Diana Oestreich: Unmaking Violence

We are igniting 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 Diana Oestreich recently. This is a guest post from Elena Kaye-Schiess reporting on the conversation.

“The bravest thing I have ever done is to… in a way, publicly say, ‘I am a soldier, and I am a peacemaker,' because it is not popular for either group – like, I knew that we are always told you have to be one or the other; and I believe it’s a false narrative – it’s not true either you are with us or against us. But that is very much the lens we’ve been told… So, the bravest thing I’ve ever done is just to own both parts of myself that’re true and to honor that, and to actually invite other people into choosing that it’s not us vs. them, and that you don’t have to be either/or, and there’s not just two camps – we can passionately love our country and passionately love our community and it might look different than what we’ve been told,” says Diana Oestreich, who will be a Firestarter at next week’s National Rural Assembly convening in Durham, NC .

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As a third generation army veteran, Diana grew up in a small, tight-knit community in northern Minnesota of about 8,000 residents. Raised in a family of veterans who she looked to as heroes, she was instilled with a core value at a young age that service to your country is who you are and how you love your country.

“The only heroes I saw were the people who wore the uniform or had the triangle box on their mantelpiece or were policemen,” says Diana.

Growing up in a town without a lot of economic mobility, and having little, if any, guidance on how to apply to college, but generations of knowledge when it came to military service, at 17 years old Diana joined the National Guard as a combat medic. In 2013, at 23 years old, she was called to serve in Iraq as part of troop insurgency and preemptive strike.

Soon after, she found herself with only a medic bag on her back in the middle of a war zone. One of the very first nights was an inflection point, not just for her career, but for her entire belief system, which was called into question when her sergeant explained:

 “’We are going into enemy territory tomorrow, and it is a common enemy tactic to push a little Iraqi child in front of the convoy, in order to stop the trucks, in order to attack the soldiers at the rear of the convoy. I hope you understand your duty to do whatever you have to do to keep that convoy rolling, even if it includes harming a child. And if anybody isn’t able to fulfill their duty, and protect their battle buddies, stand up now and identify yourself.’”

 “That was the longest night of my life,” Diana recalled, “And it was the first time that I had to make a choice and confront my beliefs with our practicality of, well, what does this really mean, when it actually means taking a life for my country, and, in fact, a little child’s life.”

That was the moment when she rearranged everything she thought she knew, everything that she believed, and everything she thought was right and heroic.

Diana ended up deciding she was going to lay down her weapon and fight for peace – like every solider wants – but she was going to do it with sacrifice, instead of taking a life. She stopped loading her weapon and decided that she would step in front of a bullet for anyone, but she just wasn’t going to take a life.

After Diana returned home from the war, was married and had children, she found herself not knowing how to live out this idea. It took meeting her enemy to realize that she could love her enemy. She realized that most people she saw in her community who weren’t like her, she saw as “other.”

It wasn’t until she came across a group called Preemptive Love Coalition,  that she began to find her place again. This group was started in Iraq at the height of the war in 2007, because they believed there were communities at odds – America and Iraq, Sunnis and Shias – and that if groups at odds could move toward each other, that they could create new stories and could unmake violence.

Diana remembers when she first came across Preemptive Love’s tagline – “Violence unmakes the world, but preemptive love has the power to remake the world.” And for her, it was like hope and oxygen after being quiet for nearly 10 years after returning home, because of the cost of belonging she feared she would lose if she spoke her true war story. Then she thought, “If they can do it in the middle of Iraq, then I can do it back where I am from."

“I joined a whole bunch of friends who believed that we can unmake violence, and we can actually move toward the people that we are told to fear and toward the people we are told to see as ‘other’ – that we can actually create new stories of friendship, and friendship over fear, and hope over hate, and so, that has really revolutionized my life,” Diana explained. 

