“Each individual democratic practice — each granular act of relational power-sharing — counts in a culture to outpace and outnumber power-stealing practices. The cumulative effect of individual democratic relational practices, over time, build democracies and support power-sharing systems and processes. Put differently, democracy is not in elections or issues or candidates; not in systems or processes. The heart of democracy is in the human commitment to share power in everyday practices.”
Project Vision: To build, fuel, and drive a social change vehicle prototype that can open up closed U.S. rural cultures to democratic practices and norms by supporting the diverse rural residents and newcomers in their navigation of non-democratic practices and norms.
Open cultures create the conditions that feed and grow democratic norms, which are embodied in human practices: what individual humans say to one another and what we do in relation with each other. Democratic practices in a culture create trust, make space for vulnerability, nurture creativity, and foster expression—all necessary conditions to grow power-sharing (democratic) norms. Democratic norms are open and inclusive: they “turn-toward” and seek out and embrace diversity in all its forms, including race and ethnicity. Democracies thrive when those committed to power-sharing via systems and processes contribute novel and creative cultural ideas and practices. Democratic ecosystems are most healthy and abundant when the social soil in which they grow—the cumulative cultural effect of individual communicative practices and norms–is also healthy.
Each individual democratic communicative practice—each granular act of relational power-sharing–counts in a culture to outpace and outnumber non-democratic practices. The cumulative effect of individual democratic relational practices, over time, build democracies and support power-sharing systems and processes. Put differently, democracy is not in elections or issues or candidates; not in systems or processes. The heart of democracy is in the human commitment to share power in everyday practices, and the more power-sharing practices that can be created in a culture, the more open it becomes to forming patterns of democratic norms.
In our current climate, U.S. rural cultures are often closed and disconnected, creating stagnant, poisonous information puddles of outdated mediated knowledge and misinformation. As a result, many of those citizens live in a world of conspiracy theories and threats of imminent race wars, the fear of which is spread in relational communication patterns. White militias are a symptom of closed U.S. rural cultures drowning in mass propaganda created by those who benefit from the rural-urban divide. The rural purge of all rural television programming in the 1970s began the rural closing off process. Since then, U.S. rural citizens have had virtually no representation in urban cultures, leaving them without the cultural reflection necessary to create their existence. Decades long internalization and pain created by that invisibility left rural Americans vulnerable to those with political ambitions pretending to hear and see them only to later exploit them. Those with political ambitions continue to direct rural citizens’ pain at non-white, urban targets, who seem to be the cause of their pain (confirmed by television brought to them by Sinclair, often the only option).
Closed rural cultures reproduce poisonous communication patterns directed at newcomers and other marginalized residents: smiles become stoic, blank faces; waves are ignored or dismissed; and, eye contact is intentionally elusive. There is little trust between newcomers and “oldtimers” or “insiders” in closed rural cultures–inaccurate information intentionally offered over and over create severe trust deficits. Fierce passive aggression protects little patches of power that have been staked out by those few–in a power-scare environment–who know how to steal power from the newcomers and other marginalized residents.
Those newcomers and other marginalized residents from whom power is stolen adapt, sometimes with passive aggression of their own, or by disrupting or supplicating—all attempts to take back their power. Self-medication to numb the pain of power-scarcity is common in closed rural cultures: drugs, food, television, alcohol, and violence are all used and abused to feel better or to avoid feeling altogether. Power-hoarders who capture community resources lock down access to newcomers and other marginalized residents who might take a turn at participating in the decision-making about and distribution of those rural resources. Fear is used as a weapon, often projected onto newcomers and marginalized residents, creating confused funhouse mirror reflections of twisted intentions and motives, which further poisons the social soil in which all other activity takes place.
I worked for 19 months, post-11.6.16, fully immersed in ethnographic study of cultural norms and power relations in poverty-ravaged, deep-red rural Josephine County, Oregon, and my data confirms the conditions described above. My second full immersion immediately afterward into rural Sea Ranch, California, for another 19 months, adds further ethnographic support to the description of non-democratic conditions.
