Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
His internet service provider and the condition of the roads were among the first conversations Rob Lyerla had with his neighbors in East Leroy Township where he relocated to in 2018 from Washington, D.C.
These topics and others focused on hyper-local concerns are what residents in most communities care about due to the direct impact these matters have on their lives. But it is the “wedge” issues that continue to garner national attention and contribute to the growing divisiveness throughout the United States, Lyerla says.
His example of wedge issues includes abortion and gun rights.
“Gun rights and reproductive rights are among wedge issues that at the end of the day are not affecting most rural people on a daily basis,” Lyerla says. “They want to make sure people have equal access to things. They also want to find those things we can agree on and get them fixed.”
Lyerla, a retired epidemiologist with the Department of Health and Human Services and a faculty member at Western Michigan University, is a member of a partisan organization that is working to build connection and change in Michigan’s rural communities through bipartisan conversations and greater citizen involvement.
Cathy Albro, Chairperson of the MDP Rural Caucus, who lives in Barry County.
That organization -- the Michigan Democratic Party Rural Caucus
-- is divided into 13 geographic regions within Michigan with Lyerla serving as Vice-Chair for Region 12 which represents Branch, Calhoun, Eaton, Hillsdale, Ingham, and Jackson counties.
The term “citizen” in the phrase “citizen involvement” is inclusive of all who are part of a community, says Cathy Albro, Chairperson of the MDP Rural Caucus, who lives in Barry County. She says forward momentum is realized only when all views are represented. “It doesn’t work if it’s just Democrats. In fact, if it’s only Democrats convening, don’t even bother,” Albro says.
During a Zoom meeting earlier this month, members of the MDP Rural Caucus and residents living in one of more than 50 rural communities throughout the state, including Calhoun County, listened to a presentation about the power they have to create positive change in their communities by lessening their reliance on elected officials to do it for them. The meeting was open to anybody regardless of their political affiliation.
“The current structure is that citizens are the customers and public servants are the suppliers. That framework is killing us because it leads citizens to a sense of entitlement and elected officials to have too much power,” said meeting guest speaker Peter Block, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based consultant whose work focuses on chosen accountability, and the reconciliation of community. “We need a structure of belonging because we live in isolation. This structure encourages us to come together and talk about what it means to us and create social capital which means that ‘I will learn to trust you.’”
He shared with the group that they have the ability to reclaim their communities and the capacity to produce their own well-being. He says people need to let go of the idea that the healthcare system will keep them healthy, schools will raise their children, and the police will keep them safe.
Peter Block, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based consultant whose work focuses on chosen accountability, and the reconciliation of community.
Block says people bear some responsibility for keeping themselves healthy, keeping their children on the right track, and maintaining their personal safety.
“We’re at a spot now where most of that was taken from us. You need to look at the idea of community-building as an alternative to outsourcing the things that mean the most to us,” says Block who is the author of several books about ways to create workplaces and communities that work for all. They offer an alternative to the patriarchal beliefs that dominate our culture, according to his website
His mission is to bring change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force. Through his training company, Designed Learning, he offers workshops to build the skills outlined in his books.
Among the skills -- organizing meetings that are open to everyone, regardless of their political leanings, where people are encouraged to share their ideas and discouraged from criticizing those ideas or offering advice on how to reshape those ideas. By design, these gatherings promote honest conversations and encourage disagreement, which ultimately leads to consensus-building and a way to get things done.
Block says reaching that consensus is often a “nightmare.”
“Nobody wants to stop the train. In a patriarchal world, you’re on board or you’re gone,” he says. “Citizens have the power to create a future. Consumers have the power to be dissatisfied. Most people come together and say what are the things the mayor and the city council can do about this. But, they can't raise your child or keep you healthy. It re-frames the conversations about what we as citizens can create together.”
Albro says she is aware that there are people on both sides of the aisle who like the increasing divisiveness in the United States and don’t want to see community-building. Her message to those who don’t want to participate – “You don’t have to.”