For Diana, this idea of being courageous is that you can actually move towards someone who doesn’t have the same faith as you, someone whose ideas you may actually think are threatening - not only to you, but to the wellbeing of your family. And if you move toward them, then you can actually make a stronger community together and don’t have to fear each other’s differences.

“That has really lit a fire under me. And it has helped me reimagine – when polarizing things happen on the news, I don’t feel so helpless, because that’s not the end of the story, for me. So it has really changed how and who I listen to in my community. It just ignited me to move toward people who I didn’t already listen to,” according to Diana.

Ignited by this fire, she and her family reached out to a local mosque to meet their Muslim neighbors; she created an unlikely friendship with an Iraqi family in her city, and they celebrated Good Friday together last year. She also brought her kids to march with Black Lives Matter when Michael Brown died, and she started volunteering with survivors of sexual assault and violence. After Hurricane Harvey, she reached out to four churches in her community, including a mosque and a synagogue, to work together to raise and send donations to a group in Houston.

She realized that moving toward people isn’t about agreement – because we belong to each other. We can build stronger communities if we refuse to ignore each other and refuse to demonize each other. Although we may have different positions, we are stronger together, and together we can build communities that, instead of excluding the “other” in order to feel safe or secure, include each other and are healthy places where we want our children to grow up.

This understanding compelled her to ask people to move past their political trenches, past their religious trenches and say, “If you cross enemy lines, then you are going to create something that wasn’t there before. You’re going to create a friendship and you’re going to create a new story, where otherwise there was only animosity and fear.”

Diana sees herself as a peacemaker  and works to spread the belief that if we show up, if we sacrifice and if we choose each other, then we can make a difference.

Diana believes that “no soldier goes to war to make more war. We go to war because we believe there is peace and that there is better and that it is worth working for. So it has ignited me as a veteran to continue to show up in my community believing that we can create a better story if we’re willing to sacrifice and show up with each other, even with people we don’t agree with.”

Liz Shaw: Keeping Apathy at Bay

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 Liz Shaw recently. This is a guest post from Elena Kaye-Schiess reporting on the conversation.

Broadband access in rural communities is not an easy topic to wrap one’s mind around. We’ve all heard about net neutrality and the associated FCC regulations, but the topic is complex. Regulatory complexity aside, Liz Shaw has an authentic understanding of the issue, because she lives it every day.

Liz Shaw

Liz Shaw

Through a lifetime of organizing to fight for a better future for her community, her children, and her grandchildren, Liz knows the courage and leadership it takes to stand up for your values, and speak truth to power. She learned these values at a young age, from the time she called out her high school principal for trying to cancel a civil rights assembly she had helped organize, and in response, the principal called her to his office and tried to expel her.

From there, in her early 20s, Liz took her organizing skills to the federal level, bringing together a group of communities around the United States that had been targeted for a nuclear dump site by the Department of Energy. Together, they filibustered the DOE’s hearing in Asheville and convinced the DOE to scrap the project altogether. Winning that battle was a watershed moment in Liz’s career as an organizer, and firestarter. She learned firsthand how good organization can move the needle and bring about real change.

Today, Liz is organizing on behalf of equitable broadband access for communities across rural America.

“There are literally places all across not just southeastern Ohio, but all across rural America, that have dead zones – no landlines that work, no cell phone coverage, and first responders radios don’t work, so it’s like you’ve gone back on the prairie and you might as well use smoke signals,” according to Liz.

Unreliable connectivity affects Liz’s family, her friends, and her community on a daily basis. Liz shares stories of friends having to take their children to fast food restaurants to get their homework done:

 “Can you imagine an 11 year old researching on the mom’s cell phone while writing an essay in the middle of a fast food restaurant?”

Stories of families who communicate with walkie-talkies to stay in touch with one another, because their phones are so unreliable, and the story of someone dying on the soccer field because residents couldn’t summon an ambulance - the cell phones were out and the landlines didn’t work in the area.

