Interview: Elizabeth Catte, Rural Organizer

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Interview: Elizabeth Catte, Rural Organizer

Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Elizabeth Catte, a rural organizer and author of the upcoming book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.

The topic of our conversation was an interesting Twitter post of hers, regarding a meeting that her local grassroots organization had with Democratic Party representatives. When I read the post, I wanted to learn more about the story, and to help bring the story out of the confines of Twitter. I was hoping that she’d be able to expand on her story and to help me bring it to a wider audience.

Fortunately, Catte was gracious enough to speak with us, and to let us in on the world of independent organizing in rural America.

We also got to speak a bit about the way that gender roles manifest in modern organizing, and about the strange way that the mainstream media covers environmental crises in Appalachia. The interview below has been lightly condensed and edited.

Benny Halevi: The dems gave you a price quote for robocalls. I always assumed that local campaigns had a direct relationship with the vendor. Can you tell us a bit more about the context in which this occurs – in which the party acts as (for lack of a better word) a middle-man between local groups and the vendors? Also – why do you think it is that people come to believe robocalls are more valuable than volunteers who do it for free, but are also human?

Elizabeth Catte: We (my partner and I) have been trying to organize a newly reformed local chapter that’s been in limbo for a few years. At our third meeting, the one I tweeted about, the chair of a neighboring county and president of the district attended and she, along with a representative from the VA rural caucus, were pitching us robocalls directly.

To elaborate a bit more, I’m not sure they were seeking money that night, but were definitely trying to get the chapter thinking about how much it would need to give the state party structure to stay in good standing if that makes sense.

I honestly don’t understand the allure of robocalls myself, particularly in areas like ours which are rural, and if I really wanted to could quite literally call most of the people I’d be interested in talking to over the course of a few days. But the Dems here, and I think nation wide as well, are very attracted to all things big data.

The three financial commitments broached were: VoteBuilder access for a fee of $100, Robocalls (indeterminate but they quoted 1.6 cents per call), a $43 county fee to the state organization, and then a recommended individual donation that I want to say was around $40 per person.

Halevi: The money would have gone to the state party, and they would have paid Votebuilder?

Catte: I don’t think I can answer that. We didn’t get enough information out of that meeting. But it was presented as funds that would be collected by the county party and then send to the state party for distribution. I don’t think locally we’d have much control over how it would be spend.

Halevi: The “uniqueness” of the community seemed to be a point of contention with the party reps. What do you think your aquaintance in the meeting meant by saying “unique.” Do you think she meant that literally, or do you think it was more a frustrated way of saying “your ideas won’t work here just because they worked somewhere else.”

Catte: Ah. Her comments about the town’s uniqueness were actually pretty practical. It wasn’t boosterism. The rural caucus folks had incorrect information. One point she wanted to make was that our community is rural but very walkable. You know, it’s good for face-to-face organizing because the neighborhoods well laid out.

Halevi: They had data based on another town that was technically similar according to the big data, and were trying to apply it to her town?

Catte: There was also the point that some of our elections for local boards are bipartisan. The guests didn’t really understand that we couldn’t run certain races as Democrat or Republican without violating our charters. But yes, the response was exactly along the lines of what you just said.

The rural caucus representative sat in the back of the meeting and barked out information about VoteBuilder the entire night. “According to VAN this, and according to VAN that.” His smackdown of her points was his big “aha” moment, like “If you’d just buy this data then you’d see that you’re like 600 other towns” and so on.

Halevi: That is curious to me because… many people will readily acknowledge that, say, different neighborhoods in DC are different. That some are more walkable and social, for example. Usually those things can be observed by a simple drive through a neighborhood or town. Why do you think the rural caucus rep did not realize this? Do you think it is a general lack of faith in face-to-face canvassing or do you think it is something else?

Catte: Good question! You know, after the meeting I was wondering if perhaps we just got stuck with an arrogant person who is just jaded, but several national and state organizers jumped on me on Twitter with the same points. That “we should listen to the data” and the party must focus on bulk gains and language of that nature.

