Carolina Democracy

New Rural Project: Listening & Engaging

March 28, 2022 JD Wooten Episode 11
New Rural Project: Listening & Engaging
Carolina Democracy
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Carolina Democracy
New Rural Project: Listening & Engaging
Mar 28, 2022 Episode 11
JD Wooten

Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, I'm  joined by Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills of the New Rural Project to talk about its work in rural communities to increase civic and electoral engagement, and I discuss two recent polls on how North Carolina voters feel about the Supreme Court's ruling on gerrymandering, and what they think the General Assembly should be focused on most.

Learn More About The New Rural Project:

North Carolina Absentee Ballot Portal: Click Here

More on the Polls:

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Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, I'm  joined by Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills of the New Rural Project to talk about its work in rural communities to increase civic and electoral engagement, and I discuss two recent polls on how North Carolina voters feel about the Supreme Court's ruling on gerrymandering, and what they think the General Assembly should be focused on most.

Learn More About The New Rural Project:

North Carolina Absentee Ballot Portal: Click Here

More on the Polls:

Contact Us:

Follow Us:

Support the Show.

Cynthia Wallace: When people ask me, when I got into politics, I say before I was born. My dad was a civil rights activist who actually helped to co-found the NAACP in our small rural town in 1968. 

Helen Probst Mills: I can remember going and voting with my mom at the time when you used to actually go into a voting booth with curtains. And as a result, I've always taken one of my children with me when I voted. 

[Music transition]

JD Wooten: Hey everyone, JD Wooten here. Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. Today we’re joined by Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills of the New Rural Project to talk about its work as a non-partisan, non-profit organization that engages young and marginalized residents in rural communities to amplify their voices through increased civic and electoral engagement. But first, I want to talk about two recent polls that caught my attention. 

The first sought to measure whether North Carolina voters approve or disapprove of the state supreme court’s action in the recent gerrymandering case. Given the public opinion damage we often see from right-wing propaganda and misinformation, it would be easy to worry that people might be poisoned against the idea of the Court stepping in to protect voters from an unconstitutional act by the General Assembly. That should be celebrated, not scorned. It’s the most essential and important function of the State Supreme Court. But we know that some didn’t see it that way, as evidenced by what many in the state media called temper tantrums in response to the Court’s ruling.

Well, it turns out voters resoundingly support the state supreme court’s action. That’s a huge relief. I’m glad that in this case, the right thing also happens to be popular with voters. That poll showed that 50% of North Carolina voters support the court’s decision, while only 27% oppose. The break down by party shows Democrats supported it by a margin of 65 to 22, and independents by a margin of 54 to 27. I was actually surprised that even though overall, Republican voters opposed the court’s action, 27% still approve and only 50% oppose. Given how unified Republicans usually are in their positions, these numbers actually suggest to me that Republican opposition to the supreme court protecting democracy is quite weak. That’s promising in the face of two critical state supreme court races on the ballot this year.

Another recent poll shows that only 33% of North Carolina voters approve of the General Assembly’s job performance, while 52% disapprove. Perhaps the most shocking of this poll is that generally speaking, there is near universal agreement across all demographic groups measured. Even among Republican voters—and remember, Republicans have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly for over a decade now—even among Republican voters, more disapprove than approve the General Assembly’s job performance. Independent voters responded with the lowest approval numbers, at only 24% approving. Democratic voters were a bit higher at 36% approve, and Republican voters had the highest approval numbers for the General Assembly, but still only at 41%.

The poll also looked to what voters perceive the General Assembly is focused on versus what they believe the General Assembly should be focused on.  The results show that voters overwhelming think the General Assembly’s focus should be on jobs and the economy, and everything else is a distant 2nd place at best.  A whopping 48% of North Carolinian voters think jobs and the economy should be the top focus, while the next closest three issues were education, healthcare, and infrastructure at 10, 9, and 9% respectively. So, for any candidates, campaign staffers, or others helping on campaigns going into the 2022 elections who are listening, the takeaways are clear – make your focus on jobs and the economy with a small sprinkle of education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Leave the redistricting and gerrymandering talk to those of us not on the ballot, and leave the pandemic talk to public health officials.