In particular, the study’s findings identify normal everyday authoritarian practices–relational power-stealing and -hoarding–in both rural cultures. The findings also point to a generational “orientation” embodied by members of the two rural cultures whose normal relational practices function to support state-level authoritarianism, while undermining local democratic practices and norms.
As a newcomer at the bottom of both rural cultures, I experienced first-hand the non-democratic practices and norms. It didn’t matter than I’m white, educated, a professional, and wasn’t poor: in these two (and similar) closed rural cultures, anyone who’s not an “old timer” or an “insider” is excluded, marginalized, and invisible. Exercising agency in these conditions–speaking up, dissenting, and generating forward momentum–is actively undermined, and everyday democratic practices discouraged or simply impractical.
The non-democratic cultural conditions in increasingly diverse rural America have not been acknowledged in any literature or research. Currently, no academic, business, religious, political, or nonprofit educational or cultural work effort is underway to address the cultural conditions in rural America that grew the possibility of the 45th POTUS and the white nationalists making policy at the top levels of the U.S. government.
When those top-level democratic systems and processes struggle or break down, reanimating “bottom-level” everyday democratic practices must be prioritized to bring about change. To address non-democratic rural cultural conditions, rural America needs to be more open, and the route in is up through the bottom. This project proposes opening up U.S. rural cultures by supporting the increasingly diverse newcomers who are moving into rural areas all over the United States and who find themselves at the bottom of rural petri dishes immersed in poisonous social soil. To begin that work, the prototype of a democratic change vehicle that can travel into and out of closed rural cultures needs to be built, fueled, and tested. This project will do that work.
Change in U.S. rural cultures has historically been driven by economic “development,” and that body of literature reflects the development approach in its language and focus on creating change. Previously, social and communication scientists relied on development approaches that framed research in terms of “development problems,” which were primarily associated with developing nations’ rural cultures, not U.S. rural cultures. In each case, the starting point was at the top: in economic analyses that rendered economic approaches and solutions while excluding or ignoring the social and communicative conditions within which those solutions were planted.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2012, development communication (devcom) researchers described how “development” is now understood more broadly as “social change” in current research. Recognizing that economics is only one factor in nurturing healthy rural human beings, the CMC (Communication for Social Change) approach allows change agents to also focus on a broad range of issues that impact increasingly diverse rural residents: the right to communicate; environmental sustainability; food security; empowerment of women, girls, and senior citizens; access to digital media; poverty reduction; and, access to health care.
Communication researchers acknowledge that “there is a consensus in the early 21st century on the need for grassroots participation in bringing about change at both social and individual levels.” Healthy, democratic communication practices—those that are open, transparent, and accurate—are the “enabling conditions” (the healthy social soil) that grows the strongest grassroots for supporting top-level democratic processes and systems. And, the grassroots is precisely where newcomers and other marginalized rural residents are located.
Cave Junction, Oregon was the site of my first full immersion, and like everyone else, I landed as an outsider at the bottom. From there, I learned how to protect myself from the poison in the rural social soil by fully embodying my role as an ethnographer. The little bit of distance that role required separated and lifted me above or around the relentless power projections so that I could experience, observe, note, and let go. The documentation process—notes, recordings, photos, etc.—helped me understand the relational environment so I could navigate it more or less safely.
I developed other coping strategies in both hostile research environments, all creative and connected to the earth. And, I found individual ways to speak up, reframe non-democratic relations, and embody democratic practices (none of which involved politics, just everyday mundane tasks). I observed that those actions in that context modeled that behavior, and others copied parts of that behavior later. I began to see the possibility of ethnographers– who were also cultural workers–immersed at the bottom of rural cultures around the nation—using the prototype from my experiences—creating the conditions for the possibility of rural democratic practices and norms.
Instead of immersing other ethnographers, however, this project proposes working with newcomers and other marginalized rural residents to develop and train citizen researchers in southern Josephine county, Oregon. Citizen researchers (CR) are non-professionals who devote dedicated time to methodological understanding of pressing cultural problems and are unaffiliated with religious, business, academic, or political organizations.
