S1, E6 – Education Puts Food on the Table: What Can We Do About Job Loss in Rural America? Part 2 of our Conversation with Dr. Trenton Ellis

We previously spoke with Forgottonia native Dr. Trenton Ellis about job loss throughout  rural America. In this interview Dr. Ellis mentioned factors like technology, globalization, and the lack of economic diversity as contributing to job loss. Since our talk with Dr. Ellis was so rich in material and we didn’t want to depress you by only discussing problems, we split our discussion in two parts. In this 2nd edition, we address plans of action and ask 2 essential questions; What can we do about factors impacting job loss and  What interferes with progress in rural America?

While Dr. Ellis admits there’s no quick fix, the wisdom he offers comes not just from his academic background, but his personal experience growing up in rural America. 

trenton ellis

Part 1 – Dangers of Nostalgia and Struggles of Higher Education in Rural America

In an article titled Beware Social Nostalgia, historian Stephanie Coontz mentions that during the Civil War, doctors actually diagnosed 5,000 cases of nostalgia in Union soldiers, claiming that 74 men actually died from this.  Their remedy was to order bands not to play the song Home Sweet Home and ministers not to preach about home.  Today we aren’t as  intolerant when someone longs for things to return to how they once were, but Koontz advises us not to view the past in one dimension. ¨Nostalgia,¨ she says, can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.  

Like Coontz, Dr. Trenton Ellis finds that while nostalgia is not without its benefits, it can cloud our vision of the future. Is our community more enthusiastic about the past than we are about investing in the future? A tangible form of investing in this future is investing in education; in particular higher education. So how can we increase our efforts to help students from working class families pursue and sustain efforts to complete college degrees?

And what about all the people stuck in the difficult transition between an industrial and postindustrial economy? Like the factory worker who has 20 years in but then the factory shuts down. How can we invest in the education of someone in this situation who is maybe in their 40s or 50s and suddenly without work?

  1. Love of Nostalgia can cloud our vision of the future.
    1. Importance of coming together to stay competitive with other nations.
    2. Focusing on the past vs. investing in the future
  2. Struggles of higher ed in rural America 
    1. Working class and their access to higher ed, as well as mitigating the college application process
    2. Folks that will struggle are more likely to be children of working class families; yet many parents themselves are also students in higher ed as many are pursuing a 2nd career
    3. Trade Adjustment Assistance: Programs to invest in to help working class people mitigate social changes

All of us in Forgottonia are connected to someone experiencing the day in and day out, blue collar sweat equity that we spoke of last time. But what about children of those in the working class growing up in Forgottonia? Do we encourage them to pursue traditional careers within the community, or do we encourage them to invest in more white-collar skills typically gained from years in higher ed? And when this happens, do we suddenly abandon our beloved blue-collar values which parents and grandparents worked so hard to instill?

We aren’t likely to find one story that fits this entire experience, yet if we tried to find a story like this, Ellis´s experience isn’t a bad place to start.  Dr. Ellis is the son of working class parents who made a multitude of personal sacrifices.  They believed it was their duty to pass on values like working hard and building things on your own.  Key mentors with professors at WIU  helped him find a home away from home, this and more helped Trenton Ellis get to where he is today. So what can young people who are growing up in Forgottonia learn from his story?

  1. Dr. Ellis´s Experience growing up working class 
    1. Seeing parents providing, struggling at times
    2. Higher ed backgrounds also have own struggles (´08 housing crisis)
    3. Legacy of working class on his own life (and his personal preference to fix his own house)
    4. Key relationships that helped him matriculate at WIU
    5. Working class students and likeliness to invest in education as a positive means of shaping future career
  2. How do you translate to working class families the importance of education? 
    1. I know how to kill, clean, and cook a squirrel, but it’s my education that puts the food on the table.

We know education is important and investing in higher ed is crucial to developing 21st century skills valued in today’s workplace.  But Ellis reminds us that education is much bigger than gaining job skills. As a sociologist, Dr. Ellis sees how schooling is just 1 piece of the pie that makes a healthy community. And when we connect the dots, we see how important these networks are.

One of Dr. Ellis´s favorite concepts in sociology is the idea of social capital; a concept, which I´ll let him explain further, demonstrates the power of schools in particular as a source of cohesion for most rural communities. In fact, one of the 1st references to social capital was a 1916 article by L.J. Hanifan  about the importance of investing, where else,  in rural schools: ¨The community as a whole, says Hanifan, will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts. If we want to address solutions, we 1st have to change the way we see our communities; we have to connect the dots.

  1. Education is more than learning…are kids eating? 
    1. Sociology sees the importance of networks; the availability of services for children & parents…this is part of an education
    2. Networks like domestic violence, law enforcement, substance abuse programs…these are all part of an education experience
    3. As a community, we have to decide if we are willing to be there for neglected kids? We can either pay for this on the front on, or through law enforcement.
    4. Where rural areas have the advantag
    5. Social Capital & bridging gaps in society (You don’t have to read the paper in rural America to know what’s going on with your  neighbor)
    6. People in rural America help one another

According to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation on rural and small town America, despite differences on a number of issues, ¨the vast majority of rural Americans judge their communities favorably as a place where people look out for each other.¨ And because we look out for one another is the reason many choose to stay in Forgottonia, working through these problems. How many benefits, for instance, have you seen in the past month for a person, family or organization in need?  We all step up and take care of each other.

But although our small towns can have the coolest benefits and fundraisers for people and organizations, the need for government policy is essential. According to Dr. Ellis, the role of government is to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens and services for the most vulnerable is a fundamental role  Benefits are great, but because we can only have so many, policy is better.

To truly achieve the type of society Dr. Ellis and so many others desire, we must strive to understand others perspective, how to deliberate and talk to one another, and how to avoid those trigger words when trying to have difficult conversations.

  1. Translating all this into policy 
    1. The need for government policy over individual benefits
  2. The issue of Framing
    1. What is framing?
    2. Benefits of social issues appealing to faith communities in rural America (framing through lens of faith)
  3. The importance of understanding the perspective of the other 
    1. Talk to people with different beliefs, consume media, read books about beliefs different from yours
    2. People don’t realize how much they have in common. Most of us want the same things; a community that´s safe; children with access to opportunities; upward mobility; financially comfortable…We just disagree on how to get there.
    3. Dr. Ellis´s experience in Slovenia teaching others about rural America and the 2016 election.
    4. Opposition research: Seeking to understand how we can create a narrative to appeal to others, We must work to know the experience of other.
    5. How to have those difficult conversations: Example – words like global warming and green energy and how they trigger negative feelings  
    6. Most people realistically don´t live on one side of a spectrum. Language is how we make sense of our world

In closing, many rural Americans may not feel the most optimistic about the future, but perhaps there’s more reason to hope then they think.  In fact, a writer named Michael Elliot actually named the last 10 years ¨The Sparkling Decade.  He says it is a time of innovation & optimism pushing toward a renewed future based on the twin forces of technological advancement & globalization. Sounds a lot like something Dr. Ellis might say.  Although we are facing many difficult challenges, if you change your vantage point, things look less like a decline and more like a rebirth.




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