Now, before we turn to my interview with the New Rural Project, here are a few important reminders. For our Guilford County listeners, there will be a major education bond on the May 17th primary ballot. Please consider supporting the bond to help Guilford County address basic safety and wellbeing needs for our children in the schools. I’ll leave a link in the show note in you want to learn more about the bond.

And finally, here are some important dates to remember for voting over the next few months. April 22nd is the deadline to register to vote in person in the May 17th primaries. In person early voting starts on April 28th and runs through May 14th. Check your local board of election website for exact times and locations. During early voting, you can also do what’s called same-day registration or even update your voter registration. So even if you’re not registered, or your registration is out-of-date, go to an early voting site in your county and register or update your registration, then vote. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is May 10th, but I definitely do not recommend waiting that long.  You can actually request your ballot now, and the state board of elections will start sending out ballots on March 28th. I’ll drop a link in the show notes for the North Carolina Absentee Ballot Portal, which again, is open now. The primary election is on May 17th and polling places should be open from 6:30am to 7:30pm.

As I said last week, if you’re listening to this show, your registration is probably up-to-date, and you probably have a plan to vote. That’s great. Now go find someone else to help register or encourage to vote. Or better yet, volunteer for or donate to an organization dedicated to helping register and/or turn out voters, like the New Rural Project. 

And on that note, here’s my interview with Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills of the New Rural Project.

[Music transition]

JD Wooten: With me today are the co-founders of the New Rural Project, Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills. The New Rural Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that engages young and marginalized residents and rural communities to amplify their voices through increased civic and electoral engagement. They work to eliminate barriers to engagement by listening to rural stakeholders and working together to develop community driven solutions. Cynthia and Helen, welcome! It's an absolute pleasure to have you today. 

Cynthia Wallace: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here too. 

Helen Probst Mills: Great to be with you. Thank you, JD.

JD Wooten: Absolutely. There's so much good stuff to talk about with the New Rural Project and your backgrounds. I can't wait to dive into that, but I have to go to my first question. What's your earliest memory of politics or getting involved in politics? 

Cynthia Wallace: When people ask me, when I got into politics, I say before I was born. My dad was a civil rights activist who actually helped to co-found the NAACP in our small rural town in 1968. So I've always been kind of involved obviously with an activist father who ultimately became an elected official. But when I think of my very first political activity, it was, when there is a fight for making the MLK Day a holiday. The NAACP and some of my dad's other groups organized so that the children would stay home. And my dad was a stickler for perfect attendance. So even though he was doing this, he said, I guess my kids have to stay home too. 

JD Wooten: I love it. 

Cynthia Wallace: And so I remember staying home to advance getting the MLK holiday recognized. 

JD Wooten: Well, Cynthia, I think you now have the earliest memory that anybody has mentioned by predating yourself entirely.

Helen Probst Mills: I can remember being a child. I grew up in New York city with a single mother who was involved in community issues. She became very involved and was instrumental in daycare, both in terms of pushing it on the state and the city level in terms of regulation, in terms of funding, and in terms of the need to educate children from a very young age, in order for them to be successful. I can remember going and voting with my mom at the time when you used to actually go into a voting booth with curtains. And as a result, I've always taken one of my children with me when I voted. I think it's so important. When I was in high school, I worked for my city council member in Manhattan. And I worked in the community office that she had. And this is what I'm hoping for, that we achieve in each of the counties here that we're working on for the New Rural Project. It was an office that the citizens came into with their issues and their complaints for their city council member to not just hear, but to hopefully act on them. And listening to people's stories and what their hopes and dreams were for better housing, the issues they had in terms of education, access to food. And that really is my vision that I see the new road project, two things that we really have a role of working in the community with the community to achieve with what's best for the community. 

Cynthia Wallace: And if I interject one of the things that Helen said, I think is critical is about taking your children to vote. My dad believed in being the very first person, when the polls open, he would be upset if he was like number two or three. I was on another a series show and one of the, the concepts and the themes that seems to roll through here as well is that people's civic memories always involved their parents. The more people we get engaged. That means that it will span generations and then their children will see them engage and also get engaged. And I think in every time I've ever seen this question ask almost every person has something connected to a parent that was a part of their early civic engagement story.

