Magaly Licolli: A Journey of Creativity

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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.”

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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.

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.

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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!

RA 2018 and Civic Courage

This blog post is from Whitney Kimball Coe, Coordinator of the National Rural Assembly.

Unpacking the 2018 Rural Assembly: Building Civic Courage

As coordinator of the National Rural Assembly, I’ve struggled to come to terms with what is necessary in this moment of deep divisions across zip codes and economies, race and politics.

The 2016 election revealed in dramatic ways how people and communities are being left behind, particularly in rural America, and it has forced our country to confront hard truths about inequities and injustices in communities who bear the brunt of violence, poverty, and extreme weather.

Past Rural Assemblies have focused on developing smarter rural policy agendas to address these disparities, but it is my contention that this moment is calling us to the work of building power for justice and inclusive outcomes in rural communities.

This means we must reckon not only with the overall marginalization of rural America, but also with the injustices and inequities found within our own communities.

In just a few months, 200 rural leaders and advocates from across the country will gather in Durham, North Carolina for the sixth convening of the National Rural Assembly.

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This time we gather under the banner of Building Civic Courage, with the purpose of emphasizing the daily, heroic work we know is happening in rural communities, and amplifying it with a national audience.

Since 2007, the National Rural Assembly has convened voices from every region and every state in the United States. Participants represent local grassroots organizers, nonprofit and business leaders, government officials, funders, and next generation leaders. They represent a diversity of cultures, geographies, and ethnicities, and they pour their expertise into creative initiatives that build up their hometowns and communities, ranging from climate and energy solutions to creative placemaking initiatives, from economic transitions to restoring our democracy.

Our participants share a passion for achieving healthier, more sustainable, and more just communities, and they are all courageously taking on the challenges and barriers that would stand in the way.

In Durham, we will hold space for conversations among rural organizers, activists, and advocates, who are courageously working for justice for communities and within communities, across issues of civil rights, immigration, voting rights, and economic degradation.

We’ll hear from:

  • Practitioners who are using civic engagement models to address politicized topics like climate change and immigration;
  • Faith leaders who are catalyzing movements for justice;
  • Philanthropists who are investing in the holistic well-being of rural America;
  • Economic development practitioners who are attacking the systemic barriers that impoverish communities;
  • And next generation residents who are putting down roots in rural areas and creating more inclusive communities in the process.
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We’ll engage in morning and afternoon breakouts designed to nurture our civic dialogue skills. We’ll listen deeply to writers, filmmakers, performers, and to our peers, and in some cases, participate in dialogues that push us out of our comfort zones.

The National Rural Assembly has always been a place where we can have frank conversations about deficits and disparities, but in this moment, it seems equally important that we are answering a call to claim the kind of futures we want to see in our communities.

Courage looks like many things, from quiet to noisy acts of resistance to bridge-building exercises like hosting a community meal.

What makes courage “civic” is the way it affects more than a person’s individual tribe or group. Civic courage is about community.

Building civic courage is a task for all of us across the country, in rural and urban America. But I think rural places are poised to offer leadership on this front because we’ve been doing the hard work of showing up, creating, leading, and mending fences for a long time.

We have something to share with the world, and the 2018 Assembly is a moment to capture and amplify our practice.

Registration opens March 5.

Don't break the Internet before rural gets it

This is a post from Whitney Kimball Coe,  coordinator of the National Rural Assembly and director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies. Rural Strategies also publishes the Daily Yonder.


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One of my all-time, favorite quotes originated in the Daily Yonder back in 2014. My then-coworker, Edyael Casaperalta, submitted an exquisite and courageous Speak Your Piece, making the case to the Federal Communications Commission in support of net neutrality and rural broadband connectivity. It was called, "Life in the Slow Lane," and the best quote of all time became a rallying cry for the National Rural Assembly's Broadband Policy Group:

"Don't break the Internet before rural gets it."

