Grantees & Grantmaking | June 12, 2024

United Vision for Idaho Bridges Divides to Heal Democracy in Rural Communities

More than 1,000 people attended UVI's healthcare rally in Boise, ID, as part of RISE UP for Healthcare, a national effort to expand healthcare, particularly in vulnerable communities. Photo courtesy of UVI.

Using a new model for organizing, United Vision for Idaho (UVI) unites rural communities to build a healthy democracy.

Democracy is a word everyone throws around, but there really isn’t a consensus about what it means. At UVI we think of it as a verb—as a practice that requires ongoing engagement and participation,” says Adrienne Evans, executive director of UVI.

With a mission to uphold democracy, UVI aims to change the systems that have for too long silenced or suppressed the voices of Indigenous, Black, other communities of color, immigrant and refugee populations, and poor and working-class folks of all backgrounds.

Many in our region are being served badly by our country’s system of governance—a reality that is especially apparent in rural areas, which have been targeted by far-right interests exploiting unmet needs and fueling an “us versus them” outrage. That strategy polarizes working-class white communities in opposition to people of color and immigrants.

“To cast people as good or evil based on their community or point of view oversimplifies the reality: most people are much more complex than that. Recognizing and holding those complexities is the first step to forging real relationships based on shared core values.”

Adrienne Evans
Executive Director, UVI

UVI is an Idaho-based progressive social justice network that centers people in rural areas. It’s part of a broader national movement that aims to locate and lean into the shared interests that link these divided populations to achieve a truly democratic and just future.

Among its goals is strengthening the foundation of a healthy democracy to allow everyone—including those in rural communities—to have a voice and to thrive. To achieve that, UVI prioritizes listening, building trust and civility, and creating real relationships across differences—all of which together promote the possibility of shared decision-making.

The challenges are deep—and are reflected across the country.

“Right now we’re experiencing multiple crises—social, political, cultural, climate,” says Evans. “We’re on the verge of losing our democracy, and our fate is collectively bound.”

Disinvestment over the decades has erased many rural communities and created a void of resources and support for others. Anti-democracy extremists—e.g., hate groups who embrace exclusionary practices—have filled the void. They cultivate outrage by sowing distrust of democratic institutions and focusing blame on other communities who’ve been left out.

There is good reason for everyone to care about organizing in rural communities. State legislators—many of whom are elected by rural voters—echo the authoritarian influence of far-right perspectives. The result has been polarizing laws that are then enforced by an increasingly politicized judiciary.

But authentic connections—the core of UVI’s approach to organizing—are a form of healing and a way to foster accountability to rural communities no matter the identity or political orientation of the folks who live there.

UVI Bringing Communities Together event

During a UVI cookout, attendees addressed the deepening division in their communities and raised money for families separated at the border. The event coincided with 50 other cookouts in rural conservative parts of the country. Photo courtesy of UVI.

The approach is simple and crucial: real human connection.

“To cast people as good or evil based on their community or point of view oversimplifies the reality: most people are much more complex than that,” Evans reflects. “Recognizing and holding those complexities is the first step to forging real relationships based on shared core values.”

UVI’s approach is to find those common values and use them to build a democratic movement of a scale to heal our democracy. Toward that end, UVI practices a new model of organizing that’s built on authentic relationships—i.e., “relational organizing.” Its goal is to truly understand the concerns and struggles that inform beliefs.

Identifying shared views across real and perceived differences to unite communities—rural or urban—can redirect past and current pain into a collective power to build a movement.

As a filmmaker collaborating with UVI on a documentary, Building a Movement to Meet the Moment, Steph Cullen (Kānaka Maoli), founder of OMG Media Outlet, has had a firsthand view of UVI’s approach. “UVI is more than organizing. They get people of different political views to have real, authentic conversations, not just butt heads,” she says.

The pandemic prompted UVI to innovate new ways to use technology to reach people with the same authenticity as face-to-face, in-person conversations. It’s been using tech-based outreach in sophisticated and responsive ways to share its foundational practices: authentic relational conversations (ARC) and authentic relational organizing (ARO), approaches that depend on real human connection.

