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RNN series explores unique challenges facing rural communities of color

October 5, 2023

The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from navigating racism in real estate, environmental regulation and the justice system to gaining access to healthcare and broadband. 

This six-part series, Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation, explores the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

“The events of 2020 forced a long overdue conversation about racial disparities in America,” said Dan Haugen, managing editor of Energy News Network (ENN) who served as lead editor on the series. “These stories are important reminders of the ongoing efforts — and the work yet to be done — to close these gaps that make life harder for rural people of color.”

An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil. Photo by Kari Lydersen for Energy News Network

For nearly three months, Haugen worked with 17 other journalists and editors on the project who covered stories on the ground in five states and Puerto Rico on behalf of these six RNN newsrooms: Energy News Network, Flatwater Free Press, Mississippi Free Press, New Mexico In Depth, Religion News Service and Sierra Nevada Ally

ENN’s story took reporter Kari Lydersen to Puerto Rico’s rural south coast where toxic coal ash — “cenizas” — is a symbol of environmental injustice that has long plagued the U.S. colony. Used on roads and in landfill, it has contaminated groundwater and could be responsible for high cancer rates.

Lydersen details the steps locals are taking to advocate for themselves, but that they also acknowledged how a law against storing coal ash on the island could complicate efforts to remove it from roads and fill sites, since it would need to be transported and stored somewhere.

A tribal business leader told Flatwater Free Press investigative reporter Destiny Herbers that when children on the Winnebago reservation picture a farmer, they see “a white guy with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat on.”

Winnebago Tribal Farm manager Trey Blackhawk seen at the farm outside of Winnebago, Nebraska, Sept. 14. Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for Flatwater Free Press

The Winnebago and two other Nebraska tribes are attempting to change that perception – and their farmland reality. For more than a century, the U.S. government took direct and indirect actions that lead to the loss and sale of Native lands. 

But now the three tribes are taking action of their own. They’re done selling land. Now they’re buying it back.

“Hopefully, the conclusion of our work will be that our readers have a greater understanding of parts of our country that tend to receive less news coverage,” said Adelle M. Banks, projects editor and national reporter for Religion News Service.

Banks and her team highlighted the work Black clergy and faith leaders in the rural South have been doing for years to bridge the digital divide in their communities and congregations, and how a pandemic-era federal program gave those efforts a boost by offering discounted internet access. 

But, RNS uncovered that fewer than half of the estimated 49 million Americans who are eligible have enrolled, and now questions loom about the program’s long-term funding by Congress. 

The story in the South from Mississippi Free Press focuses on the dismissive treatment of Black families who have lost loved ones to violence and its long, rampant history in Mississippi and beyond. Minimal media and police attention seeds fear, distrust of law enforcement, and even rumors about coverups and the possible involvement of lawmen and other prominent citizens. 

One family, while not without trepidation, together decided to go public with their story in hopes of both finally seeing justice for the loss of their patriarch in a brutal decades-old murder, but also to raise awareness about how Black families are treated and ignored during their most difficult moments.

New Mexico In Depth zeroes in on the state’s severe shortage of healthcare workers, particularly in its rural and frontier areas, where a third of the state’s 2.1 million people live — the majority of whom are Hispanic and Native American.

Managing Editor Marjorie Childress delivers strong accountability journalism, describing how while lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham invested millions to close the gap earlier this year, advocates say they didn’t go far enough. And Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, struck a provision meant to help retain healthcare workers in rural areas in omnibus tax legislation that she gutted with line-item vetoes — decisions that have come against a backdrop of historic state surpluses.

Dorece Sam is a resident of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which is located near the Thacker Pass lithium mine project. Photo by Alejandra Rubio for Sierra Nevada Ally

The planned Thacker Pass lithium mining project in northern Nevada is hoping to provide the lithium needed to fuel the green energy transition. While the company has done its own outreach, regional tribes tell the Sierra Nevada Ally’s executive editor Noah Glick, they weren’t properly consulted by the government.

Editorial collaborations conducted through INN’s Rural News Network — a consortium of more than 75 locally-sourced newsrooms reporting from and for rural America — elevate important stories and connect geographically dispersed newsrooms to collectively tell their stories. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism. 

The Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative will publish on local, regional and national news sites beginning today and continue into next week.

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