Dirtroad Organizing Aims to Find Common Ground with Rural Voters and Bring Democracy Back to Small Town America
Photo by Henney Sullivan
POW Athlete Alliance member and professional runner Canyon Woodward and former Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin have dedicated their careers to creating an equitable and just democracy in rural America. With the help of Woodward as Campaigns Manager, Maxmin became the youngest member of the 29th Maine Legislature and the youngest female senator in the state’s history. Following her win, Woodward and Maxmin wrote a book about their experience campaigning in rural Maine titled Dirt Road Revival which was released in 2022. The book is about bringing democracy back to small-town America by outlining how politicians let rural voices go deeply unheard and the political consequences of that mistake. Since the release of their book, they’ve gone deeper with their mission of creating a just democracy in rural America by starting their own nonprofit, Dirtroad Organizing, a 501(c)4 which aims to empower the next generation of rural organizers, staff and candidates.
“We built Dirtorad Organizing off our experience on past campaigns and years of community organizing,” said Canyon Woodward. “It’s focused on providing tools and strategies for folks at the state and local levels who want to run for office or support campaigns so they can organize in their own communities.”
Woodward and Maxmin have been traveling around the country for the last year doing training for groups at the local level. Although they just celebrated their launch, the organization is quickly growing with the intention to offer candidate training programs for individuals running for office and their staff by this upcoming fall.
“That program will really get into everything from the nuts and bolts of how to begin thinking about running for office to rural specific strategies of how to reach folks who have been pretty ignored by a lot of establishment campaigns in the last decade,” said Woodward. “We’ll train them on how to have deep conversations and move folks who are maybe in the middle on a specific issue or disagree with you.”
The program will take attendees through a four month program and give them long term support and mentorship at the state and local levels so that they can run successful campaigns now and into the future.
“We want to provide the long term support that folks need if they’re going to build up their county party, run for office or help other people run for office so that it’s easier to campaign, organize, serve, and ultimately, easier to run for reelection,” said Maxmin. “I think from our own experience, we felt how much work that was, not only to get involved and get all of the gears turning, but to keep them turning. We really want to be a support system for folks.”
Dirtroad Organizing isn’t just for candidates and their staff. People who want to get involved in their community in a meaningful way can also take advantage of the trainings Dirtroad Organizing offers through both in person on the ground workshops and Zoom. Dirtroad Organizing operates by working with small tight-knit local groups so that it can bring people together through trainings and shared experiences.
“Building up organizing and campaigning structures that are effective and allow people to engage in whatever way is best for them is really important,” said Maxmin. “We need to think about how we can build canvassing programs that can do it all, but most importantly, this work becomes so much easier when there is a sense of community while you’re doing it.”
Why Democracy is Important in Rural America
The book Dirt Road Revival focuses a lot on how rural America got left behind by politicians and the consequences of that. A stark rural/urban divide was created because politicians stopped visiting small communities.
“Our democracy was designed to privilege the party that can win votes spread out over a geographic area, as opposed to just winning votes that are all clumped together,” said Woodward. “We see that effect everywhere from the local level to the federal level, which in turn affects our judiciary as well.”
This is a problem because rural voters actually have a huge political influence over our country that not enough people understand. An example of this in action is that there are just 20 United States Senators representing the ten most populous states in the country where 50% of Americans reside. On the other side of the coin, 80 Senators are representing the other 50% of the country in the 40 more rural states. The result is that in purple states, like Woodward’s home of North Carolina, a Democratic governor will be elected while Republican super majorities in both the State House and the State Senate are elected due to the power of the rural vote.
“What we are seeing as a consequence of this rural urban divide is that state legislatures and statewide races are being flung to the right,” said Maxmin. “This is a huge existential threat to our collective fight for social justice, climate justice, racial justice and reproductive rights.”
The problem is that when it comes to passing key initiatives on all of the above-mentioned issues, candidates aren’t organizing in or visiting rural communities to talk about these things. Inclusive movement building isn’t happening in these places that are deeply affected by these issues.
“Economic justice is our ability to make progress on these issues that are really life and death for people that depend on the political power that we need,” said Maxmin. “We can’t get that political power without investing deeply in rural America.”
Investing in Small Town America and Finding Common Ground with Rural Voters
This is where Dirtroad Organizing comes in. Maxmin and Woodward believe that there needs to be more education around rural communities’ political influence and organizing in these locations. They do this in their training, but they also give tips on how candidates can better connect with the voters who live there.
Creating a better future for our democracy all routes back to having respect and finding Common Ground with each other. “We need to remember that despite the narratives that we take in on a daily basis from our media and from prominent figures, we have a lot more in common than we might think,” said Woodward. “We are fundamentally humans living in the same community who want a lot of the same things for ourselves and for the people that we care about.”
It’s this principle that Dirtroad Organizing was built off of. Maxmin was able to win her seat in the Senate by digging deep in these rural communities, knocking on doors and having face-to-face conversations.
“We need to be asking questions, listening and sharing our stories. But we also need to be willing to be moved by other people’s stories. When you begin doing that, you’re going to create relationships of trust where before, maybe there was a huge divide opening up,” said Woodward. “Progressive ideas that may feel like non-starters in rural areas start with forming relationships where both sides feel seen and heard and have some amount of trust and respect for each other.”
You can learn more about Dirtroad Organizing and ways to get involved on the newly launched website. Dirtroad Organzing offers in-depth training for groups, long-term training for potential candidates and staff, and volunteer opportunities. If you’re interested in getting involved at any level, fill out their form here.
Author: Stacie Sullivan
Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]