JD Wooten: At least from my own experience, if you're there on the first day of early voting when it opens, that's probably the least likely time you're going to have to wait in line. So go vote, go early. All right, Cynthia, in addition to being the co-founder you serve as the Executive Director for the New Rural Project, you have degrees in math and statistics from Spelman College and the University of North Florida, and then you had a long career in the financial services industry. In addition to your lifelong activism and involvement, you were also the 2020 Democratic Nominee for North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District. What led you to run in 2020 for that race? 

Cynthia Wallace: As you just mentioned, obviously my background was in math and stats and in financial services though I always voted and definitely supported my dad's campaign and others, I actually never did see myself as someone that would run for office. I always direct my run for office to an upstart Senator Barack Obama's political campaign in 2008. I was in Charlotte a couple of years at that point and was just invested in figuring out how to help him get elected. I sent them the email literally saying, how do I find my precinct number? And that was in 2008. And from there I just stayed engaged and doing more community work that did involve a passion, which was always politics. And ultimately, I got into the Democratic Party leadership structure. And in 2017, after that disheartening election of 2016, in January, I was elected the Chair of the Ninth Congressional District for the Democratic Party. And that was definitely not in any well laid plan. And that's when I started really getting to know the counties outside of Mecklenburg County, where I lived and really started connecting with the rural counties beyond the urban borders. And that really got me involved with understanding their issues. We had a tough couple of fights for the Ninth Congressional District Seat and I will spare the listeners but just research the 2018 Ninth Congressional district election. I won't go with that, but ultimately that passion and care for the folks and some strong encouragement from people who had seen my investment in these communities encouraged me to jump off the sideline and jump into the race in late 2019. And unfortunately, I didn't win, but that passion to serve didn't end on November 2020.

JD Wooten: I love it. And yes, to all of our listeners, if for some reason you were under a rock and missed the shenanigans of the mail-in voting fiasco in 2018, just go look it up. It's a good one. So Helen turning to you, in addition to being a co-founder you serve on the board for the new Rural project, you studied at the University of Chicago for undergrad and attended Case Western Reserve for law school. And you've held an array of positions in and around the finance and banking world. In addition to years of local activism, you were the 2018 and 2020 Democratic nominee for District 25 in the North Carolina State Senate. What led you to run for the State Senate?

Helen Probst Mills: I'm blessed to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the state in Pinehurst. When my husband and I moved here in 2006, after living overseas for a number of years, I registered as a Democrat and I joined my local Democratic Party and got involved. And the thing that really, I think spurred me forward is the lack of the passage of Medicaid expansion when it first hit North Carolina. I can remember vividly standing in my kitchen. I had recently undergone a treatment for breast cancer and I just was dumbstruck to think that Individuals who are in an elected position of responsibility would decide that it was in the best interest of the citizens, of the state of North Carolina to decline the federal funding that would be available for people's healthcare. And I started to pay a little bit more attention and one thing led to another. And it seemed to me that the best way to ensure that the policies that I thought were best for my community would be to step up. If you've never run for office, I encourage you to do so. It's the experience of a lifetime it's an honor and a privilege. I really believe that our system of government is the best in the world, but it only works best when we have people running on both sides of the ticket, because you need individuals who will present different policy ideas and different approaches to government, and different ways in which communities can be improved. And when only one party has a candidate on the ballot, citizens don't have a choice and they don't have the opportunity to consider what's best for their community. And so I do think that both parties can have good ideas, but they are homed through debate and through elections. Unfortunately, we were not successful, but I don't consider it a loss in any way because Cynthia and I have become fast friends and deeply committed to this work of service and have led to the establishment of our organization.

