Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From valor to domestic violence in a few short weeks

I've recently been researching the phenomenon of domestic violence as it plays out in rural America, and as it may differ from urban places. One striking statistic is that "place" is a strikingly good predictor of intimate homicide. That is, the more sparsely populated and remote from a metropolitan area, the more likely a homicide is to be committed by a member of the victim's family. Various factors may account for the higher incidence of deadly domestic violence in rural places: spatial isolation from sources of assistance; lack of law enforcement and social services resources; lack of anonymity which deters reporting and which may bias police, prosecutors, and courts; dearth of economic opportunity for women to support themselves in the context of undiversified rural economies where women earn $.55 to the male $1 (compared to $.77 to the male $1 nationwide).

It was with that on my mind that I read a shocking story of domestic violence in my hometown newspaper, The Newton County Times (AR), this week.

Because the link is likely to go away, I'm pasting the story here:

Two hospitalized following domestic disturbance report
By the Times Staff

JASPER - Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape said two people were hospitalized after a shooting/knifing/arson incident at Rock Creek on Wednesday night, and one of them was also under guard as a suspect in the incident. According to Slape, Paul Stuart, 36, and his girlfriend, Ida Bates, had been involved in a domestic disturbance Wednesday night.

She apparently had gone to a neighbor's house about 100 yards away.Slape said Stuart was waiting outside that residence where Darby and Vonda Hustead lived and when
Bates walked out on the porch, Stuart shot her in the face with a .22 caliber gun.Stuart then allegedly went in the Hustead's house with the gun. They were able to disarm him, but he had a knife, Slape said, adding that they suffered superficial wounds for which they were treated and released at North Arkansas Regional Medical Center.

Slape said Stuart then went back to his own residence, barricaded himself in the trailer and set it on fire. However,  he soon fled the trailer and surrendered to authorities. Slape said both Stuart and Bates were airlifted to St. John's Regional Medical Center in Springfield, Mo.  Stuart, he added, suffered smoke inhalation.

A hospital spokesman said neither Stuart nor Bates were listed in their directory, but Slape said he was told she is in "stable" condition and he was being guarded. Slape said Stuart faces charges of attempted capital murder, arson, being a felon in possession of
a firearm and two counts of aggravated assault.

Stuart also was being held on a parole violation from a murder conviction in the 1990s. Records show Paul Stuart was sentenced to prison for the 1995 first-degree murder of his
brother, Jerry Stuart.Slape said Paul Stuart was released from prison after serving a portion of his sentence.

Ironically, it was just two weeks ago that Bates and Stuart were featured on the front page of the Feb. 28 Newton County Times in a dramatic story headlined "Miracle on Rock Creek." Bates,nine-months pregnant at the time, was swept off a low-water crossing on Rock Creek in her Geo Metro. Her car overturned in the rising water, but Bates was able to pull herself out of the window of the car.  Stuart, who had come to the
crossing because he was concerned about his companion being able to get home safely, helped pull her out of the high water.
The news story makes no mention of their infant child, but word in the community is that he and 5 other minors were in the home when the violence broke out.

Is there any good news in this? Well, Bates survived. And, there is now a domestic violence advocacy group in the county which can fund one night in a local motel until a victim can be placed in a shelter in a neighboring county. (The county briefly had its own shelter house for a few years, but it has since closed due to loss of funding). I'm reminded of a statistic I recently read about the availability of such resources in rural America: 30% of rural counties have no domestic violence shelter; for those places, the average distance to a shelter is 36 miles.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chess in Rural Areas

I was touched by this New York Times article in Thursday's paper. The article describes a new program in Idaho schools where second and third graders will learn to play chess with their teacher and an expert player. The program teaches children skills in "math, history, and vocabulary," as well as provide practice in areas like courtesy and creativity.

One of the most striking features of the program is that it will benefit students in rural areas. One teacher, who teaches in a remote town with a population of 250 people, said "it was good for her students to be exposed to a sophisticated game like chess." In this town, the expert player was available only via the Internet, but that seemed to be working fine.