For this project, the focus is observing and noting everyday mundane interactions in relations—all those communicative practices that happen outside family, friends, lovers, and mentors. Many newcomers to rural areas are isolated, and this social soil is where they live. Training newcomers to recognize power-stealing in all its communicative forms and modeling power-sharing in that process creates the conditions for making healthier social soil in which democratic norms might grow. When newcomers are able to observe and note power-stealing practices, they can also understand how to reframe those relations in democratic terms.
In the context of the racial justice field, this work provides something unique and urgently needed: a way into the very conditions that continue to exacerbate racial divides in this country, and a vehicle for social change.
Near the end of a two-year sabbatical, and two weeks before the earth shifted on its axis 11.6.2016, I drove away from my Richmond, California home the day it closed escrow and two days later, took possession of my new property in Cave Junction, Oregon. Cave Junction is in Southern Josephine County, which is in the Southwest part of Oregon about 20 minutes north of the California border. It is one of many red rural counties in Oregon, and the poverty is like nothing most urban dwellers in the United States have ever personally experienced, except to drive through. (It took months for my urban orientation to adjust enough to really see and understand–to feel–this kind of poverty.) …
The Private Principal Investigator‘s immersion protocols emerged from field experience in what can accurately be described as “extreme ethnographic conditions” or “hostile field environments.” I organized similar ethnographic experience characteristics from my immersion in each rural culture into the following categories of methodological protocols:
Sarah takes the clipboard and paperwork the desk attendant abruptly hands her, walks to a seat in the waiting room, and breathes slowly, trying to calm her heartrate. She has dreaded this visit. She looks around, hoping to connect with someone friendly here, but no one makes eye contact with her. Sarah’s new in town, and her body’s been telling her that her blood pressure’s been far too high since she moved here.
She settles into a seat in the waiting room and looks down at the first sheet on the stack of papers she’s been asked to complete. First set of questions is about drug use. Huh. She flips the page. Second set of questions is about alcohol use. Really? Flip the page again, and the third set of questions is about her mental health history. All before you get to any questions about her name, her address, or the reason for her visit. She puts the pages with the screening questions unanswered under the rest of the paperwork. The seemingly constant fear of punishment here sits acidly in her gut. She begins filling out the other, more familiar forms.
“The doctor said I need to take two of these in the morning without food.” Sarah looks up and sees the slightly slumped back of a male patient standing at the front desk. He’s talking to the woman seated behind the desk.
“I don’t think you understood your doctor. He wants you to eat before you take the medication.” The woman’s voice is hard with authority, forcing attention. Everyone in the waiting room can hear this exchange.
The patient quietly responds, “I think the nurse told me the doctor said I need to take them on an empty stomach.”
The desk attendant’s hard tone gets loud and final: “You don’t understand. Do as I say: comply, and you’ll be fine.”
The patient tries one last time: “I think that might be wrong.”
The front desk woman has begun looking at papers in front of her and ignores this response. The patient waits a beat, ready for acknowledgement of his concern about the drug protocol. The woman at the desk looks up, avoids eye contact with the patient, looks past him, and spits “Next,” to the ceiling and to no one waiting in line.
The patient, slumped over from the beginning of the interaction, shrinks even smaller and walks away toward the exit door. Sarah notices many in the waiting room share that slump. When the door closes behind the departing patient, the room is silent except for the copy machine on the corner of the front desk sliding out replicas.
Sarah finishes her paperwork, puts on a smile, and walks to the front desk.
“Hi! Thank you for fitting me in! Not too busy today?” she offers, making small talk to connect.
The front desk woman takes Sarah’s clipboard. She doesn’t make eye contact with Sarah. She ignores the small talk, and Sarah watches as it splats, lifeless, on the desk between them. (It is only one of thousands of little deaths of human connection she’ll experience in this culture.)
The gatekeeper begins looking at the forms Sarah’s filled out on top. She flips through to the blank drug use, alcohol use, and mental health forms at the bottom. Sarah feels the grip of anxiety, making her stomach clench again. (It is a familiar feeling that has not left her body since she moved to this rural place.) She is painfully aware that this is her only health care option.
