Reality vs. myth: How we perceive rural America

Kentucky group says show on Amish can only hurt image of country folk

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July 25, 2004|By Kirsten Valle | Kirsten Valle,SUN STAFF

If you think a Real World-style show about young Amish adults' inevitably clumsy first brush with big-city living leans slightly toward cruel on the reality TV meter, you're not alone.

The Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based organization that tries to increase understanding about the importance of America's rural communities, has launched an attack against UPN's newest reality show, Amish in the City, which is scheduled to begin airing 8 p.m. Wednesday. The plot is simple: Amish men and women, 18 to 25, are plucked from the farm and tossed into a hip Hollywood Hills mansion with six worldly, city-dwelling peers to see what ensues.

The center's criticism of UPN is just the latest campaign from an organization that aims to change America's perceptions about rural people and issues. Among its other efforts have been polling of rural voters to show how they will influence the presidential election and a study on rural philanthropy.

Center President Dee Davis spoke with The Sun about his organization's obstacles, message and vision for the future of America's rural communities.

Why are you so invested in this cause?

I grew up and worked a long time here in Appalachia. We had a lot of successes, but we were working very hard to make a difference in our community, and we often found that as much effort as we were making, we weren't moving the ball. We started thinking about, what if we could get rural communities working together? It was kind of, this is so crazy that it might work, so we'll give it a shot.

Since the Center for Rural Strategies was founded in 2001, what would you say is its biggest accomplishment so far?

We thought when we got started that we would be behind the scenes. In rural areas, we thought we'd be involved in discussing things like why there should be more scholarships for rural kids. ... Culture is powerful. It's hard to make change, it's hard to talk about what's going on in rural communities without talking about the culture and how these rural communities are perceived. What's been gratifying has been having so many people get involved. That's what gives me this kind of lasting pleasure, beyond whether one day was a success or the next day wasn't.

How would you say most Americans perceive rural life?

Most Americans think rural people are farmers, but very few people are making a living on the farm anymore. The second perception is that rural people are poor. Income levels are lower and joblessness is higher in rural areas, and what's hard to do is to put that in context of what's good for the whole country. It's hard to get the conversation that says, when rural communities do well, the rest of the country does well.

Why do you think shows like "Amish in the City" should not be on television?

The Amish can take care of themselves; they've been around for several hundred years and they've faced inordinate amounts of pressure and discrimination. What I hate to see is the coarsening of our public conversation. I hate what it does to the rest of us when someone's religion or background becomes laugh-track material. Will some small child perish? No. But could these broadcasters better serve rural communities and communities of faith? Yes, indeed.

Your organization last year waged a successful campaign against CBS' plans for the show "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," which would have documented an uneducated rural family living in Beverly Hills.

We felt like this was an irresponsible television program that wasn't going to do anything for rural people, and we just asked that they not do it, and a lot of people joined in that discussion. I imagine sometime down the line that these reality programs will be seen in a different light.

You've gotten some media attention from these campaigns. Do you think it's easier to get your message across because of this?

Each story's either going to be newsworthy or it's not. Perhaps we've built some credibility. I would hope people don't think we're some fly-by-night outfit. We're not exactly pitchmen. We try to talk about things we have some knowledge of. Sometimes you just don't know when a story's going to take off. Stories seem to have their own light, and their own trajectory.

You've taken on TV executives; who or what do you think is your organization's number one enemy, so to speak?

I think the real enemies are poverty, disenfranchisement and substance abuse. Arrogant television executives and unresponsive media are lost opportunities. It's kind of a shame that you can't count on them to help the communities in need.

Ideally, what image would you like people to have of rural Americans?

I think that a lot of the values that we attribute as American values, like hard work, neighbors helping each other, tolerance, are values that come out of rural America. They're not the sole property of rural people, they're universal, but I think that those are important values that came from rural communities early on, and we often think of them as American values. I think that they're there today.

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