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“The unraveling of rural America is the great tragedy of our time.”

— Mikayla Bodey

There has never been a more important time to get to know each other in America, so we can find our common ground and bridge the gaps that are dividing us.

Being 340 miles south of Chicago, with no major cities, no major industry, rolling green hills and lush forests, affords us the great opportunity of maintaining a unique cultural and regional rural identity, one that has been part of Southern Illinois’ history for generations. The label of "Southern Illinois" is as much a cultural designation as it is a geographic one.

The relationships that shape and define life in the hills and hollers, and on the riverbanks of far rural Southern Illinois today, are representative of a population that is complex and diverse. While characterized by any number of political and social persuasions, Southern Illinoisans still retain a genuine gratitude for the traditional neighborliness of living in the country.

Besides those farming the land, there are horticulturists, artists, teachers, scientists, musicians, writers, small business owners, migrant families, and gay and lesbian couples with families.

There are retired seniors coming home, there are legacy families both black and white who have been here for generations, and there are back-to–the-landers — all representing any number of social and political positions and all of whom call Southern Illinois home.

Home is important. Home is where we rest in community. Home is where our neighbors live. Maya Angelou called home “the safe place where we can go as we are, and not be questioned.” And Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, said more than 2,000 years ago, ‘Home is where the heart is."

Presently, our home is suffering. We are affected by certain problems and we have been overlooked, underserved, and often misrepresented. We are part of the rural America of today, rich in diversity and common sense, but struggling in a kind of political and social vacuum. Our concerns mirror those of other rural environments and our help seems far away.

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If we speak up, join forces from within and find our common ground, we can absolutely contribute to the nation’s vitality. But we must be acknowledged and offered the help that underlies all successful communities, and then we will be able to make a difference. We are valuable. There is a special power in the ability to change things and make a difference while still retaining core principles and values.

Our strength is in our commonalities especially when facing difficulties.

It is in our love of the land and the undeniable beauty of the place we call home. And it is in our loyalty to our communities, families and neighbors.

Home is our strength, so we must share our stories of home wherever we can. Stories are important, they help us, and others, to see the common thread that binds, not divides.

Rural America is inexorably linked, historically and culturally, to what constitutes the American Experience. If we let rural America die, or be misrepresented, we will be losing not just an important part of our national identity, but the opportunity for growth as a country.

We need a forum of some kind; a way to tell our stories; to share them with each other. Where folks in Cairo can share their stories with folks in Pope County, or farmers in Union county can share stories with the people in small towns like Vienna, Dongola or Anna.

Stories are invaluable to society and to each other in our communities, they teach us about who we are, where we came from and what we value…they are exemplary on countless levels, as we strive to love, forgive and be better than we were yesterday. And in the larger sense, if we offer our Southern Illinois stories to the nation, we can help to demonstrate how rural communities contribute to the national character.

In each of our personal stories, no matter where we came from or how we got here, a meaning and a purpose can be found as to why life in rural and small town America is valuable.

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Sandra Pfeifer is a social issue documentary filmmaker and media artist who has lived in Pope County for 40 years.

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