Focusing on the smaller picture
The community gatherings Albro envisions will focus on the needs identified by participants. She says this could be anything from starting a swim club, to saving a community school, to finding out why some residents may not want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Block says asking questions of participants such as when they first started caring about their community and what they want to see happen to make it better are good ways to get the conversations started with the caveat that no one offers their own opinion or advice in response or tries to change that person’s mind. To be most effective, he advocates for breaking the larger groups up into smaller groups where people don’t know each other.
“I was at one meeting where a husband and wife were in the same group and I physically led the husband to another group,” he says. “You want to be surprised and learn something new.”
The point of the small group discussions is to connect with people, find common points of interest and focus the energy on issues impacting the community at the most basic level rather than larger national issues like gun control or abortion rights, Albro says.
“A major challenge is understanding that we all have a common goal and that is for success for our communities and to be there for all people regardless of their political leanings,” she says. “For years and years and years we’ve tried to think about how to help bring people together and when you only talk to other Democrats, we just kind of stir up our own frustrations. What we are doing is a way to help bridge our differences.
“This is not about changing people’s minds, but rather getting them to work together, to put aside some of their differences and thoughts about who they are, to think about the possibilities of what they can work on together in their communities and what they have in common and what they want to see.”
An example of this is already happening in Albro’s subdivision where residents have been meeting and strategizing about getting a one-mile stretch of dirt road leading into their subdivision paved. Albro, one of two Democrats in her community, and her fellow residents, the majority of whom are Republicans, are considering proposing a special assessment to get that stretch of road paved.
Kearney Township where Albro owns a farm is receiving $350,000 in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“In my (Barry County) community, there are only two Democrats, and many other residents who have Trump signs out. So it’s heartening to see that we’re all willing to work together,” she says. “Elected officials still have access to most of the purse strings, now with proposed grants available where you don’t need to go through elected officials, a community could write a grant.”
Lyerla says what he finds most interesting about Block’s work is the way it empowers people to transform their communities rather than waiting for someone to solve it or fix it for them.
“This is a way to transform communities and find commonalities,” he says. “When my internet situation got solved, I immediately went to my neighbors and shared this with them and a few of them jumped on the chance to get theirs fixed. It’s human nature that we want to share ideas to solve problems.”
However, finding dedicated spaces in rural areas to gather and share information and ideas has become more difficult since the demise of spots such as grange halls or in the absence of coffee shops. Lyerla says it takes an intentional effort to reach out and connect with neighbors separated by acres of land.
“We’ve become a very transient society, even in our relationships to our communities. If you don’t want to shop in Battle Creek, you can go to Kalamazoo or Albion,” Lyerla says. “I deliberately build relationships with my postal folks because I want them to know that they’re a vital, focal point of our community.”
But, he also reaches out to his neighbors and offers them eggs laid by his chickens and they in turn reach out to him with whatever they have to offer.
Simple acts like this are powerful in their simplicity and a “reminder that there are real people on the other side of every issue and a real person working on fixing bigger issues” in any community.
Unlike other MDP caucus groups which focus on a particular issue, the Rural Caucus is based on geography. Albro says more than 50 of the 83 counties in Michigan are considered rural and that includes Calhoun County which has a large city, Battle Creek, that is surrounded by rural areas.
While some may think that rural areas lack diversity and are predominantly occupied by farmers, Lyerla says that’s not an accurate perception. He says that less than one percent of all rural residents are farmers.
“Rural voices are often portrayed in a monolithic way. We may be monolithic about causes and interests like the need for better roads or internet or keeping our post offices open, but rural people are just as diverse as people living in urban areas,” Lyerla says. “Rural people are not monoliths, but they might be common-minded around bigger issues and having equal access and opportunities and getting a fair shake. Those are the things most of us care about, but the wedge issues have gotten in the way of solving problems. We need to look at what the community is facing and what a healthy response is. How we solve a problem is just as important as how we come together to talk about it.”
Among the first steps is getting away from the belief that those with credentials or in positions of power are the only ones who have the ability to make things better for those who don’t, Block says.
“We are living in a time where the world tells us we’re divided, that’s a story. My response is that I’m not divided,” he says. “Let’s create our own story and narrative. Let’s create our own path. Let’s create a future instead of living in a narrative created by someone else. Most of that story is about scarcity, that there is not enough for everybody and that is simply not true.”