The woman seated behind the desk looks up at Sarah, openly apprises her physically, and decides to ignore the noncompleted forms.
“We don’t have a doctor on staff who can help you, but you can see the day nurse. Take a seat and we’ll call you when he’s ready,” she states with finality.
Sarah sits, breathes again, trying to calm her body. Her heart is starting to race with the feeling that her health is in hands that keep all the power for themselves. She feels like she’s not safe here; that her well-being is not the objective like it was for her back home. She’s used to office staff, nurses, and doctors who talk to her, who put her concerns at the center of their practices; who respect her and value her privacy. She is used to professionals who share their power with her by making her good health the objective of the interaction. She’s used to professional communication structures that focus the interaction on that goal. That’s normal for her. She is blindsided, finding these unhealthy power relations in a health clinic. Being blindsided in this culture is becoming routine for Sarah.
She’s called back to meet with Dan, the day nurse, in a private room. This is Dan’s second to last day. He seems unfocused and very hyper.
“Hey, okay, we need to take your blood pressure!”
“Yes! Thank you so much! I think it’s been really high. I’ve been waking up with a racing heart at 3:30-4 o’clock in the morning every day. I need a blood pressure read and to discuss my meds with the doctor. I’m new here, so I definitely need to get set up with the doc.” She hears her voice pretending to be in a safe place, trying to create that safety out of thin air and desire.
“We’ve got a pediatrician in back who can’t see you, but he gives me advice. Here, let’s do this. Follow me.”
Sarah has no idea what any of that actually means, but she is without her own blood pressure monitor, and she needs a reading from the one here. She has no choice. She follows Dan back.
She was right: her blood pressure reading is 228/118. Dan starts shouting. His face and bulk are about 2 inches above and in front of Sarah’s face as she sits in a chair below him.
“Oh, hell! Your blood pressure is so high! We have to get you out of here! You need to go into the city, to the hospital! You could get a brain hemorrhage! And if you’re here, we’re liable! We need to get you out of here, now!”
Her brain is frozen. Her whole body feels frozen. In a flat voice she has never heard before, she tells Dan to try to calm down, to remember who the patient is, that she’s here because her blood pressure is 228/118 because of stress. Sarah tells him that his freaking out isn’t helping lower her stress. He’s backed up a little from her and has stopped yelling.
Sarah hears the voice of the man who must be the pediatrician shout from a back room; he calls for Dan, and Dan seems annoyed. He stalks out of the room. During the 3 minutes or so he’s gone, Sarah weights her options. If she has to go to the hospital, what will she do about the kittens? Will she be able to drive herself home? What if they find something worse, what then? She is socially isolated here and has no one to call who could help. She is very aware she is breathing harder and beginning to panic a little.
When Dan returns, he’s calmed slightly, and he has a Clonidine tab in hand. He stands too close to her again.
“Okay, you need to calm down,” he starts.
She almost laughs, but stifles it knowing it’s going to sound a little unhinged. She also knows that she has no choice but to put her life in these hands. She has no choice. And laughing at Dan will only make this worse.
“Take this, lay back, and breathe. I’m going to turn off the lights. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”
She holds out the palm of her hand and he drops the little peach pill onto it. Dan says nothing, turns, walks to the door, flips the light switch, and closes the door. Sarah feels around on the floor for her water bottle, knocks it over, finds it again, and swallows the pill with a long draught. She didn’t realize how dehydrated she had become. She also takes 10 very deep slow breaths, each settling her into this new rural health care reality.
Maybe the stories were true, she thinks as she lays on the crinkly white paper in the dark room, in a world an eternity away from home. Maybe the whispered stories–about how the health clinic in this town is killing people–were accurate.
You know that imagination is as important as rationality, and you know that your imagination died decades ago.
You know that emotions are at least half as important as breathing, and you know you do not have access to or facility with half of who you are.
You understand that your lack of imagination and inability with your own emotions puts you at a significant disadvantage in navigating a rapidly changing and evolving world. You know that there are millions of humans whose whole lives are in front of them, millions who are fully present–in imagination, in emotion, in possibilities—and they terrify you.
