Building a better future in rural America
Vivian Saunders decided long ago that government programs were never going to transform the lives of the poor, black families in her hometown of Bertie County, North Carolina.
“Until this election, rural folks were kicked to the curb; we were nonfactors,” Saunders said.
Filmmaker Margaret Byrne felt this when she arrived in Bertie County in 2009. At the time, she was working on a film about race and education, set at an urban school. But when she visited The Hive, Saunders’s alternative school for young men in Bertie, Byrne saw that the relationship between race and education also depended on place.
“It was striking to me that these were stories and these were young men that I wasn’t hearing about,” she said. “Here I am, working on a great film, but another urban story. Most films about education are set in urban areas. That’s where the national dialogue is. You don’t hear a lot about rural education.”
Byrne wanted to change the conversation, and the result is Raising Bertie, a documentary about rural poverty that is perhaps more relevant than Byrne could have imagined when she started. The film follows three African American boys, initially students at The Hive, as they move through young adulthood in Bertie County, navigating school, poverty, relationships, violence, and a world that seems to expect them to fail. Surrounding them sit 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius of Bertie County.
The Urban Institute hosted a screening of Raising Bertie on Wednesday, followed by a discussion—facilitated by Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell and featuring Byrne, Saunders, Raising Bertie producer Ian Kibbe, and US Department of Agriculture undersecretary for rural development Lisa Mensah—about the realities of rural poverty and what it might take to help families like those in Bertie.
A discussion of rural America followed the screening of Raising Bertie at Urban Institute on Wednesday. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute.
“Rural America is still a place that is wildly successful at feeding our country and the world,” Mensah said. “It’s the food and the fiber and the fuel. But still, too many are left behind.”
Sometimes, rural communities are left behind even by programs that aim to reach them. Speaking about My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s initiative to support boys and young men of color, Saunders said the program never quite reached as far as Bertie.
“A lot of the programs that are started with good intentions don’t have a trickle-down effect to hit us in the rural communities,” she said.
Though Mensah was more optimistic than Saunders that government programs and funding could eventually help families in places like Bertie, she said government and philanthropic resources will be more effective if they’re anchored to “the Vivians in the community.” Wartell, citing Urban Institute research on the importance of place, agreed.
“Strategies to create opportunities need to be not a generic, categorical program, but have a way of implementing that is organic and uses the leadership that is already in the community,” Wartell said.
The challenge is finding and developing that leadership. Saunders, who now directs The Hive House, a community center and afterschool program (the shuttering of The Hive alternative school is chronicled in the film), hopes more successful people from rural areas will come back to serve the communities that raised them.
“I hear people talk about mentorship and big brothers programs, but in rural communities, we don’t have the room to house those things,” she said. “I would just beg the young, African American, successful folks to come back. We’ve got a lot of our Caucasian brothers who are pushing the envelope to help African American brothers. But isn’t it more exciting to see somebody that looks like you?”
Photo courtesy of Kartemquin Films