by Dr. Clare Hintz
Thank you for your thoughtful questions and honest comments that my essay sparked… such a delight to engage in this slow discourse that gives us time to complicate and complexify!
You conclude, “Too many times, no one is punching up and no one is punching down—we’re just punching each other on the same level, each side claiming to be victims, when we could be holding each other up.”
In no way do I want to participate in a race to the bottom, to suggest we have it worse in rural America than another group, or really compare at all, or to say that bridging the rural-urban divide is the key to solving our econo-political crises. I certainly don’t feel like a victim myself — I am enormously privileged to have the life that I do. I do not want to suggest that if only we liberals were even more compassionate and empathetic with our conservative friends we could break through the hate and fear rampaging through the world. I do not want to gloss over the intersectional ramifications of class, race, and gender as they play out unequally in all parts of our country, rural and urban (hard not to do in a short essay). Incidentally, you would be most welcome here where I live; before Covid, my lesbian friends used to frequent the same bar as the bear hunters. My lesbian friends (they’ve told me) feel safe here, but I suspect it is because they are white.
I do not say that we in my rural northern Wisconsin home have it all figured out. A police officer shot and killed an Anishenabe schoolboy, Jason Pero, in 2017 in my community. No justice has been served for that crime or the others reported by the tribe about the local police force.
Systemic racism is a difficult conversation to have with some of my white neighbors, but it is definitely one that I have been trained to have, and continue to have. What struck me the most about the conversation I reported in my first essay, was, if someone wants my neighbor to be afraid of me for being a liberal, and someone wants me to “other” my neighbor because she’s a conservative, who are those people, and shouldn’t we both be paying attention to them, because they stand to benefit financially from our polarization? As you alluded to.
I did want to journal about what it’s like where I live, because I believe this is an important context to dismantling structural racism and building economic models that value bio-cultural diversity and all the other common goods we want. I think I as a farmer who has to work every day or not be paid has something in common with your postman who also has to work every day in a pandemic. Slowly, where I am, we’ve been learning and implementing little pilot projects of a gift economy… those roots go deep and are indigenous. And among people who don’t have much money. Rural America voted red. The gift economy does not show up in anybody’s maps. NPR news remains uncritical of a growth-based extractive economy, even as we all become more reflective in the pandemic. What are we to make of all that?
I meant that first essay, a glimpse of my rural life, as a message of hope, actually: that in our pragmatic struggles to meet our material needs — at the heart of any economic system — we may find common ground. I worked for three years in the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, and I would say it’s the same opportunity and deliberate disenfranchisement in urban America as in rural, except that in urban America one generally can’t fall back on hunting to survive, and re-learning how to garden for food is fraught with the legacy of slavery many fled to cities to escape.
I don’t mean that last sentence to sound flip. Despair is the colonial legacy everywhere, and dealing with that trauma is difficult and prevents us from claiming agency. It’s hard for me to watch the erasure of farmers and food production, because when a handful of corporations control our food supply, as they do, then we have lost our freedom at the most basic level, economic, biological, or political. And It’s hard to do anything about that when one is simply trying to put food on the table when one is underpaid. One massive reinforcing feedback loop.
The work of creating an economic system that we want and the work of dismantling structural racism (and all the other isms) economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically will be the work of generations. And is generations overdue. In systems terms, though, we don’t need to change everything, we need to start with some leverage points. They don’t even need to be the “right” leverage points, because the beauty of a complex system is that if one starts at any leverage point, the whole system will change and draw one onto the other leverage points. Also, “start” is perhaps specific to us white people — our joining the resistances already in motion around the world; what Vandana Shiva calls Earth Democracy and Black Elk envisioned as mending the sacred hoop and others call Black Lives Matter, and still others support as Via Campesina.
I am proposing, through my story, that one leverage point is finding a community-based self-reliance…. Local Living Economies in academic terms. I am reporting that my initial experience from living where I do suggests that economic work will enable us to continue to have the difficult transformations we need to further dismantle the strictures of dis-empowerment. We’ve been imperfectly working on a local economy here. I know there are other examples out there, both urban and rural (see for example, Margaret Wheatley’s, Walk Out, Walk On). Again, in systems terms, it’s easier to build a complex system based on what we want: set the goals and the emergent nature of the system will form around those. But getting to what we want as a nation is nearly impossible in this polarized climate. (Such an odd term in an era of climate change, melting polar ice, and never-ending fire.) But at the level of basic needs, we are not okay unless we are all okay. If we can grapple with our mental model of scarcity and replace it with a mental model of abundance, then there is less to fear. Changing mental models, as Donella Meadows points out in her wonderful book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, are a top way to intervene in a system. And very hard to do. So I am suggesting — hoping?—that if, as one way among many, we find common ground in local resilience, that effort might lead us also to seeing each other’s deep humanity.