We are in the 9th District of VA, which is very unloved by the state party. It’s consistently red and not very politically active for either party. The Democrats consistently put the bare amount of effort into our rural district that it can, and it just doesn’t work.

What I’m trying to work with are a lot of 50+ community members that aren’t particularly politically active but have good organizing skills (former teachers, social workers) who would be great at putting boots on the ground. We’ve gotten a group that’s about as racially diverse as you can for an area like ours, with good gender parity. And it’s like the VA Dems can’t even pretend to be excited about building a movement with us. It’s all data, data, data.

And to be fair, we work with data all the time in our jobs (my partner is a statistician) and we understand that it isn’t always right or holds the best answers. It was really very off-putting to get the hard pitch about data marketing on our third meeting ever.

Halevi: That holds true with many statisticians and social scientists I know. Do you think the people pitching you the data are more a) analysts who have a large amount of faith in their numbers or b) people who consume data-related products who perhaps want to believe the data holds more answers than it does?

Catte: Well, 100% of the people who have tried to defend that approach to me have all been people who sell data for a living or marketing services.

Halevi: This is just a question that I often ponder. This is a common archetype that I hear about, and I wonder if it is more experts with too much faith in their numbers or people who don’t quite understand data but want to believe in it.

Catte: So my sample is a bit biased. But I am still really thinking about why someone like the representatives from our rural organizations are so enamored with data. I heard from some friends who are their party chairs in counties and other states and it seems to be just their directive. But I do agree, it seems like there is a sweet spot for some people where they understand enough about data to see practical utilities for it and not enough to understand how it can be skewed or incomplete.
In our communities, it reflects a gender divide too, which is interested. The men love data and the women just want to organize.

Halevi: That is interesting. I’ve seen that divide manifest slightly differently in the community where I grew up. Women in the office while men extrovertedly go out in the field. It was never completely segregated but, if anything, that was the divide. Do you think this is a recent phenomenon due to the recent “sexiness” of data? Do you think it’s comparable to how computer science used to be considered a “woman’s” field until men came in and decided it was a “man’s” field?

Catte: My personal experience in rural communities is that leaders – who tend to be male – like the “unknowableness” of data, if that makes sense. It’s unknowable because they presume that we – the people on the ground – just don’t have the capacity to understand it in the way that they do. So, from my perspective, it’s just a different way to engage in the same old power struggles that have always been present in our communities.

Halevi: Thank you so much for your time so far, and I have one more topic I’d like to ask you about before we go. You wrote an article in April about Michael Barbaro’s interview with a former coal miner.

You pointed out that many stories in publications such as the NY Times will cite environmentalists and scientists who are not from Appalachia, and then contrast them with Appalachia residents, but will rarely interview the many scientists and environmentalists in Appalachia.

Do you suspect this comes out of a pure cultural bias? Do you think people truly don’t realize that there are indeed environmentalists & climate scientists in Kentucky?

Catte: The short answer is that yes, I most definitely do.

There are environmental programs at WVU, Virginia Tech, the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Appalachian water scientists helped a lot in Flint.
Even mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club are incredibly active in Appalachia and have an array of scientists affiliated with their organization.

I do think that much of the coverage about such topics get complicated by bias. We have the largest concentration of anti-coal groups in the country, for example, and it’s very strange when reporters don’t reach out to them for comment about stories about coal and instead pick someone at a university in, for example, Wisconsin.

Halevi: Definitely. Sometimes I wonder if there is a desire to see regional conflicts that aren’t there. To reflect what you said about marketers, and male community leaders, it seems like there’s a desire to imagine the “ones who know” vs the ones who don’t. It seems like maybe some people imagine that dichotomy but over entire regions.

And in particular, over entire regions who are “naturally” a certain way, as opposed to being composed of many people who will messily conflict and compromise.

Catte: I think, in Appalachia, that it’s more satisfying for people to believe that the awful things that happen here happen because we’re anti-science or just don’t know any better. It’s much more chilling to acknowledge that we actually know very well what’s happening and often try to stop it but can’t. I think that’s why the NYT reporter choked up a bit, and why I sort of felt for him. It’s very messy indeed.

Benny Halevi can be found Twitter at @benny_carefully.

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