Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It – Chloe Maxmin & Canyon Woodard
Through two successful elections in rural red districts that surprised many, Chloe Maxmin (D-District 13) and campaign manager Canyon Woodard defied the odds. By understanding how rural Americans were being left behind, Chloe and Canyon learned how to empower overlooked communities. Politicians have focused for too long on the interests of elite leaders and big donors, forcing the party to abandon the concerns of rural America—jeopardizing climate justice, racial equity, economic justice, and more.
In the new book, Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It, Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward look at how we got here and lays out a road map for progressive campaigns in rural America to build inclusive, robust, grassroots politics that fights for equity and justice across our country.
Canyon Woodward was born, raised, and homeschooled in the Appalachian Mountains of rural North Carolina and the North Cascades of Washington. He was the campaign manager for Chloe Maxmin’s successful 2018 and 2020 campaigns. He earned an honors degree in social studies from Harvard College, where the bulk of his education took place outside of the classroom organizing to get Harvard to divest from fossil fuels. Canyon is also an avid trail runner and potter.
Chloe Maxmin, hailing from rural Maine, is the youngest woman ever to serve in the Maine State Senate. She was elected in 2020 after unseating a two-term Republican incumbent and (former) Senate Minority Leader. In 2018, she served in the Maine House of Representatives after becoming the first Democrat to win a rural conservative district.
Excerpted from Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It by Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward. Copyright 2022. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Raised in the beautiful backwoods of Southern Appalachia in a small town where political activity was mostly confined to local issues, I was largely a stranger to public protest. Attending Harvard on need-based financial aid, I certainly didn’t anticipate confronting the institution that made my continued education possible. Yet I could not in good conscience study climate change without confronting the fact that Harvard was investing its billions in companies driving climate catastrophe.
My understanding of the climate crisis began at the age of sixteen, after I lived for a short time with a family in Phyang, a small village in a deep green valley of northern India surrounded by the barren mountains of the Himalayan highland. Life in Phyang, and for the more than one billion people who inhabit the Himalayan river basins, is sustained by meltwater harnessed by the intricately designed irrigation systems that conserve this precious resource. As the glaciers melt and dry up due to global warming, the whole region will likely be forced to grapple with severe water insecurity. Much as day-to-day life in rural America is affected by decisions made in faraway Washington, DC, climate change is driven by industrial superpowers far removed from hamlets like Phyang. Still, the decisions of those with power affect the water supply of the Himalayas and much of the world.
I began to wrap my head around the injustice of human-caused climate change and reflected on what actions I could take personally. I took steps to reduce my own carbon footprint and water use. I organized 5K races in my town to raise money for clean water projects in developing countries. At Harvard, courses in environmental science and public policy furthered my understanding of climate change as a systemic crisis requiring systemic solutions. I came to understand that individual behavioral change—becoming vegetarian, recycling, efficient lightbulbs, and so on—would not be enough to prevent climate catastrophe. I joined protests on campus against the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and bused to Washington, DC, to surround the White House with thousands of others calling for President Obama to reject the pipeline.
I fell in love with organizing and soon joined Divest Harvard, a budding campaign on campus that Chloe had created with a handful of other students. As students before us had done in the face of Big Tobacco, apartheid in South Africa, and genocide in Darfur, we built a divestment campaign on campus to get Harvard to sell its fossil fuel stocks and reinvest in affected communities. The Harvard Corporation—the university’s governing body—is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere. Harvard and its culture epitomize the status quo. Activism was not popular on campus.
Despite this culture, our campaign grew quickly. We organized the first student vote on fossil fuel divestment in the world: 72 percent of students voted in favor, landing Divest Harvard on the front page of almost every major newspaper. Then 67 percent of Harvard Law School students voted for divestment. Over four thousand alumni and one thousand faculty were also on board. We sued Harvard University for failing to divest, organized an international fast, and launched a twenty-four-hour sit-in inside Massachusetts Hall, the location of the president’s office. We then organized “Harvard Heat Week” to shut down Massachusetts Hall for six days and six nights. So many people were trained for this action that, when administrators moved their operations to University Hall, we were able to shut down that building too. Dozens of famous alumni, including Desmond Tutu, Natalie Portman, Cornel West, and Al Gore, voiced their support. Divest Harvard has continued through the years. It even became a litmus test for 2020 presidential candidates on the left, garnering endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, and Tom Steyer.