JD Wooten: I hear so much of my own story for the State Senate. Medicaid Expansion was one of those areas that help hook me into running because my 2018 opponent, Rick Gunn, sponsored the bill to block Medicaid expansion. And so when I was first considering that run, a lot of people came and kind of beat me over the head with the same ideas that you're talking about. If you don't put somebody on the ballot, the voters can't vote for them. I hear that from both of you and I love it so much. We'll talk about this in a minute, but even if a race might feel like a foregone conclusion, that doesn't mean we shouldn't have strong candidates representing all the ideas because even when they're not necessarily the one that gets 51%, there's still a lot of good that can come from those campaigns as y'all both demonstrated in your races. So thank you both for running in challenging environments for sure. 

Cynthia Wallace: And JD, if I, I may that piece you added about the win isn't always the outcome. And it isn't the only thing that benefits the community. And that was one of the things I thought about with my race was being a voice for the voiceless. I'd lived in the Ninth District at that point maybe about 13 years, and I'd never heard any of my congresspersons really talking about the day-to-day kitchen table issues that were concerning the people in those counties. And so that was a big part of what I was hoping to accomplish was to at least have a discussion about the real issues that people care about. And unlike my opponent, who was talking about what was happening in Seattle, during riots, I was talking about broadband, and healthcare expansion, et cetera. And so I think that's one of the things I do count as a win is that there was someone talking about real issues that could have impacted and changed people's lives in the eight counties I was hoping to represent. 

JD Wooten: I'll ask it then this way, y'all both had firsthand knowledge from your runs in rural areas, that there are quite a number of registered and unregistered voters in those rural communities who simply don't vote. And I know that you've written that at the core of the new rural project is the belief that democracy thrives when citizens exercise their civic rights to the fullest, I'm curious to know how do you think having those candidates that inspire, and then also having the gerrymandering piece, how do you see that tying together, especially when it comes to engaging voters and driving that turnout? 

Helen Probst Mills: I think one of the knock-on effects of gerrymandering that doesn't get enough conversation around it is it has a chill impact on individuals looking to run for office. If voters don't have different candidates to choose from, it's very hard for a voter to feel that their vote will matter, that they'll show up and maybe they'll vote for one particular office, but not another. We have to get away though from this idea that just because you can't win it, it isn't a good idea to have a candidate run for the seat because as Cynthia has mentioned, and we've discussed the idea of having different policy conversations is so important. The other piece of this is we have to have conversations with the citizenry around this idea that it's not just the person you're electing, it's the policy positions that they are advocating for. If we'd speak more in that way and have a fuller discussion of policies and stop attacking each other as people in the political world, I think we'd find that more people would be more interested in it. That's what I think we're really looking to do with the New Rural Project is to be engaged in those conversations where we can help the individuals understand the policy issues better and make the right decisions for their community. 

JD Wooten: That's so important, and I really appreciate that perspective, Helen. As you were saying it, I was also thinking back to kind of what all candidates, regardless of how likely or unlikely they may be to win their own race, what they can do for the overall turnout and the overall engagement. In 2020, I look back to my race and I feel like we put it all out there. At least in terms of the margin of victory of my opponent, I don't think there was anything that we could have done that would have overcome those several thousands of votes differently. But what I do wonder, and has crossed my mind a lot, is somewhere in that district, with over a hundred thousand people voting, could I have found 406 more Democrats to vote? Was there anything I could have done to get 406 more Democrats to vote? And the reason I pick that number is because I was on the back of the ballot. If they voted for me on the back of the ballot, they probably looked at the front of the ballot, which is where Chief Justice Cheri Beasley was, who lost by 406. 

Cynthia Wallace: Exactly. 

JD Wooten: So if I had driven 406 more Democrats to vote for me, maybe we would have Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. And I wouldn't have won, but she would have. 

Cynthia Wallace: So you just kind of hit on the premise of one of the premises of this organization, JD. So I jump into talking a little bit more about New rural Project and how it came to be. Helen and I were both on the ballot in 2020, and the counties that Helen was running in with her senate race were part of the Ninth. And so that's actually how we got to know each other, the conversation between us about those folks who were looking to serve and about the issues we had seen that were going to still be unaddressed. And those folks who were just that 401 folks that probably were just sitting on the sidelines, waiting for someone to talk to them is really what this organization is about.