You grasp for the pills and the treatments and the infrastructure sold to you by AMAC–to keep your unhealthy, dying body going. You believe their narratives telling you you’re entitled to every single bit of what you “earned” in a lifetime of “self-made” success. You believe the stories about deserving a second chapter, to be a “new” you who is entitled to construct fresh layers of resource-consuming life choices. The tales are nourished by those who are dependent on your resources. And you thrive on their need.
You know that the starved and shriveled half of yourself—where imagination and emotion live–is the half connected to new experience, to the actual, to the body, to the earth—to joy and self-knowledge and pain and hope. It is the half that makes the other half meaningful. You know that your quarterly earnings statement only gives you a sense of fragile security, but no love or light or humanity.
You know that everything you lack is everything that makes it possible for humans to evolve, to become more than their little self-interests. You know that the universe detests stoicism and the empty place where imagination should reside.
You know you drive the slow-moving vehicle of your life sitting backwards, gripping the steering wheel with white hands while fearfully staring out the rear window, throwing molotov cocktails of misinformation and old, poisonous ideas out your passenger side window at those shouting at you to pay attention to the road, and running down anyone and anything in the way of your slow-motion destruction.
(Except you’re not really going slow, are you? You’ve hooked yourself on to a fast-moving vehicle of destruction driven by a madman bent on stealing everyone’s power, including every living thing on the planet. And now, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t get yourself off of there. And there’s nowhere for you to go anyway, right, even if you could be convinced to stop enabling and empowering the madman. You know you’re toast if you have to justify what you’ve allowed to happen, so you just enjoy the ride, ignoring the screams of those writhing in pain under the indifferent treads of your hot tires.)
Everything I learned about power-sharing, I learned in San Francisco Bay Area college classrooms.
Growing up, I’d never seen or experienced power done in any other way than how I lived it in my family’s culture: with a father who was the sole authority, and who held and wielded all the power. Who chained the agency of his young children. My father, alone, decided that no one had the power to speak in our family but him. I tried challenging him, twice, and both left a mark.
But in college classrooms in the Bay, professors–humans who seemed like a whole different species to me–invited me to speak, to share the floor. To share their power. Teachers and other learners turned toward me, listened; they saw me. They responded with respect. In those Bay Area college classrooms, I existed for the first time in a world where I was allowed my full range of expression, without fear. It was like magic and it changed everything.
I learned how to do power differently. I learned: how access to accurate information shares power. I learned: how human acknowledgement shares power. I learned: how open processes share power, how listening shares power; how optimism, support, and encouragement share power.
I lived the health and well-being afforded those with the privilege to sit in those democratic classrooms.
Of course, academia isn’t some magic power-sharing place and magical power-sharing classrooms exist beyond the Bay. But, for this Bay Area learner who grew up in an authoritarian family culture, the power-sharing magic in those classrooms happened regularly for me.
I left the East Bay at the end of October 2016 for other worlds. I’m headed home there in November* this year. It’s an old cliché, but there really is no place like…the San Francisco Bay Area.
Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.
Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.
Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, and you can see it in the everyday interactions and the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is everyday democracy.
A Note to Solitary Researchers in Hostile Field Environments (HFE)
As a solitary researcher, you’ll find yourself in social and professional environments designed to annihilate your sense of self and lock down your agency. Living and working solo, navigating loneliness, and surviving isolation all require a set of skills. While you’re away from home (some of you for several years), the following can help you develop that skill set.
First rule of isolation: Don’t tell anyone you’re isolated. Seriously. You might think a response would be compassionate, maybe an, “Oh, wow, no one should be isolated—I’m sorry about that!” Instead, most assume that there’s something wrong with you, that you probably deserve to be alone. They may assume you have no one because you’re dishonest or mean or stupid. They may tell you with their intentional turning away that you’re not worth anyone’s time. Being honest about being solo is being stupid. So don’t do it.
Get comfortable with pain. That no one knows you will drop on you regularly, even if you pretend it won’t. Work on those legs—you’ll need their strength to keep you upright. Or, you may choose to just let the pain fall, drive you to your knees, and pin you further in your isolation. Either way, get used to pain.