“Companies are not required to come in and repair them on a timely basis, and rain showers can knock out landlines for a week at a time or more, because the connections in these transmission boxes are rusted through. People are without a way to summon not only ambulances, but also firefighters, and first responders of all kinds. Meanwhile, the first responders themselves are in danger because the spectrum that carries their radio signal also doesn’t work properly,” Liz goes on to say.

With the power of these stories, Liz began reaching out to advocacy groups like Common Cause and Public Knowledge, and she soon she had the attention of the FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn who was doing a listening tour on the issue, but hadn’t yet visited Appalachia. Liz decided, “Well, she’s coming to Appalachia.”

Trying to plan a connectivity summit without connectivity is one obstacle, but imagining she might have a few months to plan and organize a convening and finding out she had only seven weeks until the FCC Commissioner would plan to arrive, was staggering. Unabated  and through tremendous leadership, perseverance, and organizing skills, Liz brought together the Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia Connectivity Summit in Marietta, Ohio, adjacent to West Virginia and Ohio counties, which have poor connectivity.

Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit  C redit: Citizens Connectivity Committee

Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit
Credit: Citizens Connectivity Committee

Delegations from 29 Appalachian counties attended the summit to share their stories, not only with the FCC Commissioner, but representatives from the offices of Ohio Governor Kasich, Senators Portman and Brown, Manchin and Moore-Capitoin West Virginia, as well as several Congress members, and many state legislators. The delegations included county commissioners, economic development advisors, hospital administrators, educators came and spoke, and their stories are now filed as public record. “She [Clyburn] literally had tears in her eyes over some of the stories, and that night she held a town hall, and that is when the citizens came out and told their stories to her.

Liz tells about the experience: “I saw so many great moments that day of Republicans and Democrats sitting together around the break room tables having coffee. Sitting out on the park benches in front of the building, having conversations during break, tagging up with each other in workshops and saying, ‘I need to get in touch with you because our county has the same issue your county has.’ It didn’t matter if people were Republicans or Democrats, it was people working together that day.”

As a result of that first connectivity summit, Liz’s organizing power has taken on a life of its own. People came away from that summit with momentum and ideas on how to conduct feasibility studies, how to connect with power players, and how to move the needle a little farther, because broadband is a nonpartisan issue. Democrats and Republicans have heard the stories and said the same thing – this is an issue of life or death. It is the education of our children, and the outmigration of brilliant young minds that can’t stay in the place they grew up because economic development and new business isn’t happening.

Rural Feminism: Who We Read = How We Lead

This is a guest blog post from Amy Brooks and Pilar McKay of @RuralArtsWeekly (a two-woman Twitter chat group for rural artists, advocates, educators and policy-makers) in which they share their literary and civic role models for creative placekeeping leadership.

Amy Brooks (Program Director and Dramaturg, Roadside Theater): Recently I reread a very short essay I love, bell hooks's Connecting Appalachia To The World Beyond. When I read bell's words I feel seen, honored, and understood as a West Virginian who is ambivalent about place and identity. I feel my concerns addressed and my care for family, community, and workplace answered. I feel solidarity with her vision for an inclusive, sustainable rural life (a theme she explores in her book Belonging, which I'm just starting to read) and confidence that our movements will succeed to the extent that we align ourselves with it in creed and deed. As I asked my colleagues recently: What can we do to guarantee that our leadership reflects the values in our funding documents and foundational literature? How do we build a philosophy of placemaking/keeping that begins with the sovereignty, ownership and protection of our own bodies? How do we walk the walk of belonging and equity? These questions are at the heart of my work as a rural feminist and artist.

