Soros Fellowship Vision

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 in rural cultures.


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climate, U.S. rural cultures are often closed and disconnected, creating stagnant, poisonous information puddles of outdated mediated knowledge and misinformation.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).

At the same time U.S. rural cultures are becoming more diverse than ever as immigrants, non-white urban residents, and young people move out of urban centers. The new face of “rural America” is no longer only white: 19% of rural residents are people of color. With the overall rural population at 60 million, that is 11.4 million U.S. citizens. Newcomers find themselves ignored and marginalized by rural norms and practices, the social soil of which staggers their forward momentum and stalls efforts at democratic change at the relational level.

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.