Rural community looking to the arts for ways to send messaging about political interests

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Rural arts scenes, like these images that were featured during a recent webinar hosted by Pro15, an eastern Colorado advocacy group, have sparked creative thinking by Cathy Shull, the group’s executive director, about how to develop more effective messaging on rural issues.

Many years ago, when Ft. Morgan-based business consultant Cathy Shull was president of the Colorado Rural Development Council, she attended a meeting in Cripple Creek.

Someone in the area had written a play about suicide among rural teens, which featured a few student actors sitting around on hay bales talking about their lives and struggles.

“It was the most eye-opening thing I ever saw,” she recalls now. “That brought the issue into focus for me better than all of the Power Point presentations or articles in the newspaper could have done.”

Shull, who is director of Pro15, an advocacy group for northeastern Colorado, was reminded of its impact during a recent “Plain Talk” webinar she hosted with Meredith Badler, deputy director for Colorado Business Community for the Arts.

It led her to wonder this: could harnessing the transformative power of the arts provide a way to make traditional forms of advocacy more effective, thereby making a difference on some of the rural issues that have become so critical in the state of Colorado?

She and several of her board members think the idea is well worth pursuing.

Pro15 is one of three regional advocacy groups in Colorado, which also includes Action 22 Southeast and Club 20 on the Western Slope. These regional nonprofits aim to give rural Coloradoans a voice in state politics, which also requires following developments such as the Governor’s Build Back Stronger initiative.

The statewide outreach effort will eventually be used to craft a budget proposal outlining how to spend $6 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding.

COVID recovery aside, there’s been no shortage of topics for rural groups to tackle in recent months.

“Some of the urban-rural divide is very real, and I’m very concerned about the ballot initiatives and bills being brought forward on agriculture all of sudden,” Shull said.

Colorado has always been a popular state for testing out controversial initiatives, due to the relative ease of placing new initiatives on the ballot where they can be put to a popular vote.

“Out-of-state interests like to test things out to see if they can make this fly in other parts of the country,” she notes.

The latest campaign raising serious alarm within the agriculture community is initiative 16, also referred to as the PAUSE (Protect Animals from Unnecessary Suffering and Exploitation) Act, which would place radical new constraints on livestock farming and criminalize common animal husbandry practices.

What is especially chilling is the still-fresh memory of last November’s narrow passage of another ballot initiative the agricultural community stood solidly against, Proposition 114, which calls for the reintroduction of gray wolves.

Inevitably, there’s been some reflection about what went wrong and how to be more effective in articulating meaningful opposition in the future.

Stull believes using art more strategically could be a way to improve messaging.

“You can’t always be saying no,” she said. “No is not the answer so much of the time. But on both sides of the urban-rural divide, the way to deal with something is often just to say no, instead of, okay, this is the part of the idea we can work with.”

“Wolves is probably a good example and one of the most obvious in the last few years,” she continued. “Instead of just saying no to wolves, maybe let’s say this: what if the wolf was in your backyard and what would that look like? Maybe use a video to do that.”

Stull is still brainstorming how strategic messaging might look when it comes to opposing initiative 16.

“Do we use something different than ‘Vote No?’ Do we use music? Do we use videos? Do we make a cartoon? Are there other ways to get the message across that will standout from everything else?” she wondered.

“So much of what we put out there gets people angry before we even get a chance to present our viewpoint,” she adds. “Instead of typical political advertising, maybe we can come up with something more creative and easier to swallow.”

Stull grew up on a ranch and recalls that her dad knew every cow. “There’s so much out there now about the abuse of animals, so we have to tell the other side of the story,” she said. “How agriculture provides for open space, and the conservation piece, and the way ranchers work with the cattle day in and day out. There’s a story to be told in that.”

There’s also a new precedent for a proactive, positive approach. When word got out that Governor Jared Polis had signed a proclamation declaring March 20 “Meat Out Day,” the agriculture community turned that message inside out by celebrating the industry’s contribution and heritage instead.

“That might have been the best thing the governor ever did for rural Colorado,” Shull said.

At least 10 out of the 15 counties she represents held some type of community-wide barbecue, fair or festival.

“It showed what rural communities are all about. It was getting together, it was telling the story,” she observes. “There was a lot of creative thinking, and I don’t think the governor expected that. Agriculture got so much creative promotion out of that.”

Stull is now thinking ahead to the group’s annual meeting in the fall and wondering if she could incorporate a play, perhaps getting a local high school involved with writing and presenting it.

Creative thinking, and drawing inspiration from the arts, could help rural communities and agriculture in general navigate what feel like inordinately challenging times.

“I truly think we’ll be able to overcome these issues we’re dealing with, it’s just that it’s all coming at us at once, along with COVID and high unemployment and a whole lot of other things,” she said.