“The ARC and ARO training brings people together on a shared plane, and it creates a safe space,” Cullen observes. “That’s organizing.”

“UVI is doing the hard work of actually having conversations with people who are often ignored. . . . It’s going to take that deep work of building real community to help us change.”

Reverend Erica Williams
Tacoma-based spiritual leader, national social justice organizer, and international human rights advocate
Justice is at the core of democracy, but it requires everyone to get behind and push.

“UVI is doing the hard work of actually having conversations with people who are often ignored,” says Reverend Erica Williams, a Tacoma-based spiritual leader, national social justice organizer, and international human rights advocate who founded the Set It Off Movement. “That’s a key factor in this fight because we’re just so disconnected in this country. It’s going to take that deep work of building real community to help us change.”

UVI’s distinctive model of organizing finds ways to heal divides, combat extremism, and channel voice and resources to communities that have been denied them.

“Our democracy is in danger from a lot of different angles. But UVI intervenes by engaging in communication that cuts out the middleman of propaganda. Their approach actually has people talking to each other again—about where and how they live, and how they might move forward. That bodes well for our democracy,” says Laura Flanders, host of the weekly TV and radio show Laura Flanders & Friends.
UVI rural canvassing event

UVI’s launch of RiseUp, Idaho!, an outreach effort to rural communities in areas of escalating political extremism about their fears, struggles, and issues. The outreach resulted in the Idaho People’s Platform, a list of core motivators for families and communities that’s used to build consensus and take community action. Photo courtesy of UVI.

UVI’s Approach in Action

I was at the door of an ex-military gentleman who had Trump flags. I was saying, “So our country is pretty divided right now. What do you think about that?”

And he said, “Well, it’s those mail-in ballots. The election was stolen. How long do you think it’ll be before Trump is reinstated to undo what Biden has done?”

“Well, I gotta tell you,” I replied, “I don’t agree. I’m very concerned about many of the policies ushered by that administration. But let me ask you a question: Do you think people who have disabilities, the elderly, those in nursing homes, people who have jobs that may interfere (long-haul truckers, farmers), parents who don’t have childcare—people who may have trouble voting at a poll on election day—should be able to use mail-in ballots? So they can participate in the democratic process too?”

He agreed those people should be able to vote.

“That seems like a lot of people,” I pointed out. “Who gets to decide who those people are? You? Me? And if we have exemptions for so many people, how can we make sure everything goes smoothly without mail-in ballots? And if we’re doing that for that many people who may have trouble getting to the polls, is it possible that extending voting through mail as a possibility for everyone might actually ensure more accuracy in voting?”

He said he guessed he hadn’t thought about it that way. “Maybe we do need mail-in ballots.”

That’s organizing. It’s about inviting people to share their worries and experiences and then help them unpack and understand the divide between what they think is fair and right versus the views they say they hold.  Often those hardline views break down pretty quickly.

— Adrienne Evans, Executive Director, UVI

Organizing in Idaho, and then sharing what works with others.

It boils down to this: UVI connects the diverse tapestry of rural people in Idaho across cultural, social, and political differences. Its methods include deep listening, relationship building to humanize and personalize the implications of our politics, and creating authentic relationships and community around shared interests and values. Those efforts combine to promote the possibility of a civil society with the collective power to meet the challenges of the present and the promise of a just future.

UVI Rural Visit

Randy, a vendor in a small Idaho town, thanked UVI’s executive director Adrienne Evans for visiting him and discussing social justice issues that led to his decision to discontinue selling Confederate flags and instead focus solely on selling local food and antiques. Photo courtesy of UVI.

UVI shares its model of organizing with other groups across the nation, further advancing its successful efforts to support systems change and self-determination in pursuit of a healthy, just, and inclusive democracy.

The Foundation embraces continuous efforts to listen to and learn from our change-leading grantee partners. UVI’s work reminds us how we can support lasting and long-overdue justice for our priority communities—and, by extension, for all.