As mentioned, my background is math and stats. And as I was deciding and trying to start figuring out what I was going to do next, but knowing I wanted to focus on service, my mathematic analytical mind kicked in and said, let's figure out what happened in 2020. Where were the opportunities that were missed where did I, or others in these races over or underperform? And so by looking at that, it really just reminded me of what I've been saying as a Ninth District Chair for years to my counties and the folks I was working with, which is you have a turnout issue. And so when we look at Chief Justice Beasley's 400 or so votes in her loss, our thought was any of these rural counties could have changed the outcome of that race by the folks that did not vote. And so we started deep diving into those numbers from a demographic perspective, to understand what were the turnout patterns in 2020, but also with the deep held belief that this didn't start in 2020.

And so looking back historically back to 2008, we did an analysis of the turnout rates in each of those four presidential years, 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020, and looked at the turnout rate by race, by age, by gender and how that had changed over those years. And what was immediately apparent was that while 2020 was a high-water mark for turnout for a lot of communities, it wasn't that way for everyone. And so the high water mark for voters of color or under 40 voters was actually 2008 and 2012, they had seen some of what, of a rebound in 2020 from the low of 2016. But they had performed much higher in other years. And so what we knew and what we saw and believed was that, have we been engaging with those voters? A lot of times, Democrats, progressives discount rural places and they only focus on the urban centers. And so we knew that it's just not a winning recipe, that's a hurtful thing for a community. Everyone should be trying to represent all people in all types of communities. And looking at my own story of President Obama's campaign being so micro-targeted that they would send someone in Charlotte, North Carolina, an email about their precinct meeting, said that something different happened in 2008, that obviously we've lost somewhere over those 12 years. And so that premise of, really speaking to and amplifying the voices of historically marginalized communities of black and brown folks, talking to those under 40 and giving them an opportunity for them to be heard, and really taking a step back and listening to them, was really how we started this organization and what we think the difference can be if an organization like ours is investing in those rural communities, can really make a difference in them participating in their own life and their civic engagement so that it will change their communities. 

JD Wooten: Absolutely, and you're correct. I misspoke, I think earlier saying 406, it was even less, 401. 

Cynthia Wallace: Yeah, 401. Out of 5 million votes cast, a difference of 401. 

JD Wooten: Right! 

Cynthia Wallace: And so, and that's what we also put that number on every page in our presentation when we were talking to her counties, because we wanted these counties to understand how important they are, because there've been too many times that political parties have minimized their importance. And so we wanted them to also see what their power could be. So we put that number balanced with the number of black and brown voters that didn't turn out, the number of under 40 voters that didn't turn out, and in every county, it dwarfed the 401. 

JD Wooten: Oh, absolutely. There is a great story to tell about increased turnout in 2020, especially in the face of the pandemic, but there's another side to that when you break it down and there are a lot of missed opportunities. And I guess at least in terms of looking forward, there are a lot of opportunities there to be had. And while any individual precinct may not have 401 more votes, I guarantee every county does. 

Helen Probst Mills: One of the things that we've done in addition to basing our organization on an analysis of turnout by county over these past presidential years is we're adamant that we need to be listening to people who don't show up and vote the vote infrequently or who don't vote at all, because there are many people who are registered, but don't turn out.

We were fortunate to be funded, to conduct a focus group series. Summer and early fall with these individuals. And I think what was really telling about the research were two things. First of all, the organization that conducted our research had a very difficult time finding these individuals to talk to. So that first and foremost told me that fundamentally, there's a problem here. If you can't even poll these individuals.

But secondly, what came out of these focus groups, which was really for Cindy and I so uplifting, they were not quite two hours, it was a group of African-American men and almost to the last person at the end of the conversation, every single one of them said, I need to know more. And I need to understand more about how the funding works through my county, about who my county commissioners are, about what their positions are on policies. And it was really not a sense. We didn't walk away with a sense of that. All these people who hadn't frequently voted were pissed off and unengaged, and wouldn't ever show up at the polling place. We walked away with a sense of these people haven't been listened to, and they haven't been in conversations about the importance of their involvement in their community and in the voting booth. They are not necessarily disaffected in the sense that they won't ever vote, they're disaffected in the sense that nobody's listening to them. And no one's talking with them about the importance of their vote. And when those conversations happen, the outcome was very different from what many people I think would have expected.