I don't know if this editorial sealed the deal for the FCC back in 2014, but by 2015, they'd reclassified broadband as a Title II public utility, like telephone and electric service, and the 23 million people without internet access were just a little bit closer to enfranchisement.

Fast-forward to November 2017, and we're back at square one with the FCC. In the next few weeks, Chairman Ajit Pai is expected to outline what the repeal of the 2015 Title II reclassification will look like.

The Daily Yonder will no doubt offer the kind of analyses and critiques rural advocates will need to stay on top of this issue. More importantly, though, I know we can count on the Yonder to bring voices like Edyael's back to the party.

It's voices like hers, from small rural towns, reservations, parishes, and hollers across the country that give us clarity and courage as we work toward closing divides and achieving equity for marginalized communities.  

For the past 10 years, the National Rural Assembly has relied upon the Daily Yonder for content, data, and genuine rural voices to help us make sense of who we are and what matters most for rural futures. I hope you'll join me in supporting the Daily Yonder this year, so the information continues to flow to the people who need it most.

It’s National Rural Health Day, Y’all!

Thursday, November 16 is National Rural Health Day, a collaborative effort to highlight the challenges faced in rural communities and to amplify the courageous, innovative work of rural health care providers, National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health, educators, and others working at all levels to improve the health of rural people and places.

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The National Rural Assembly believes that when rural places are doing well, our country is stronger and our collective future is more sustainable.

Commitment to the health of rural people is one of the four pillars of our work, and we’re eager to amplify the good work that is happening to support healthy futures for rural communities.

That’s why today we want to acknowledge the leadership of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) by looking across their current work and out to the field to learn about rural health in new and important ways.

As part of a larger rural learning effort, this summer RWJF surveyed, interviewed and convened over two dozen rural stakeholders, including Rural Assembly participants, for Rural Lessons for Building a Culture of Health, an active shared learning series to ensure that rural considerations deliberately inform the foundation’s and other funders’ work.

Facilitated by the Center for Rural Strategies, Rural Lessons engaged rural researchers, policy-makers and practitioners from a diverse set of sectors, geographies, and cultures to contribute to a more holistic notion of rural health and well-being. The discussion went deep, but four clear, powerful takeaways emerged:  

  1. It’s time to invest in an evidence base to inform policies, practices and systems that fit rural contexts. To do so, public and private funders must better adapt their expectations for scale and success in rural communities and help create a more localized rural research infrastructure that engages diverse populations, new kinds of intermediaries, and varied local organizations in research design, objectives, and implementation. 
  2. The narrative of rural America should acknowledge and elevate diversity and value. Narrative drives the resources and public support for the layers of work that lead to healthy communities. We must create opportunities to promote narratives of rural ingenuity; lift up messengers that reflect the diversity of rural America, including youth and people of color; and use tailored communications strategies that appeal to our varied community cultures.
  3. Building healthier rural communities requires attention to whole systems and not silos. Access to capital, housing, transportation, childcare, college readiness, broadband and other tools for economic opportunity are critical to building positive health outcomes across race, ethnicity and socio-economics. In tandem with health care initiatives, investments in community and economic development strategies like these will lead to enduring results. 
  4. Re-imagine the role of health care providers and institutions and support systems in rural America. Rural health care providers play a dual role as both clinical care and economic drivers, and it is important that they embrace this dual role to create healthier communities. Key opportunities include home-based care and telemedicine approaches, transforming required health care community assessments into community investment plans, and investing in creative healthcare workforce development strategies.

Undergirding these lessons is the undeniable need to strengthen local capacity and action to address racism, marginalization and historical community trauma in rural communities, even in communities where the hyper majority population is white. While the forces of systemic racism are often explored in an urban context, rural communities and organizations could use better tools and training to break through critical barriers to the long-term health and well-being of their communities.

There is an important role for foundations, researchers, policy-makers and practitioners in this arena. National Rural Health Day is a good opportunity to for all of us working in rural America to recommit ourselves to doing the deep, long-term, and necessary work that supports healthier, more equitable rural communities.