David Toland: Small Fires, Big Results

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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 pleasure of speaking with David Toland recently. This is a guest post from Anna Claussen reporting on the conversation.


It’s fire burning season in Kansas. That time of year when you drive through this part of the country and the recently brown landscape is now entirely black. Within just a few days the green shoots are going to come up from the charred rolling hills and the fields will come back stronger and healthier, and much better than they would have had they not gone through that fire. For David Toland, the first CEO of Thrive Allen County, this is not unlike the work they do as a nonprofit working to improve quality of life and economic conditions in Allen County, Kansas (pop. 13,000). For many rural places he believes there is a need to burn the constructs of what we thought was possible in order for new possibilities to emerge.

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David Toland left his career in the District of Columbia ten years ago when he was compelled by the vision of locals in his home community to become the healthiest rural county in the state of Kansas. But to be successful David and the community needed to “blow up the idea that things have to be the way they are and that tomorrow is inevitably going to be worse than today.” To transform a small volunteer coalition into a force instrumental in improving healthcare access and improving quality of life required faith. It meant starting lots of little fires in community members. The fire needed to garner voter approval to build a new critical access hospital, to turn zero miles of trail into a 27-mile trail system, and to add amenities that would draw in professionals and services that the community needed to be healthy and vibrant. Fires that would help community members believe that they can fix their problems and seize the opportunities they have always dreamed of. For David, this also means giving folks the backup to take action and drawing on his experience to help rural communities demand more and believe they are worthy.

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Though many may find it hard to draw parallels between the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and the rolling, fertile prairie of Allen County Kansas - David was not one of them. Rather he was informed by his experience as Chief of Staff in the DC Office of Planning and as Deputy COO to DC’s Deputy Mayor and by his time living in an abandoned urban center that recently experienced a renaissance to make it more livable. He found that so much of what he learned in DC was relevant and transferable in his small community of 6000, specifically the importance of good design when it comes to the built environment. David believes wholeheartedly in the universal theme that you need to consider the built environment and how it impacts not only the physical health, but also the culture of the community, regardless of the community’s size or population. He not only believes in this philosophy; he puts it into action.

Struggling for years in a food desert, Allen County desperately needed a grocery store. When advocating for such a basic, necessary and vital service, it can be overwhelming to consider not just whether you will get a grocery store, but to emphasis how that service will be delivered. But looking at economic development through a health lens, Thriving Allen County set out to ensure that the grocery store was not just a metal building at the edge of town, but instead developed in a way that sends the message that this supermarket is walkable, bikeable and accessible to everyone.

Recognized in 2017 with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, Allen County is certainly a success story, though David is also quick to point out the importance and relevance of failure. Doing work in rural communities requires innovation and resilience. Generally in rural America there is no handbook and no manual. We don’t get the kind off attention from academia and elsewhere that our urban counterparts get. Therefore as practitioners we have to create strategies as we go, and this can be exhausting. It requires stamina and humility. It requires failure. David believes that one of the things that holds us back in rural communities is our relationship to failure: “We are really hard on people that try and are not successful”, and as a culture, “we punish them and this is our downfall”. Rather we have to try, and we have to experiment, and we have to share what we learn. We have to have faith.

David Toland doesn't describe his work as courageous. Rather, he feels incredibly privileged to do this work. As a seventh-generation Allen Countian he is grateful to be engaged in the “day to day life of showing up, of civic life and doing what it takes to keep communities alive, eliminating barriers for poverty, for children, for folks that are trying to get ahead.” For David it is clear - “This is what you do if you live in a rural community.”

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

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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.

Anita Earls: A Passion for Justice

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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 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.

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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.