JD Wooten: I couldn't agree more. I remember several years ago I had the pleasure and the privilege of being at an event with Congressman GK Butterfield. And I'm not sure if the Congressman had just gotten a briefing on this or it's just something that he liked to focus on, but talking to a couple of us candidates. All right, JD. It's the low propensity voters, the low propensity voters, you got to focus on the low propensity voters. So I know at least some have been really hammering that for a while. What's the vision with new rural project, both this cycle and the long-term for what we're going to do to engage and connect with those voters?

Cynthia Wallace: So you just mentioned one of my favorite persons, which is Representative Butterfield. And he actually is even connected to so many folks, right. And, it's definitely going to be a loss for the Congress when he ends his term at the beginning of 2023. But he's definitely provided quite a service to North Carolina, the United States, and obviously to many of us as candidates as well. Kind of coming off with what Helen said. We talk about our organization has a three-pronged strategy: listening, civic engagement, and electoral engagement. And we often say it begins and ends with listening. It does. We always say that because that's what our organization is grounded on. And so off the heels of what we heard with the focus groups we definitely see that there is a gulf in African-American male turnout. They're a population where there's probably not a lot of conversation about them. As a black woman, I love the conversation about Stacey Abrams, and Vice President Kamala Harris, and the first black woman nominated for the Supreme Court. But there's probably not as much attention to those African-American and Hispanic men who probably some of what we hear from some of them, feel like they're kind of just being lost in the shuffle. 

And so because of that, one of the first programs that we're looking to launch this year is what we're calling our barbershop conversation. Fade: fruitful African-American discussion and empowerment. And we are launching that within the next month. Where we will be having these in-depth conversations with a group of African-American men inside of a barbershop. So we're going to go right into the barbershop. We've got an awesome partner of the Triad Barber School in Garrett Snuggs in Anson County who's going to help us pilot this program. He's one of our co-chairs and we're going to convene a group of a dozen or so younger, mostly under 40 black men and have conversations about the issues that are happening in their community. And then also bring in local folks who are their peers who are black men that are already a little bit more engaged are doing this work. And literally just having open dialogue. So we're looking to launch that series in the next few weeks and then spread it out throughout our seven counties. Our organization is grounded, at least in the initial stages in seven rural counties which are Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland, Robinson, Hoke, and Moore Counties. And we really believe we can prove that this model works and then we'll be ready to expand it beyond these seven counties to really make a deeper impact in North Carolina and beyond. 

Helen Probst Mills: So JD, a component part of this also is bringing services to these smaller rural communities that are overlooked. And we have spent the last several months organizing and helping facilitate vaccination clinics for the COVID vaccine testing sites bringing food and clothing, bringing community information blood pressure and insulin checks into communities that don't routinely have them don't routinely see services of that nature. 

And the welcome that we've received has been overwhelming in some situations because they're so appreciative that we see them and we see their needs. And the partnerships that Cynthia speaks of are the ones that are so important to us to build upon with other local organizations, churches, fraternal groups, smaller civic organizations, and get to be in the neighborhoods. We did deep canvasing for those vaccination clinics as well, asking people about what their needs are, and also asking if there were barriers to their voting. So we're listening, but we're also in our vision. We see ourselves bringing services and information to communities that perhaps doesn't get there as readily as it should. 

Cynthia Wallace: And one of the things that we talk about as we started the organization as obviously previous candidates that understand the GOTV model, get out the vote, which means we also could adapt that to get out the vaccine. And knowing that there were so many inequities that these communities face, which were probably highlighted by the pandemic. And when you look at historically marginalized communities, and then you layer in rural on top of that, the inequities get even deeper. And so that's what we were looking to do as well with our vaccine community events. And as we're going into 2022 and 23, what are some other things that we can do to help break down those healthcare barriers that folks face? 

JD Wooten: I love the theme I'm hearing, focusing on the essentials to reach people where they are. So before we turn to the long-term vision are there any other programs, projects, more in the short-term that you'd like to highlight? 

