Challenges that Shaped the Center’s Character

It’s Throwback Thursday (#tbt). Here's an article by Center Co-founder Marty Strange for a special 25th Anniversary Edition of the Center for Rural Affairs Newsletter.

What happens when you speak truth to power, which has been the Center’s habit over the years? You get whooped a lot. And you learn a lot. In 23 years with the Center, and since, I’ve had plenty of occasion to reflect on the challenges that have shaped the Center’s character. Here are a few thoughts about the lessons we’ve learned from facing those challenges. 

The battle is not for the hearts and minds of politicians, but for the hearts and minds of people. Sure, policy change usually has to be voted on by elected officials, but most of them are followers, not leaders, and the law can’t do what the people don’t want done anyway. Truly important change happens only when the people have made up their minds. In its formative years, the Center was under pressure to “make a difference,” to produce political victories quickly. But it was our strategy to challenge rural people, to build slowly on rural values, rather than make fast friends with politicians, and it gave the Center a patient character.

It is as important to understand opposing views as it is your own. There are at least 3 reasons. First, if you don’t understand the opposing view, you can’t defend your own ideas against your critics. Second, it’s often important to take a stand, even when you have lingering doubts. Otherwise, you may never have the resolve to do so. Just keep an open mind, and welcome your own doubts. They will make you strong, finally. Most people don’t believe that, and so, the third point is this: You should understand the opposing view well enough to know what its partisans themselves don’t really believe about it. Find the cracks in their armor, and relentlessly raise doubts in their ranks. Nothing is more demoralizing than unwelcome doubt. Over the years, this philosophy has moved the Center to do meticulous research, to listen and talk to those with whom it disagrees most, and this has given it a high reputation for intellectual honesty and courage.

If you are keeping score, you are losing. The Center’s character has always manifested a special kind of resilience against defeat, intimidation, and disappointment. This work is often sacrificial, and the people who do it, as staff or volunteers, are often ridiculed, betrayed, and dismissed. And they are almost never adequately compensated. Those who “keep score,” who worry too much about tangible evidence of success, especially popularity, are exhausted by the kind of big issues the Center tries to address. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, sober and dour, and they cannot endure it for long. Instead, have fun, keep focused on  the big picture, don’t expect to see the results of your work (and relish them when you do), and most of all, seek solace in Gandhi’s teaching that there can only be real pleasure where there is real conscience. 

Self-interest is a valuable but insufficient foundation for the common good. When we build public policy only on vested interests, no matter how noble the people who hold those interests are, we lose the meaning of the word “public.” There must always be a larger common good for which we jointly make sacrifice and mutual commitments. There have been many times when the Center was challenged to support this or that policy only because it was expedient at the time, and popular among farmers or other rural people. Many times we resisted  the temptation to pander to such self-interest when it conflicted with the common good as we understood it. Doing so built a character of integrity.

Define the issues, don’t become the issue. The Center has long been controversial, but for its ideas, not for its actions. Fortunately, you can usually survive criticism for your ideas, if your conduct is honorable. In this, we have been above reproach. There are many who have wanted –and tried – to make the Center the issue by labeling us radicals or misfits, but their silly accusations have only proven that the Center can’t be bullied. Significantly, we have outlasted most of those name-callers. Challenged to defend ourselves, we have had the courage to remain focused on the real issues, not mislead into ego-satisfying, self-defeating defense of our reputation. 

Hate and fear are poor sources of political energy, because you can muster them easier than you can guide them. Fascists, communists, conspiracy theorists of all sorts, and some populists, have played on hate and fear to build power for themselves, but most of them have not been able to direct this political energy toward useful ends. They’ve been better at rousing than they were at rabbling. Early in its life, the Center was often expected to torment the rich and powerful for its own sake. And we have been outspoken, and at times irreverent. But we have also been precise, accurate, and focused in our criticisms of economic and social injustices, and we always poured energy into productive campaigns that inform people and make them better citizens. This has given the Center its reputation for civility, even among those who disagree with us most.

Leave the bottle full for others. An old inspirational cowboy song tells about a parched desert traveler who stumbles on a dried up well and a buried bottle of water left by an old-timer named “Desert” Pete. There’s a note, too, admonishing the thirsty man not to give in to the temptation to drink the water, but to prime the pump with it instead. “You’ve got to prime the pump, have faith and believe, you’ve got to give of yourself before you’re worthy to receive,” the note says. “ Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face and cool your feet … but leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, Desert Pete.”

The Center has worked hard these 25 years, having faith and belief in rural America. There have been plenty of times when the Center might have been better off, organizationally speaking, to forget the lessons above and abandon the strategies that have given it its special character. But it hasn’t. Instead, given good values and a strong sense of purpose to work with, the Center has primed the pump of rural America and drawn a lot of good work and renewed commitment to rural values from people all over this country.

Along the way, the Center has learned a lot, had some fun, and done plenty of good. And everyday, it still struggles to leave the work a little further along, the values a little stronger, and hope a little higher. This ethic of hope grounded in hard work may be the most important aspect of the Center’s special character.

 - Marty Strange, 25th Anniversary Special Edition, Center for Rural Affairs Newsletter, November 1998