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My Point of View: Looking out for each other key for success in rural areas

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson


Freeborn County maintains a strong rural identity, and agriculture is still a shared experience among many who live here. People “stick” and rural communities succeed by emphasizing resilience and cooperation over efficiency and competition.

As such, I’ve always thought of “Lean on Me” as a rural anthem, and it turns out it is.

Bill Withers, who wrote the popular song, passed away this spring. During nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a crowd sang Withers’s song in Washington, D.C., near the White House.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

NPR did a story on the moment and included an archived interview clip in which Withers shared that he wrote “Lean On Me” as a rural song after a white man helped him when he was broken down by the side of a country road with a flat tire and no spare. He was an 18-year-old black man, and it was the late 1950s in Jim Crow Alabama. The good Samaritan lived nearby and said he’d return with another tire.

Withers stated, “The guy goes walking back across the hill, and I’m a little bit … I’m not too comfortable here because I know where I am. And he comes back, walking with a tire. And he actually helps me put the tire on the car. So my circumstance — this was not an idealized concept. It was real to me.”

The best of rural life is when we are close, not closed-minded. It is when we are willing to help each other out and look out for each other. It is when we extend hospitality and build trust. It is when we construct strong institutions that serve all of us, not just some of us, and sustain them with an eye toward future generations whom we will not meet in our lifetimes.

A hallmark of the Trump administration has been breaking down trust in institutions we rely on and weakening our faith in shared American values and a common future. Trump has purposely manipulated racial divisions, like saying Sen. Cory Booker will lead efforts to build “low-income housing projects” in the “beautiful” suburbs.

Sen. Booker’s own parents faced housing discrimination as African-Americans. They bought a house in a New Jersey suburb with the help of a white couple posing as the prospective buyers. According to Booker, when his parents showed up with their lawyer to sign papers instead, the real estate agent punched the lawyer. But they had the law — the new Fair Housing Act — on their side.

Their infant son Cory went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Yale Law School before becoming a senator. By most measures, he’s an American success story, but last week in Des Moines, Trump called Booker a “stupid” person.

It’s sad Trump thinks that exploiting racial stereotypes will be a winning formula. We can’t let racial animus divide us and distort our American values.

This doesn’t just apply to the suburbs. Any rural renaissance here will be multiracial. Forty percent of school-age children in our school district today are people of color. Our future success is tied to whether we consciously make Albert Lea a place where all our children can thrive.

Republican candidates for office here haven’t distanced themselves from Trump’s ugly rhetoric in any meaningful way. In fact, U.S. Senate and Congressional candidates Jason Lewis and Jim Hagedorn have embraced Trump’s divisive language.

Republicans have also embraced market fundamentalism — the idea that deregulated markets can solve our economic problems. Nevermind that farmers and patients and consumers increasingly face cornered, captured and corrupted markets which disadvantage them. Nearly every regulation the Trump administration ignores, or the Supreme Court neuters, puts them at greater risk of financial harm.

This is because financial and environmental deregulation almost always benefits the powerful. Republicans represent the interests of a tiny minority of Americans who are shrinking in number but hoovering up most of our income gains, a trend which has only accelerated during the pandemic.

As rural citizens, we need regulations that put us on a level playing field, and we need a robust state to enforce them. We are small fish, and our life chances are significantly shaped by the strength of our institutions and how well they protect us.

We already see firsthand the loss of local health care, retail, and manufacturing due to decisions made in distant cities. The “free” market and corporate consolidation are not working for us in Albert Lea.

As a rural area, our community success depends on us looking out for each other, and we must rise above politicians who think we prefer to believe lies about skin-deep differences.

Up and down the ballot, Democratic candidates have your back. Please vote for Joe Biden, Tina Smith, Dan Feehan, Dan Sparks and Thomas Martinez.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.