Cynthia Wallace: One of the things that we want to do with a lot of our research work as well is to really understand the kind of messaging and how you spread a message that it reaches people. Because I think that's the other piece that's a critical issue we've had over these years is that, I think a lot of times we're talking above people, or we're talking to them, and we're not speaking with them. And so what is the actual kind of language that people understand that really gets more clarity of what it is those issues are and what the solutions are. Even the positive things that are being done, they're not cutting through either. So over the last couple of years, there actually have been some good things happening. Like the increased number of jobs that came through in January, like record numbers of jobs that were created in 2021. Does anyone even know that? Is that even cutting through everything that's happening? And so how do we make sure that the messaging is clear, it's simple, it's accessible, and that we're also making sure that people know who the folks are that are actually making those changes that they're feeling in their life. And I don't think that's happened well in the last two years. 

JD Wooten: No, I certainly agree. And I think it's critical to focus on using the language of the people you're talking to because it's not about educational gaps or anything of that sort. Sometimes we can end up in these silos or these specialized areas and we develop our own lingo. It just doesn't translate to the average person that doesn't live it. So anyway. 

Helen Probst Mills: You had asked what other short-term projects are we working on? One of the things that we see from our vantage point across these counties is that there are younger individuals who have been elected to town councils or a school board or county commissioner, but they don't necessarily feel supported. And so we've been making introductions across counties in order to motivate and make them feel like they do have a cohort and they're not in it alone. And I think that connectivity that we're able to provide across these rural counties is a value to those individuals as they move to uplift their vision for their community. 

Cynthia Wallace: And thank you, Helen, for bringing that up. Actually at the end of this month we are continuing a virtual series we started last year, which is a county conversation under 40 edition. We're going to do this every quarter we are bringing in those younger people that Helen mentioned and giving them a platform because I think that's the other opportunity is we've got to hear from them. And so what are the platforms that don't go with the old tried and true that they're around for decades. And so we're looking at the end of March to bring together mostly under 40 elected officials who are in our focus counties to have a conversation with hopefully other under 40 folks, as well as over 40 folks who need to understand and listen to them and hear from them about what their challenges are. So that'll be publicized very shortly. And so we hope to have a great audience to participate in that conversation. 

JD Wooten: We've talked about the seven counties you're currently in now. I'm really curious, what is the New Rural Project hoping to achieve, not just this cycle, but in the years to come?

Cynthia Wallace: We're hoping to replicate what we believe is going to be success in terms of increasing those turnout rates and reducing those infrequent voter numbers. And then we really want to take this on the road. We haven't a hundred percent decided what that expansion looks like. It could look like expanding to more of the 80 rural counties in North Carolina, or it could mean going across the border. Those counties in South Carolina are very much like these.

In the 2020 election in these rural counties here and across the state of North Carolina, 35 to 40% of African-American men under 40 actually turned out to vote. So these are people who are registered to vote. That means 60, 65% of them just didn't show up. Hopefully that kind of added a little bit of clarity as we're approaching our one-year anniversary. So April 6, 2022, will be the one-year anniversary of the New Rural Project. So if this comes out before, then keep their eyes open. is our website and we'll have more information coming out about that fun and celebratory occasion. And they can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, all @newruralproject. 

JD Wooten: Kudos, kudos on that. I know that you ladies have a lot going on and a lot to do so Cynthia and Helen, thank you so much for being here with me today and for sharing your message. Thank you so much, look forward to speaking again soon. 

Cynthia Wallace: Thank you JD. 

Helen Probst Mills: You so much JD. 

Cynthia Wallace: Thank you for having.

[Music transition]

JD Wooten: Thanks again to Cynthia and Helen for taking the time to join us today. Links for the New Rural Project’s website and social media are in the show notes to learn more, volunteer, and donate. Remember, if you or someone else you know should be on the show, send me an email at That’ll be in the show notes, too.

Finally, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts to make sure you never miss an episode, and share this episode with one friend to help our guests reach the largest audience possible. Together, we can achieve a better North Carolina for everyone!


Interview - New Rural Project
Closing Notes