Reflections on Civic Courage: Civic Courage As Part of a Larger Endeavor

This is a guest post by David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation. David will be facilitating a panel on "New Connections" at the Rural Assembly 2018 convening in May. This is a part of an ongoing series on the topic of civic courage, which is the theme of the National Rural Assembly 2018 convening.

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There is no universal definition of civic courage. Whether it is an issue to solve, an audience to address, or more simply a way to be engaged, everyone values something different. To tell someone their issue is not important, or that their idea on how to be civically engaged is not the most effective method, doesn’t help us achieve our larger goals. What is important is when people realize that they are the change they’ve been waiting for.

That is what civic courage means to me: the willingness to step forward and acknowledge there is a problem that needs to be addressed. But having civic courage is only the first step. The next step, and one equally as important, is applying that courage towards solving an issue by putting a plan into action. You might not know the full scale of the problem or even have all the answers on how to fix it. That’s ok. What matters is that you’re not waiting for someone else to solve it; you’re part of the solution. Together, these two important steps make up our understanding of civic engagement.

That idea is at the center of the Obama Foundation’s mission. We’re focused on making active citizenship accessible to anyone, anywhere. We want to reach everyone – from those who want to make the world a better place but aren’t sure where to start, to those who don’t yet see themselves as change agents. That helps us achieve our broader mission: to inspire and empower the next generation of active citizens and leaders, together defining what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.

By connecting with these individuals, we can truly understand where they are coming from and create the foundation upon which civic engagement and organizing are built. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all strategy. Civic engagement wasn’t built on lecturing one another. But in order to build that foundation, we need individuals to have the courage to step forward and be agents of change.

That is where the National Rural Assembly comes in. You are all spread out across the country but share the common desire to make your community a better place. You’ve already demonstrated the courage that is required for effective civic engagement. That is especially impressive considering that your location may not give you the same access to resources and connections others may have. Still, you’ve overcome the barriers and are working on developing your action plans. On behalf of the Obama Foundation, I cannot wait to hear more about what you’re working on and talk about how we can tackle these challenges together.

Magaly Licolli: A Journey of Creativity


We will ignite the 2018 National Rural Assembly with our firestarters - committed citizens who are modeling for the nation how we mend and strengthen the social and civic fabric of our country. They are lighting fires and sparking change, each in their own way and in their own place, and we had the honor of speaking with Magaly Licolli recently. This is a guest post from Karen Fasimpaur reporting on the conversation.

“I was a warrior since I was born,” says Magaly Licolli. “If you have dreams that don’t fit into [society’s] rules, you need to fight and...find a way.”


Licolli has maintained a fierce focus on her goals and has used this focus to serve the community around her. After coming to the U.S. from Mexico in 2004, she eventually moved into the work of organizing workers in rural Arkansas.

“For me, coming here...was very hard on me because of the racism I had to face,” said Licolli.  Then hearing the stories of undocumented people who were even more vulnerable than she was served as a wake-up call to her to use her privilege and talents to lift up her community.  She soon felt called to organize poultry workers there who faced poor working conditions.

Immigrant workers often face harsh discrimination and exploitation. In the poultry industry, they are subject to low wages, unsafe work conditions, and workplace indignities. They can be made to feel sub-human and that the chickens are more important than them as workers.

“The only people who can change that are the workers,” says Licolli.

She began this work while working another full-time job, and then in 2015, against the odds, she became the Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, which works on labor issues with the immigrant community.

The work was very challenging and was filled with tasks that Licolli didn’t have previous experience with. Her belief in the importance of the work prompted her to persist.

“The only thing that really made me go through all of these challenges was my passion and the vision that I had to really make changes, systemic changes for my community,” she says.

After starting with just one staff member, the organization now has four full-time people. Licolli is proud of what they've achieved because the work they do is so important and their work is unique.

One of the challenges Licolli faced was what she calls the “polite politics” of the south, which may resonate with many rural communities. People are often hesitant to go up against the status quo for fear of offending people, and there is a reluctance to be direct. Licollifeels that we have to challenge these comfort zones and be authentic to our beliefs.

In addition, poultry is the biggest industry in Arkansas, with approximately 28,000 poultry workers there. With the poultry industry putting significant money into community improvement efforts, many community members were uncomfortable confronting them over worker issues.

Licollifelt, though, that these were two different issues -- just because the industry does good work in the community doesn’t take away from the need to treat workers justly. Through hard work, she was able to gain allies in her fight, including those from the faith community and from other progressive groups. Food systems provided an opportunity to establish some of these alliances, since the issues of health, education, the environment, economic development, sustainability, and worker rights are all tied together.

“We all need to come together to fight,” she says.

Coming to the U.S. with a background in theater arts, Licolli was able to apply this to her pursuit for social justice. Initially, some were very doubtful that the workers would engage with this work, but now that they’ve seen the power, they believe in it and want more.

Licolli sees this as a “journey of creativity,” using the arts to encourage play, empower workers, bring consciousness, prompt reflection and give strength to their voices, ultimately uplifting them through collective power.

“To me, theater was always a way to bring justice.”