Get comfortable talking to yourself. Just let go. Be both sides. Be all sides. Let those convos rip—where they go will surprise you, especially when you’re the only one listening, the only one responding. (A small round blue mirror worked for me.)
Get comfortable finding many ways to express yourself. If you have a lot to say, the round blue mirror will only get you so far. You will need to find new creative modes and vehicles for your expression. You may ultimately find that you are not a writer or a photographer or a teacher: you may find that you are an artist–a learner–who always looks for new creative vehicles for sharing your new modes of expression.
Get comfortable with the fear of blinking out. When you don’t exist for others, disappearing becomes a real possibility, if not an actual one. (Right? I mean, if a human screams from her isolation, but no one hears–or they hear and choose to ignore her–does she exist? I don’t think so.) If you exist in no world but your own, post to Instagram; get a LinkedIn profile so you can show up in searches; make yourself a website so you can obsessively check stats. Pretend existence is better than none. Or if an imaginary existence online isn’t possible because you’re not connected to the electronic world, go outside. You always exist among the trees.
Get comfortable getting to know yourself in ways you never thought possible. Think of isolation as a time to get closer to who you really are, without all the human interactions. Without the expectations, the treadmills of busy; without the imposed outside standards. Who you find may surprise you, and maybe even in a good way.
Get comfortable telling yourself stories. Since no one keeps isolated humans in the loop, you’ll need to create stories for yourself to make sense of things. Let your imagination run through those fields of daisies. Isolation can produce extraordinary self-storytelling. You’ll find that, really, everything is a story. And, in your isolation, your narrative could be groundbreaking.
Get comfortable learning your mind’s resting places. All those spots your mind sits when it’s not working, where it rests and contemplates? You’ll become acquainted with them all. All the other humans you used to know may join you. All the conversations, the arguments, the humiliations, the joys will make appearances. Your fears will find you there. So will self-knowledge. And, you’ll create new resting places, maybe decorate them for the arrival of guests someday.
Get comfortable always being the stranger. Humans categorize, especially when overwhelmed with information. Strangers are big truckloads of new information, and if they can be ignored, life is easier to navigate, especially with all our other demands. You’ll find that humans make it easy to ignore strangers, to disrespect them, exclude them. This is a good time for self-storytelling: you are the mysterious stranger who isn’t really a stranger, after all, but someone who knows this place intimately, from another life, and has come back to reckon.
Get comfortable never seeing yourself in anyone else’s eyes. This one will be especially difficult for those of you who’ve had many human mirrors, who’ve had others to tell them who they are, reflect back their power. There are no human mirrors in isolation, only wooden human walls and opaque closed doors. No reflections. Make your own.
Get comfortable keeping your own history. Start gathering all the pieces of your life now so you have some coherency in your own mind. That is the only place your history exists: in your own mind. Be sure to note those birthdays, the holidays, the goals reached, the milestones. With no one else to notice or to hold your history, you must do that work for yourself.
Get comfortable with no physical human touch. If possible, hire a CMT, sit in hot baths, hug yourself. The lack of human contact in isolation means finding other ways to feel like you exist and affect the world around you. (An electric chainsaw worked for me.) Keep in mind if you hurt yourself, you’ll need to take care of that on your own, too. In isolation, there is no friend to call. Sick? Hurt your foot? Get out of bed. Hop around the house. You got this.
Remember that the work you are doing is crucial and worth the isolation and hostility. Try not to shut down, even after the thousands of rejections you’ll experience: your ignored smiles, your dismissed waves, the lack of eye contact with you, the invisibility created when they refuse to say your name, your blown off attempts at small talk, the perpetual gatekeeping, the blocked access to resources, the dogs they let run at you, the sideways looks they give you, the “no” you will hear over and over and over.
Try to remember that shutting down is the problem and that your work will help recreate human connection in hostile environments. Remember: isolation is a relation that can be changed. And, even if no one ever says your name in an HFE, you exist in the work you do, the good you leave behind, and the kindness you offer.