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 .

Diana Oestreich.jpg

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.

 

David Toland: Small Fires, Big Results

Firestarter.jpg

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.

thrive-logo-header.png

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.

David with pickle jar medicaid rally 2018.jpg

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.”