She believes that anyone can be an actor and tell their stories. Everyone has their stories, and they are all powerful. Telling these stories makes people more conscious about their realities and allows them to find their power. In one case, workers harnessed their own stories to develop a play about the journey of an immigrant and the violence and poverty they faced.

Licolli’s civic courage is evident in how she’s taken on this task with a spirit of constant learning and resiliency. She has challenged society’s expectations of her, as a woman and as an immigrant, with gusto. From the time she was a child in Mexico to her work now a successful organizer in the U.S., she has relied on the power of education and lifetime learning to soar.

And she believes that “anyone can change their reality.”

While fighting for our beliefs often results in objections and pushback from family, friends, and community, Magaly believes that her personal sacrifices in this regard have been worthwhile, to her and certainly to the community around her.

This sentiment is part of what makes Magaly Licolli a firestarter, and we look forward to having her join us at the National Rural Assembly 2018 in May.

Anita Earls: A Passion for Justice


We will ignite the 2018 National Rural Assembly with our firestarters - committed citizens who are modeling for the nation how we mend and strengthen the social and civic fabric of our country. They are lighting fires and sparking change, each in their own way and in their own place, and Anna Claussen had the honor of speaking with Anita Earls recently. This is a guest post from Anna reporting on their conversation.

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Anita Earls is a lawyer, mother, grandmother and FIRESTARTER who has an uncompromising passion and drive for justice and fairness. Earls founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a North Carolina-based civil rights nonprofit organization that partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South to defend and advance their political, social, and economic rights. She goes against the grain daily by pushing for what the community needs, even if it's not what society, culture and institutions are prepared to provide for them.

Community lawyering - the process through which advocates contribute their legal knowledge and skills to support initiatives that are identified by the community and enhance the community's power - is at the core of Earl’s law practice. And she’s willing to use creative tools, those that don’t fit into traditional roles of an attorney, to represent people who can’t afford representation and to find ways to define communities beyond geographic boundaries. Earls “gets upset about how rural communities face challenges, like heirs’ property issues, simply because they live in rural areas and are not getting adequate attention.” But when she brings folks together to allow them to talk to each other to define solutions and share challenges, they create new communities. They create new power.

As a civil rights attorney with thirty years’ experience litigating voting rights, police misconduct, school desegregation, and employment discrimination cases, Anita is steeped in professional experience. However, it is not only her legal experience she draws on today as she makes her run for North Carolina Supreme Court. Anita says she was motivated to run for office following the 2016 elections “because of the current and important threats to our democracy.” For Anita these threats run close to home. From the people she has represented to her family seeking justice after the death of her brother, Anita has turned these challenges into a sense of urgency. Born into a mixed race family during the Jim Crow era, where she says her family caused problems just by stepping outside their front door, Anita draws courage from her parents to step outside boundaries and boxes that society can put us into.

“It takes a fighting spirit to be able to seek justice on behalf of communities exploited - those exploited from the political process and by institutions, those unable to have the benefits that others enjoy.” For Anita Earls, her life pursuit of justice and fairness “feels very much like it chose me’’.

Anita Earls is a true firestarter, and we look forward to having her join us at the National Rural Assembly convening in May.

Reflections on civic courage - part 3

This is a guest blog post from Karen Fasimpaur. Karen is a proud rural resident and communications consultant who is also helping to coordinate the Rural Assembly 2018 convening. This post reflects her personal views, not necessarily those of the organizers. This is a part of an ongoing series on the topic of civic courage, which is the theme of the National Rural Assembly 2018 convening.

To me, civic courage means taking actions that are difficult and that involve significant personal risk in order to build stronger, more just communities.

In the borderlands where I live, nowhere is civic courage more evident than in the debates around immigration.

Civic courage can be seen in those who defend the rights and contributions of immigrants in the face of other forces that are aligned strongly against them. Courage is evident in those who offer food, water, and safe passage to immigrants who brave deadly conditions to come to the US. Even as law enforcement prosecutes humanitarian aid as a criminal offense, brave souls persist. Courage is evident in lawyers who defend immigrants who otherwise have no rights to a lawyer or due process.

Courage is shown when people stand up to say that everyone matters and should be treated with respect. It is recognizing that there is a continuum of situations, and that black and white and right and wrong are false dichotomies. Understanding that criminal acts are sometimes committed out of a desperation and frustration stemming from systemic poverty and violence is an act of courage. And sometimes even those criminal acts are acts of courage.


Courage can be seen in activists who protest government policies that steer immigrants toward more deadly crossing routes and fail to address the root causes of immigration. It is courageous to build community empathy rather than walls. Courage is shown by public officials who advocate for more humane policies and especially those who offer sanctuary and refuse to cooperate with policies they cannot support morally.

Most of all, civic courage is evident in the actions of the many immigrants coming to and living in our communities. Many immigrants cross the southern borderland desert in extreme heat and cold, through dangerous mountain territory, facing additional peril from those who oppose their presence or seek to exploit it. Thousands die every year making this crossing. To attempt the trip here, sometimes multiple times, is an act of courage.

