The Rural Portal Project Newsletter :: 1.20.2020

T h e : R u r a l : P o r t a l : P r o j e c t

20 January 2020 issue in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood the urgency of now:

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

A special note of appreciation to the Center’s first subscription supporters: to Patty Hart, for the first purchase of a “One Year Full Support” subscription, and to Patrick Lau, for the first purchase of a “One Year Newsletter” subscription. Your belief in the possibilities of the work, backed up with actual support, helps us realize the promises of democracy. Thank you–this first RPP issue is dedicated to you!

Bi-monthly newsletter sponsored and published by The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, an Accelerate Publishing project.

The Rural Portal Project Story, Pt. 1

How our vision and mission grew.

The Rural Portal Project Story, Pt. 2

How our values and goals grew.

The Center’s Methods & Research

How we know, understand, and develop grounded theory about democratic and non-democratic practices and norms.

The Center’s Cultural Work

Based on what we understand, how we reach out, engage, participate, and interact to embody and model democratic practices.

The Center’s Creative & Media

Based on what we understand, how we use stories, art, and performance to show what’s democratically possible.

A note from Cathy, the Center’s PPI

Why I do this work.


The Rural Portal Project Story, Pt. 1

“… If we don’t tell strange stories, when something strange happens we won’t believe it.”
~Shannon Hale

Two weeks before 11.6.16, I moved out of California and into a world flipped upside down. Everything I understood from my former San Francisco Bay Area world was the opposite: smiles became stoic avoidance; waves dismissed; eye contact was elusive. There was no trust between humans–inaccurate information offered over and over to each other created that lack. Fierce passive aggression protected little patches of power staked out by those few–in a power-scare environment–who knew how to exploit and steal power from those with less. Those from whom power was stolen adapted, sometimes with passive aggression of their own, or by disrupting or supplicating. Self-medication to numb the pain of stolen power was common: drugs, food, television, alcohol, violence were all used and abused to feel better or to avoid feeling altogether.

Power-hoarders who’d captured community resources locked down access to those who might take a turn at participating in the decision-making about and distribution of those community resources. Mental illness was common, but no support existed to help those who struggled to take care of themselves. Fear was used as a weapon, often projected onto each other, creating confused funhouse mirror reflections of twisted intentions and motives. Color, variety, expression, art, options and choices–all missing, in any familiar form, from this new world I now inhabited. It took months to fully absorb the shock of this radical opposition to the world I knew–a democratic world of openness and power-sharing, of expression, color, variety, and creativity–of dissent.

I looked and looked for “the good guys” (ikr), for the humans like those I knew in classrooms: learners and teachers who share power, who understand that openness–democratic practices–create the conditions for the possibility of trust, vulnerability, creativity, and expression: for dissent. I searched for those with imagination, with a sense of wonder, who might see and feel with me the promises of new ideas and new stories to create new worlds. I looked for those who could express themselves, embody their emotions creatively; artists and learners who could see past brutal actuality, recognize potential, and reframe and express in the creative language of possibility. They were not there to be found because the communicative practices in the world to which I’d moved poisoned the social soil in which everyone lived, grew, and acted. It seemed that this new world was the place possibilities and healthy change go to die.

How can any human being be healthy in an environment like this? How can they exercise their agency to participate in power-sharing (democracy)? How does any human being keep moving forward in a place where the relational goo immobilizes her and everyone around her, like ants trapped in amber, unable to feel or see beyond the projections of fear and the narrative of inevitability? How can those not immersed daily in these conditions understand them and see the connections their own conditions? How can these non-democratic practices and norms be changed?

A little research revealed that cultural norms–patterns of communicative practices–in U.S. rural places were addressed nowhere in the literature. Lots of research based in economic analysis made up the bulk of rural representation in academic and journalistic pieces: a lack of jobs and struggles with agriculture mostly defined rural America. Some included a description of values that ostensibly belong uniquely to rural communities. Nearly all of that research defined “rural” as a poor, pre-urban phenomenon. None of it discussed the very basis of every culture: its communicative practices and norms, within which every single part of humans’ lives are created.

