A Movement Rooted in Rural and Working-Class Values

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Photo Sarah Whiting

I grew up on gravel roads, fed by stories from people who had time to consider my questions. The telephone number went through an operator, the school district was New London, and the closest town for supplies was Sunburg. When people ask where I am from, it is not a city or even a small town that comes to mind. It is my grandfather’s name followed by “Rural Route 2.” So, I know a few things about rural life.

In 1973, I was the first grandchild born to two farm families. We raised crops, but the sustaining income came from the milk check. In the late 1970s, farmers faced high interest rates, high fuel costs, and pressure to expand. By 1980, my parents’ marriage had ended and my mother had gone from being an independent producer of food to an hourly wage earner at a local meat-packing plant. Still today, the plant has no union. It was, however, the highest wage available to a divorced mother with little formal education past high school. In the end, my mother crippled her body for 40-plus hours a week in order to barely pay for heat, rent, and food.

My mother had a lifetime of experience in agriculture, but in 1980 she was considered the wrong gender for owning a farm or laboring on one. White women simply were not hired as field labor or “hired men.” Migrant workers of all genders, however, tended to pick the food; apparently employers felt comfortable giving them the low pay with tough conditions.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan enacted farm and labor policies that changed rural America. Independent farmers were increasingly forced from the land; local stores and restaurants started closing; and big-box stores and fast-food chains came in. These businesses no longer had community-connected owners or unions that could push back against large corporations.

In the 1990s, by a miracle and generous federal grant policies, I attended university. After graduation, I returned home and worked for organizations that addressed child neglect, family violence, and housing insecurity. With each client, I began to question why it seemed impossible for rural people to get our basic needs met. I began to understand that the charity of nonprofits can maintain a status quo that is killing people and communities.

When a person is hungry, the answer certainly is to feed them — but a full belly is not enough to build a future on.

When Anger Is Misplaced

White Christian nationalism seemed to be fueling momentum in my central Minnesota region in deciding where to direct anger that does not lead to actual solutions.

The rage I witnessed included a woman who said Muslims and Latino immigrants were diseased and illiterate, bringing “crime and filth into our country that our forefathers sacrificed so much for.” An elected official openly supported her position, and likened SNAP recipients to dependent animals in national parks.

For me, these words reminded me of the warning of my relatives who fled Germany between the world wars: extremist propaganda works.

Some people supported an affordable housing development for workforce needs, including teachers and health care staff. Others rejected the project, saying it would decrease property values.

I found myself organizing neighbors dedicated to building something better than fear and pain. In Willmar, we organized against discrimination based on gender and religion. From 2015 to 2018, we observed and spoke at city council meetings. We took notes and published them. We amplified links to recordings of public meetings. I wrote an op-ed for the local paper. We held vigils and marches. We engaged neighbors in thousands of conversations. We took up so much space in the public dialogue that we could not be ignored.

One person told me, “I am going to cure your refugee love with my second amendment rights.” Another directly referenced using an AR-15, the chosen weapon of mass shooters. Another threatened to run me over.

Organizing for Solutions

We needed something tangible and that came in the form of a welcoming resolution. A vote required officials to go on record. A welcoming resolution passed on February 5, 2018, declaring the City of Willmar a community in which “all residents without regard to age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin should be free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.”

Women were inspired to run for office, and the next city council almost achieved gender parity. With a new council committed to a functioning city government for everyone, more things became possible. Streets began to be repaired again, new housing was built, and we even created a wheelchair-accessible children’s playground as a community project. It is not a utopia, but we did something important.

Being an organizer is about bringing people together around shared pain and opportunities. Even when we are out-monied, it is about seeing our power together. After all, a meat-packing plant is just a building without people to work in it.

Since the 1980s, I have seen changes in my community. Latino migrant workers started buying houses and opened businesses in stores that had been closed for years. Food that people missed from their home countries was served in previously closed restaurants.

I drink afternoon tea in living rooms and trade stories with Somali families. I marvel at the large gardens Karen families plant to feed the community. These are the values I was raised with.

We need workers to keep the food supply going, and to staff the hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. We need younger families if our communities are to survive. We want a community that can prosper together.

Because of my leadership with the welcoming resolution, I was hired as a paid organizer by two groups looking to engage rural America. The work was powerful and important, but I was often the only rural person at the table.

In early July, I attended the 22nd Century Conference in Minneapolis, where I connected with rural and Indigenous organizers. We had similar experiences of working alone or feeling isolated in larger organizations. I decided now is the time to start a new movement rooted in working-class values that understands that America is not prosperous through whiteness.

I am now creating an organization that will amplify the narratives of lives that genuinely support the people and the places of rural America.

Jessica Rohloff (she/her) describes herself as “one rural voice with a bruised but open heart, in pursuit of a better place for all.”