers visiting her grandparents' farm in rural Minnesota as a small child. Though she writes that her rural connections are more removed than those who actually grew up on a farm, she felt a "deep bloodline sense" when listening to women speaking at the summit.

She came to appreciate some things she had never considered about rural women's lives. "The first is how aggravations from a single issue can quickly cascade into a series of complications that make problems worsen toward intractable," she writes, noting the water crisis in Martin County, Kentucky. "This story of water there is intimate to the lived experience of the women who tell it and those who report it. By and large, it is the women who open the taps for water they use to cook, to do the laundry, to bathe the children, to drink. If the faucets deliver, which is not a given, the water often runs brown, sulfury, and smelly."

Fallows also learned that rural women have a particularly practical way of addressing problems, that they aren't afraid of being emotional or vulnerable when approaching an issue, and that they often seek solutions in unconventional ways. "On the contrary, I heard women suggest that these 'women’s ways' (my words), when they emerge comfortably and naturally, are powerful tools to make actions effective and arguments accessible to more people," Fallows writes. "The message I heard: Do not shy from showing vulnerability, caring, or emotion. Do not apologize for it. Use it. Go into the places that are your comfort zones for work that is uncomfortable and requires you to be brave."

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