New broadband policy brief on Tennessee's challenges

This week, ThinkTennessee in partnership with the Center for Rural Strategies released a new policy brief that addresses Tennessee’s challenges in increasing broadband internet access and affordability, particularly for rural and low-income families.

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According to the researchers, roughly a quarter of Tennessee’s rural families are without any kind of broadband access, while 23% of the total population reports that they lack a high-speed internet subscription.

“From the roads we drive on to the water we drink, public infrastructure powers our communities – and internet access is a key piece of that infrastructure,” said Shanna Singh Hughey, ThinkTennessee president. “Much like safe roads and clean water, all Tennesseans deserve access to the vast wealth of the internet.”

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The report advocates for flexible solutions that can empower local communities to improve broadband access and affordability while meeting their unique needs and context. Some options, such as digital literacy programs, help address low subscription rates, while others, like a coordinated road repair and broadband installation policy known as “dig once,” help reduce costs and create additional access for underserved areas.

“The diversity of our great nation doesn’t stop at its big cities – it lives in the rural areas and small towns, too. And while that diversity enriches our communities, it also makes solving challenges like broadband complex,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, Director of National Programs with the Center for Rural Strategies. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to internet access and affordability, but if we create more pathways for providers, invest in local programs and emphasize efficient infrastructure deployment, we can improve the lives of thousands of Tennesseans.”

The full brief is available here.


Nominate a youth for Climate Gap Year

This is a guest post from Anna Claussen from Voices for Rural, Minnesota. This is one example of the kind of collaboration that was inspired by the National Rural Assembly gathering in Durham in 2018. If you have other examples, let us know.


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The 2018 National Rural Assembly provided the space for us to lean into the wealth of relationships, experiences, and creative power we know exists in rural America. To be inspired by the committed citizens who have been doing the hard work of showing up, creating, leading, and mending fences for a long time - and are now modeling for the nation how we mend and strengthen the social and civic fabric of our country. We carry all of it with us and we move forward - seeking equity and inclusion in communities who are bearing the brunt of violence, poverty, and extreme weather - at home and around the globe. We know that whether it's the task of building civic courage or tackling climate change, it requires urban and rural America working together.

I need your help!

We have an amazing opportunity to ensure that rural voices and experiences are a vital part of the climate gap year programs and talent pipeline that FOCUS Climate Gap Year is launching Spring 2019 (spring in India; fall in China, Chile/Argentina). For years, taking a gap year before starting college (or even while you're in your first two years) has proven to be one of the most transformative experiences to learn new skills, gain greater perspective on the world and yourself, and get on a career path grounded in purpose and community. FOCUS has developed an amazing program for youth ages 17-22 to earn college credit and access financial aid while living abroad and learning how the impacts of climate change can inspire a life-long career of purpose. Students will learn new languages and wilderness skills, live as a cohort with diverse peers, and learn from experts in renewable energy, transportation, bio-diversity, rural electrification, supply chain mapping, conservation, and policy. In addition to the experience of living abroad, one of the things I find most exciting is that FOCUS will actively support students upon returning home from their climate gap year when they join the alumni network. As part of the FOCUS network, alumni will receive ongoing support as they navigate future decisions like choosing their major, finding summer internships, exploring grad school options, and pursuing other opportunities like leadership and technical trainings, mentorships, and job placements.

Nominate 2 youth!

It will only take a few minutes but it will have huge impact!  Rural America produces youth who are primed for building community and careers with purpose. They personally know the interplay of human impact on natural systems - the complexity found living close, within, and on the land as stewards of our natural resources and on the front lines of climate change. As FOCUS co-founder and CEO, Garett Brennan shared with me on the phone last week, "Rural youth bring such a critical perspective in building strong cohorts abroad and the kind of leadership network back here at home in the US."

Who's the right person to nominate?

When you think of this person, you see the potential they have to overcome challenging situations - the resilience and staying power to endure new environments and language barriers. Contrary to some beliefs, Garett has shared with me that this type of resilience does not require previous travel experience or a resume that includes extensive exposure to other cultures or worldly experiences.  More importantly, it is cultivated within individuals who embody traits that are learned at the most basic community and familiar level. Here are a few of those traits to think about in the youth you want to nominate:

  • The flexibility to expect the unexpected and adapt to changing circumstances and demands
  • The patience to adjust to a new culture’s customs and pace of life and potential to focus on the process rather than the outcomes
  • The humility required to admit how little one knows and to be open to learning an unfamiliar language, new rules, and a foreign culture.
  • The dependability necessary to follow-through on commitments and respect the time and energy of those one travels with and meets along the way.
  • The enthusiasm they embody - in their presence, attitude and actions - vital for creating the highly impactful gift of optimism that can encourage and inspire those living within challenging circumstances.
  • The commitment they have to strengthen and look out for their community and those around them

NOMINATE 2 YOUTH TODAY

Don’t hesitate - do it today - the nomination process ends August 31st! Extending a nomination is an important act that validates and gives confidence to our youth and the important role they play in our nation’s future.

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.

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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.