The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies emerged from these experiences. There has never been a cultural mirror for rural America. Television usually functions this way for U.S. cultures, but with virtually no representation there, rural doesn’t exist for most non-rural Americans except in their imaginations, the products of which are projected onto everything and everyone “rural.” In most cases, “rural” doesn’t exist in urban Americans’ daily lives. Urban understandings of rural norms and practices have been reduced down to the language of economics and agriculture, eviscerating any rural cultural identity we might have created in relation.

Given these cultural conditions, the Center’s mission was created: to produce, share, and market accessible, first-hand knowledge about the variety of U.S. rural cultures. With that mission, the Center moves toward its vision: a country whose cultural self-knowledge extends beyond the urban.

The Rural Portal Project Story, Pt. 2

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The Rural Portal Project Story, Pt. 2

“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. …Make some light.” ~Kate DiCamillo

I decided I needed to build a portal, a rural portal. No one from my former urban world could see or understand this rural world, and from this world, urban worlds just didn’t exist in any meaningful way. I knew that so much in my former urban world could help humans in this world: democratic ideas, creativity, expression–hope. Those hadn’t been grown here because the communicative cultural conditions prevented it. Those power-sharing tools and modes of being needed to be shared here, planted here, and the social soil amended and made healthy. I just needed a way to get all the good stuff from my former world into this world. I knew from first-hand experience the magic that just a little of the good stuff creates in these scarcity conditions.

I built my best version of a rural portal, and the Center’s values emerged from that work: that people come first, above the rules, authorities, or institutions grown in this culture; that accuracy is fundamental in a place where trust has disappeared in the mindless, habitual practices of dishonesty; that starting at the bottom is necessary to understand how those conditions feel and function in relation with the top; that living democratic principles every day embodies the idea of power-sharing in practices; that everybody wins alleviates the relational pressure that competitive capitalism imposes on human power relations; and that no one is a stranger creates new power-sharing practices in a world where “old-timers” and “insiders” steal everyone else’s power to progress.

From the basis of these values–and the vision and mission’s aim to diffuse knowledge and information–the Center’s goals emerged:

  • Create the most comprehensive and accessible resource for understanding rural cultures in the U.S.
  • Recreate human connection in hostile environments via qualitative methods.
  • Nurture conditions for human trust, vulnerability, self-knowledge, and expression.
  • Model power-sharing practices and processes in all projects.
  • Model relations that are fair and equal in terms of giving and sharing efforts and resources.
  • Model transparent professional standards and communication.
  • Provide tools for developing community media and arts resources.
  • Provide free access to resources that support relational health and human well-being.
  • Develop possibilities for local intellectual labor opportunities.
  • Develop local citizen-researchers.
  • Embody independence from business, academic, religious, or political organizations by making decisions and judgements based solely on the Center’s mission and aligned with its vision and values.

The Center’s Research & Methods

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The Center’s Methods & Research

“The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.” ~Alfred North Whitehead

My process philosophy background helps me frame the at-the-bottom ethnographic rural cultures immersion so that what I learn in the field is always in relation with how I make sense of it. In other words, my sense-making (creative rational analysis) is grounded in first-hand experience and always refers back to that experience for accuracy. The research is also always qualitative in order to create space for human connection in hostile environments.

My full immersion protocols emerged from field experience in what can accurately be described as “extreme ethnographic conditions” or “hostile field environments.” I have organized similar ethnographic experience characteristics from my immersion in each rural culture into the following categories of methodological protocols:

  • Setting up a new basic life
  • Starting at the bottom
  • Extended unplugged living
  • Relations in systems
  • Living simply and frugally
  • Cultural work
  • Zip code considerations
  • Coping with isolation
  • Processing and debriefing
  • Emerging and transitioning
  • Documenting and documentation
  • Grounding theory in projects
  • Creating
  • Sharing and marketing

In progress

The Human Basis of Democracy: Relational Power-Sharing & Everyday Authoritarianism in U.S. Rural Cultures is the nonfiction manuscript in progress that shares findings from my three years’ total ethnographic immersion–post-11.6.16–in two distinct rural cultures: Cave Junction, Oregon and Sea Ranch, California. At bottom, the book shows how the human commitment to share power founds democratic systems and processes.