Approximately 400,000 immigrants are held in detention in the U.S. each year. Some have lived in the U.S. with their families for years and simply want to continue their lives in what is their home. Those detained do not have the right to an attorney or other basic due process that any American would expect. Some spend years in detention, away from their families, waiting for a chance to resume their lives. This takes courage.

Courage is seen in the “dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as children, who know this country as their only home, who have gone to school here and contributed to the fabric of our society. Every day,  these dreamers and their families risk arrest and deportation. They choose to stay because this is their home. Many are vocal and public about their status, their fears, and their love of this country, and this is perhaps the greatest act of civic courage.

What makes all of these examples courageous is that they are so difficult and filled with risk in the current climate of hate and discrimination. I am grateful for all of those who show courage and defend immigrants as valuable members of our communities. This civic courage makes our communities stronger and fills me with hope that the future will be more just.

Reflections on civic courage - part 2

This is a guest post by Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association and member of the National Rural Assembly Steering Committee. This is a part of an ongoing series on the topic of civic courage, which is the theme of the National Rural Assembly 2018 convening.

Rural America is a great place to work, live, and thrive.  And rural America is a great place to be a leader.  As such, the 2018 Rural Assembly banner “Building Civic Courage” is a perfect topic for these challenging times.

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In the health sector, rural communities across the United States are serving as innovation hubs, designing and implementing new systems of care, and new delivery models.  But the real opportunity and challenge is to change the culture of health in the communities themselves.  Simply stated, “How do we empower rural communities to take control of their health and healthcare?”

This means providing leadership at a local level to create programs that help inform and support community health: The creation of support groups, exercise parks, community farmers markets, and health screenings to name a few.  New rural leaders must emerge who can harness local rural assets, and change the fundamental culture of health from a rural perspective.

Civic courage means understanding what is meaningful to your community, communicating in the language of the community, and recognizing and incorporating cultural buffers (such as cultural identity, spiritual coping and traditional health practices, to help residents thrive and live healthy lives.)

In this critically important time, rural America needs fearless leaders, who understand that the health of the population is vital to the health of the community itself.  The 2018 Assembly is a catalyst for action, and the start of an important public dialog.


Reflections on civic courage - part 1

This is a part of an ongoing series of guest blog posts on the topic of civic courage, which is the theme of the National Rural Assembly 2018 convening.

This is a definition of "civic courage" developed by youth at the YouthBuild USA Conference of Young Leaders in March, 2018.

Civic courage looks like persistent, dedicated, and determined people showing up and speaking up for themselves and for those in their communities who cannot speak. Courage looks like vulnerable acts, like overcoming anxiety to become connectors and bridge-builders. We all have it within us to be courageous for our communities.


This is a guest post by Matthew Fluharty, a visual artist, writer, and field-based researcher living in Winona, Minnesota.

I believe that civic courage in rural America begins with an acknowledgement of the deep cultural history in our places -- and rooting a path forward from those stories while also sitting with the harder -- and often unacknowledged -- stories of how the the places we live now were intentionally shaped by colonialism, slavery, and extractive industries. There is so much hope, innovation, and human spirit in our communities; there's enough to look squarely at these legacies and create civic, economic, and cultural projects that include everyone and, in doing so, provide a model of engagement for our whole country. From that, I believe civic courage looks like folks making new friends at a barbecue, running for city council, or figuring out what to do with an empty storefront downtown. We get together in the same space, listen to each other, and make good things happen. 

This is a guest post by Carol Blackmon, member of the National Rural Assembly Steering Committee and founder and President  of C B Enterprises & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm that supports nonprofit organizational development, program development, and special project management.

Building Civic Courage:The 2018 Rural Assembly banner is quite profound in what some may call revolutionary and scary civic times. As we are witnessing changes and rollbacks of policies that really made America "Great." we must exhibit a special kind of civic courage. Federal rules have been changed on policies from climate change to the Tax System. Net neutrality has been killed. Our role and support in the Clean Power Plan has been eliminated and the methane gas rule related to hydraulic fracking has been delayed. Meanwhile, the Congressional Review Act has been liberally used by Congress to overturn policy following the required 60 day publication rule, to free employers from keeping records of accidents, assaults on immigrants, and overturned the number of guns that can be purchased by the mentally ill. The plethora of policies that have been changed, delayed and or eliminated go on and on.

And now, we come to the whole premise of flagrant voter fraud, being spread across the country but seemingly used mostly in small rural southern communities. Legal assaults are being perpetuated on targeted citizens using archaic legal maneuvering such as in Georgia where only the illiterate or disabled can be assisted at the polls. My friend and colleague was acquitted of this very crime after assisting someone to exercise their civic duty, to vote. As we hear these voter fraud stories, witness these policy deletions and changes, we should remain alert and engaged, show the courage of Olivia Pearson to be committed to the end.

We must be reminded of Rip Van Winkle. Rip went into the mountains and slept for 20 years. While he was asleep the American Revolution took place. On his way into the mountains he saw a sign declaring King George III as the ruler over America; but, after awaking,on his return, he saw a sign announcing that George Washington was President.

So I say to Rural America when it comes to civic courage, don't sleep through the revolution!