Credit: Montikamoss, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Montikamoss, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

bell’s wise, unsentimental critiques of pop culture (see her writing on apparently feminist properties like Lemonade, Lean In, and The Shape of Water) affirm my convictions that our arts-based economic organizing and placekeeping cannot be understood separately from gender or race; that incuriosity and sectarianism are the greatest threats to rural and urban populations alike; and that―when present leadership reflects the limitations of what she calls the “white imperialist capitalist patriarchy”―mentorship can always be found in the literature of our allies and foremothers in the mountains and beyond. Indeed, bell herself lives, teaches, and publishes in Berea, Kentucky, where an Institute in her name “strives to promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect through critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation.” When men I work with pull out Saul Alinsky and Wendell Berry, I think of her up there and say, “Yes, and bell hooks and Cherrie Moraga.” When they pull out Marx and Robert Gard, I say, “Yes, and Joy Harjo and Adrienne Maree Brown and Maryat Lee.” In this way, keeping multiple intelligences at the heart of our recovery, we will decolonize political and artistic leadership of central Appalachia. The womxn I work with at Appalshop understand this; it’s part of their practice as media makers and community organizers. When I see them channel their knowledge the results are breathtaking. There can be no doubt that the future of the region will reflect this new way of understanding the world and our Appalachian peoples’ place in it. 

Pilar McKay (Associate Director, Arts Council for Wyoming County, New York and co-founder of Shake on the Lake): Louise Slaughter is a creative placemaker who worked in my immediate region. As a congressperson for over thirty years, she represented the Rochester, New York area. Rochester is a creative, cultural, and technological city. It’s home of the Eastman School of Music, Strong Museum of Play, Rochester Jazz Fest, and the Erie Canal among other arts and cultural institutions.

Louise Slaughter

Louise Slaughter

Louise moved to the Rochester area for work and she had a background in science (a background that she’d later use in Congress, but that’s for another post). Originally, she was from Kentucky, a fact that could confuse people if you ever heard her be interviewed on the TV.

In the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts was in real jeopardy. A group in Congress started the Arts Caucus, and Louise served as its long-time chair to advocate and support the arts - and in particular the work of the NEA. My congressional district is adjacent to hers, so it has been really easy for me to call them (as my project does work in her district) and just see what was going on with federal arts funding. Her staffers were always friendly and informative.

The Arts Caucus is also very active during the National Arts Advocacy Day - for obvious reasons! They will open their office doors as arts advocates descend on Capitol Hill. Tweets are common on those days, and one of my favorite pictures this year is of Louise Slaughter with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

It’s one of my favorite pictures, but also poignant, because it is the last picture of hers I saw while she was still alive. Days after this year’s National Arts Advocacy Day Louise suddenly died. We lost a regional and national advocate of the arts. It affected me deeply as she worked so close to me both geographically and in my industry.

Almost immediately after she died, there was a movement afoot to rename the renovated Amtrak Station in Rochester after her. You see, she secured the funds to oversee an overhaul of the station in downtown Rochester. Often, we see government move quite slow, but in this instance, it was unanimous and the train station was renamed in her memory. It will serve as a great memorial to her. 

I once sat next to her on an airplane bus shuttle at National Airport. Although she appeared to be just like any of us (cramped is the general emotion on these things), you could tell immediately that it was she was the distinguished woman from Rochester. A blazer had the tell-tale congressional pin on it and she was ready to work even though most of us (who were on average half her age or less) were groggy and for all intents and purposes trying to figure out why we were on a bus this early. I was too shy to tell her thank you during that trip. But in my heart I was telling her thank you and how excited I was to finally meet her.

Louise Slaughter always supported the arts and I’ll keep fighting for the rural arts in her memory. This summer, my theatre company will perform in her district for the first time, and I have hope that if she were still here, she’d be excited to know that a new company was coming to her community.

In 2006, Louise Slaughter visited Rochester-based Metal Sculptor Albert Paley with then NEA Chairman Dana Gioia

In 2006, Louise Slaughter visited Rochester-based Metal Sculptor Albert Paley with then NEA Chairman Dana Gioia

Along with Michele Anderson of Springboard for the Arts, Amy and Pilar will lead the “New Girls Club: Womxn Shaping Rural Futures” breakout session at the 2018 National Rural Assembly.


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.

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.