The study’s method–framed in both process philosophy and anthropological ethnographic terms–is unique in its longevity in the field and total immersion protocols. Theoretically framed in terms generally reserved for urban cultural studies–but accessible to most audiences–the analysis of rural cultural norms and practices introduces newly relevant field-grounded concepts of power, relations, and agency.

The study’s findings identify normal everyday authoritarian practices — relational power-stealing and -hoarding — in both rural cultures. The practices described have devastating impacts on human safety, trust, and well-being–the enabling conditions necessary to support the heart of any democratic culture, human agency: the power to speak, to dissent, and the power to drive forward momentum. Also described is a generational “orientation” embodied by members of the two rural cultures whose normal relational practices destroy natural resources and function to support state-level authoritarianism.

The Human Basis of Democracy puts the tools to understand and navigate power relations in every concerned U.S. American’s hands. Unapologetically a description of what’s democratically possible in the United States, the book makes recommendations for reclaiming stolen power, creating power-sharing relations, and producing new sources of power. :: Project background :: Early chapter summaries ::


The developed full immersion protocols will be available to subscribers early March 2020.

The Center’s Cultural Work

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The Center’s Cultural Work

“Nothing happens until something moves.”~Albert Einstein

Cultures are made up of practices—what humans normally do and say that reflect how they think and what they value and believe. Cultural work practices focused in non-democratic cultures include questioning and challenging imbalanced power relations to loosen the social soil around power-stealing and hoarding sites. Cultural work practices also amend the social soil with fresh, creative nutrients—power-sharing ideas, stories, and practices—while hand-tilling that soil to encourage growth and wide-spread diffusion of democratic practices and norms. Cultural work practices focus on those most vulnerable to power-stealing in order to create conditions within which they can reclaim their power: to drive their forward momentum, to speak, and to dissent.

At the Center, cultural work grows from our research, is pre-political, and starts on the ground of rural cultures. It’s not about votes or voting. It’s not about political organizing or political parties; not about candidates or issues. Our work—concentrated in U.S. rural cultures–is about fear reduction: fear of the unknown, fear of punishment, fear of invisibility, fear of authority. Our cultural work is about building the enabling conditions necessary to support the health of our democracy. Our cultural work creates, embodies, models, and shares communicative practices that nurture a sense of safety, trust, and human well-being. Our cultural work enables vulnerability and sparks creativity that can only happen in democratic cultures. Our cultural work makes possible the magic that democracies grow.

From Boal to hooks to Giroux, those dedicated to cultural work use their lives as creative instruments of healthy social change. Cultural workers see possibilities, even if they’re mired in brutal actuality. We know we can’t change people, so we focus on changing the cultural conditions in which people live and grow. At the Center we work immersed in U.S. rural cultures to intervene and reshape unhealthy communicative patterns that undermine democratic norms and practices, while creatively embodying and encouraging power-sharing in its many forms.

The cultural work practices have evolved to include documentation that can provide guidance for others whose work is also focused on creating the cultural conditions for democratic practices and norms in non-democratic contexts.

The Sea Ranch Nonhuman Residents Project” was an effort to demonstrate, model, and document relational reframing in a specific rural culture. The penultimate document for the theory-grounding project is here. “

Loosening The Soil: The Cultural Work Part of U.S. Rural Cultures Studies,” is the accompanying article documenting rural cultural work in both Cave Junction, Oregon and Sea Ranch, California. It will be available to subscribers mid-Spring 2020.

The Center’s Creative & Media Projects

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The Center’s Creative & Media

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ~Edgar Degas

In general, the Center’s research-based creative and media projects support and encourage the cultural conditions for power-sharing, which can grow into democratic norms. The products attempt to show (rather than explain) to non-rural audiences how power moves, how to share it, how it’s stolen, how to take it back, and how to create new sources of power. What’s listed is in development, and there are regular updates on the Center’s site.