I was struck by the teacher's comment, because she appeared to be perpetuating a rural stereotype that rural people are simply and unsophisticated. At the same time, I was heartened to see something very sophisticated, the interaction with the expert player, in a rural area. I hope these children enjoy this unique opportunity to learn chess at school.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Using rural "lack of anonymity" for a good cause

In my academic work on rurality I've written a great deal about the lack of anonymity (or "high density of acquaintanceship") that marks rural communities. Such familiarity with others and the implicit social control that often accompanies it can be a very powerful influence in rural communities. A photo my mom just sent me shows this social phenomenon being put to good use: to persuade local residents to stop smoking and using tobacco in other forms. This billboard, a project of the Newton County (AR) Tobacco Education Group, was funded by the Arkansas portion of the master settlement agreement with the tobacco companies. That money finances such initiatives, at the county level, across the state.

The billboard pictures and names four well-known county residents, along with the number of years each has been tobacco-free. It seems a good strategy for inspiring other locals to quit. Those featured include folks from various walks of life: white collar (the county health nurse and director of the Hometown Health Coalition), blue collar, retired, etc. Too bad there's not a student or other young person in the bunch. Similar billboards have apparently been used by other county coalitions in Arkansas.

My mom has served on the Newton County Tobacco Education Group since its inception several years ago. She periodically updates me on their successes, including convincing a number of local businesses (e.g, the supermarket in the county seat) to go smoke free. (Arkansas law subsequently mandated that for businesses which admit minors). The group has also been very active in local schools, including financing large signs that declare the campuses "smoke free." It's inspiring to see such effective grass roots work on a critical health issue in a highly impoverished place that offers few educational and economic opportunities to residents.

Monday, March 10, 2008

U.S. farmers finally flourishing financially, but what does it portend for the world?

A front-page story on yesterday's New York Times, A Global Need for Grain that Farmers Can't Fill, attracted a lot of attention. It's about how the increasing demand for grain world wide is leading to a boom for farmers -- whatever they choose to plant is valued much more highly than in recent years. Wheat prices, for example, have doubled in the past six months.

The story features Dennis Miller, who farms 2,760 acres in North Dakota. His family has farmed the Great Plains for over a century, which means he represents a dying breed of intergenerational family farmers. Suddenly, he's beside himself with options as he contemplates what to plant come the spring thaw. Journalist David Streitfeld writes of the implications for rural America:

At a moment when much of the country is contemplating recession, farmers are flourishing. The Agriculture Department forecasts that farm income this year will be 50 percent greater than the average of the last 10 years. The flood of money into American agriculture is leading to rising land values and a renewed sense of optimism in rural America.

“All of a sudden farmers are more in control, which is a weird position for them,” said Brian Sorenson of the Northern Crops Institute in Fargo, N.D. “Everyone’s knocking at their door, saying, ‘Grow this, grow that.’ ”

But while this is good news for U.S. farmers, the imbalance between food supply and demand means high prices in the developing world, which is driving the increased demand. Talk about the link between the global and the local . . . Streitfeld explains why food costs are rising sharply, noting that the biggest factor is heightened demand, including in the developing world.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hunting on the decline, and what to do about it (if anything?)

A couple of stories in recent weeks have discussed our nation's declining interest in hunting, even in states and regions previously associated with such past times. One story yesterday, dateline West Virginia, discussed how falling revenues from hunting licenses ($1.5 million over a decade) are hurting that state. This has led to legislation that provides for instruction in hunting safety in any school where 20 or more students are interested. The story includes lots of data and information about the decline in hunting, as well as what various states--and interested public and private groups--are doing in response.

Another story last week highlighted an elementary school in Reno, Nevada, where the students receive tuition in elk calling at an after-school "Elk Club."

These stories reminded me of the hunting mania in my own hometown. There, public school was dismissed two days each November at the start of deer season. Each fall, photos of 10 and 12-year-old children with their "bucks" appear on the local weekly's front page. I'll have to check and see if hunting is on the decline there . . . I'd be surprised if it were in a place so remote, indeed, a place where people stock their freezers for the winter with the deer and elk they kill.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Women Working in Wyoming (in good blue collar jobs, no less)

A story in the NYT entitled "A New Job Track for Single Mothers in Wyoming" brings together my two key interests: women and rurality.