The Center’s bi-monthly newsletter publication, The Rural Portal Project, keeps subscribers up-to-date with Center work and events.

An extension of the RPP electronic publication is in development as an educational podcast called, “Voices from the Rural Portal.” The 30-minute program will provide a forum for rural-urban interactions in various forms.

“ISO” is a 75-minute solo performance in development based on the author’s three years’ solo immersion in rural cultures. The deeply honest, darkly funny, and ultimately optimistically upbeat performance includes music, images, and characters that explore the personal contours and community impacts of social isolation in rural contexts and beyond.

Planted is an original screenplay in development that tells the personal paradigm shift stories of a group of 5 urban graduate students fully immersed for a year in the solitary research of 5 different U.S. rural cultures.

Reclamation: Remembering How to Fly is a novel in progress based loosely on the author’s escape from her authoritarian family culture background and how an unexpected re-immersion into those power relations post-11.6.16 helped her reclaim herself from her parents’ white, toxically masculine vision (an accompanying photo-essay exhibit called “reclamation” is also in development)

A Tree and A Turn: How #30trails30days Saved my Life is a memoir in development that chronicles the author’s Instagram project, #30trails30days, focused on mental health. The book traverses the natural places that provided a sense of safety, trust, and well-being for the author while isolated in a totalizing world post-11.6.2016. (An accompanying photo-essay exhibit called “a tree & a turn” is also in development)

A note from Cathy, the Center’s PPI

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A note from Cathy, the Center’s PPI

“I see you. Because in you, I see me.” ~Lisa Schroeder

I was born and raised in an authoritarian family culture. From an early age, I learned how to adapt to live next to brilliant, violent power in the form of a father whose power-stealing 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. My mother, who supplicated and supported my father, now embodies the violently authoritarian norms in which our family grew, currently providing structural and systemic support for those conditions in her political practices.

I left home, and I learned how to do power differently in democratic college classrooms. There, I found ideas, stories, and practices–actual tools–I could use to reimagine and embody moving through the world democratically, sharing power instead of stealing and hoarding it. I took for granted the privilege of participating in those democratic classrooms until all of those power-sharing practices and norms disappeared in the rural cultures in which I was immersed.

My post-11.6.16 life put me in a unique position–framed by my family culture background and my democratic college education–to see, feel, and understand the rural cultural conditions that created the possibility for our current political and mediated climate. I’d taken for granted the democratic ideas, stories, and practices I’d learned in college, but they saved my sanity and, ultimately, my life when I was immersed in rural conditions that worked to annihilate my agency: to muffle my ability to speak up, to shut down my dissent, and to stagger my ability to drive my forward momentum.

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, 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 in the environment copied parts of that behavior later.

I had no choice about where I was born and in what family I grew up, just like most of the people I met and studied in my rural research. I had no idea until college that power could be embodied differently–most of the people I met and studied in my rural research have never seen power done differently either. I took for granted my power to drive my own forward momentum, my power to speak, and my power to dissent–many people I met and studied in my rural research are never empowered in these ways. My parents were anti-intellectual; higher education and access to all those ideas wasn’t an option for me in my family culture–for most people I met and studied in my rural research, access to the ideas available in higher education isn’t in their worlds either.

I do this work because I could have been them. My father dreamed about and investigated how he and his wife could move his 6 children away, rural. Only luck prevented his children bearing the brunt of the devastating consequences of that averted course, the evidence of which I have lived in and studied for 3 years. I do this work because what I’ve experienced and learned over the three years is nowhere in any conversation about how to rebuild our democracy. I do this work because without it, all the rest won’t matter. I do this work because it’s what I uniquely have to contribute to making things better. I do this work because I refuse to live in a country that feels and functions like the family culture I escaped. I do this work because I know that democratic change is possible, even in the most difficult conditions, if democratic ideas are available and accessible.


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