The word "rural" is not used in the story, and the dateline is Cheyenne, population 50,000. Nevertheless, Wyoming is a largely rural state with a total population of just over half a million (ranked 50th in the nation) and a population density of just 5 persons/square mile. The story reports on a job training program, which extends beyond Cheyenne, that responds to some of the particular challenges that women face in the context of rural job markets, where women are much more likely than in urban ones to be channeled into low-paying service jobs. Here is a program that seems to successful in getting women some of the good blue-collar jobs that men have tended to monopolize in places like Wyoming. But Kirk Johnson's piece features another slice of feminism, too, which he labels "female solidarity."

Here's an excerpt:
Here in a state with the highest gap in the nation between a woman’s wage and a man’s, and a divorce rate 30 percent above the national average, some women are finding a new way to storm the economic barricades.

They are working with an unusual nonprofit organization, Climb Wyoming, which takes women who have absorbed a few of life’s body blows — bad or absent men, drugs, public assistance and jail are all common stories — and combines free job training with psychological counseling.

But Climb Wyoming’s real core insight is female solidarity — that the group, trained and forged together more like a platoon than a class, will become an anchor of future success. New skills can go only so far in changing a life, the group’s trainers say; sometimes it takes a sisterhood.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dan Barry's spotlight is again on rural America, this time Bill, Wyoming

Dan Barry's story in today's NYT, like so many in his "This Land" series, takes us to a rural locale. This one is a wide spot in the road (which happens also to be a wide spot by the railroad tracks) called Bill, Wyoming. He tells of recent changes there associated with Bill being a crew changing station for the Union Pacific railway company. Thanks to a deal between Union Pacific and a lodging company, Bill now has a hotel and diner.

The story is worth a read to learn about a place you've likely never thought about existing, and to enjoy Barry's marvelous use of language, like this:

For decades this speck of a place called Bill had one, two or five residents, depending on whether you counted pets. But recent developments have increased the population to at least 11, so that now Bill is more a dot than a speck, and could be justified if one day it started to call itself William.

In mid-December those developments appeared like some Christmas mirage: a 112-room hotel and a 24-hour diner. Here. In Bill. Amid the swallowing nothingness of grasslands, where all that moves are the wind, the antelope, the cars speeding to someplace else — and those ever-slithering trains.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Does it Take Urban Patrons to Elevate the Rural Arts?

In the introduction to their book, Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (1997), Barbara Ching and Gerald Creed argue that it does. They give the example, from Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" of a "rural black woman's refusal to allow her status-seeking daughter to turn the family's butter churn into a decoration of her urban apartment. Conversely, when rural people attempt to aestheticize elements of everyday life and labor for themselves -- such as using a tractor tire as a flower bed in the front yard--they unwittingly provide further evidence of their laughable lack of taste." (p. 22). This claiming of rural art and artifacts by the urban or suburban, Ching and Creed maintain, confers cultural value beyond that which the rural resident, who actually create or use products such as the churn, ever could.

Here's another example, this one from yesterday's New York Times: "The Sound is Rural, the Setting Urban." (It was a top-10 emailed story, no less, for about 12 hours). It reports on the "roots music scene" in New York City, highlighting the current popularity of bluegrass and "country-rock" there. Journalist Nate Chinen also notes the recent successes of "Raising Sand," the collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and Norah Jones's "Come Away with Me." A related story, with listings, is headlined, "The Week in Twang, Day by Day."

I've long appreciated these music genres, perhaps in part because of my rural roots. In many circles, though, I've felt the need to closet these tastes. Now, it seems, New Yorkers are helping me do with regard to musical taste what I've been working at in one way or another most of my adult life. To use a Southern expression, they're helping me "clean up well." How nice that they're doing it without requiring that I change my ways.

Crime and the rural/urban axis

Stories of rural crime occasionally show up in the national news, and I am not sure why they're there. One appeared this week in the New York Times: "2 Teenagers Are Accused of Torturing Ohio Woman." We're told that the two teens, both with long criminal records, tortured an 18-year-old woman "for at least six hours inside her home in rural southwestern Ohio." We're told that this happened in Hanover township (population 8000), but I'm unclear why the rural setting is mentioned. It may be intended to explain how the acts went undetected for so long, as well as one of the means of torture: "dousing Ms. Clark in the shower and then forcing her to walk barefoot through snow."

I've commented on this media practice before. Maybe it is the sensational or shocking nature of the crime that merits national coverage. Maybe it's "news" because we don't expect this in rural America.