It was while doing climate justice organizing that I met Chloe. A highkey visionary, she radiated contagious confidence and had an endearing habit of correcting people who called her a freshman—she was actually a freshwoman. We bonded one day in 2011 as we traveled across Boston to gather supplies for an anti–Keystone XL pipeline art installation. Growing up in small towns, Chloe and I had never ridden a public bus before. We knew that our stop was next, and we were ready to get off. But the bus kept going. We looked at each other, confused as heck. As it turns out, you need to press the button to alert the driver that you need to get off at the next stop. We had no idea. From there, we developed a deep and enduring friendship.
Our campaign at Harvard grew to over seventy thousand people, and the divestment movement exploded across the world. But, as time went on, we worried that divestment wasn’t enough. The purpose was to weaken the fossil fuel industry’s political influence by making it toxic for politicians to associate with them. In turn, the people could reclaim politicians’ attention to usher in climate policy. The problem was that, while the divestment movement created incredible grassroots momentum, we had no effective game plan to bring that energy to bear on electoral politics. We weren’t running candidates, supporting electoral campaigns, pushing legislation forward, or getting students out to vote. The path to electoral politics remained blocked.
At Harvard, Chloe and I puzzled over the climate movement’s lack of political power. But during visits home over breaks and holidays, we connected with the people in our rural communities whose struggles had been ignored by politics. We witnessed the degradation: rural hospitals bought out by private companies and services cut; slashed local budgets that forced schools to lay off teachers; Republicans refusing to expand Medicaid; small-town banks bought out by big financial institutions only to close branches and tighten credit; Main Street businesses that had defined our towns for decades forced to close, unable to compete with Amazon; small farmers struggling to compete with Big Agriculture; drug epidemics; lack of basic services, including high-speed internet and reliable cell phone reception. The examples are endless.
Even amid these systemic challenges, the rural America that Chloe and I grew up in is beautiful, resilient, and rooted in strong values. It called both of us home. Home, where we were raised to appreciate the benefits of living in community and looking out for one another in times of need. Home, where we learned the necessity of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Home, where we developed strong connections to the land and to each other. Home, where we gained faith in the basic goodness of our neighbors and learned to respect and listen to them, even when we didn’t agree.
At Harvard and at home, it became clear to us: the left needed to radically rethink how we build political power in rural America. Our rural communities needed a voice. The years of organizing at Harvard had given us the tools not only for analysis but also for action. The foundation for our life work in politics together began to take shape. We imagined working on campaigns at home that could empower overlooked rural communities to define a new political era. We bucked the tide of our peers heading off to big cities and work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, opting instead to return to our rural roots and invest in our home communities. Chloe returned to Maine, and I returned to the Carolinas.
I moved back to the rural South and brought my Divest Harvard organizing skills with me. I worked as a regional field director for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign in South Carolina, opening a campaign office and managing four full-time field organizers and three paid interns in the most rural corner of the state. Together, we built a high-performing team. While we didn’t win, our rural South Carolina region garnered a higher percentage of votes for Bernie than any of the other six regions in the state.
I learned an enormous amount about campaigning. I was lit on fire by the potential of the powerful marriage of movement politics and electoral politics that Bernie’s campaign cultivated. I also had my first glimpse of the toxic campaign culture that was nearly ubiquitous across the Democratic campaign world. We worked at a breakneck pace every single day of every week with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The only days I took off the entire campaign were a few days to visit Chloe when she was going through a hard time. My boss told me that it would be best for me to lie about where I was going and say that it was an immediate family member in crisis. I told her she could tell the state director what she wanted, but I wasn’t going to lie. If our campaign wasn’t able to make space for us to show up for one another as full human beings and practice community care, then how could it be expected to actualize the broader vision of collective humanity that we were fighting for?
After the campaign, I returned to North Carolina’s southern Appalachians to organize in my rural home district for the rest of the 2016 cycle as a field director for State Senate candidate Jane Hipps. Similar to my work on the Bernie campaign, we applied the organizing frameworks that I learned at Harvard to organize local Democratic Party bodies and progressive organizations. We mobilized over a hundred volunteers to contact over forty-five thousand rural voters. Our campaign could not overcome the Koch-funded incumbent in our very conservative district, but we built communities of volunteers at the county level and planted the seeds of hope for a political shift in the mountains.
Through these campaign experiences, I began to see firsthand how rural communities were being left behind by the Democratic Party. Democrats invested disproportionate resources on statewide races and urban turnout, often siphoning resources from rural races. Funding that was promised to our campaign in rural North Carolina by the state caucus in 2016 was shifted at the last minute to pay for TV spots in metropolitan markets. In another election, rural volunteers in the North Carolina Eleventh Congressional District were redirected from local efforts to make phone calls to boost urban turnout in Charlotte. This singular focus on metropolitan politics weakened the party in rural areas.
Following the 2016 election, I devoted months to reflecting on the campaigns and organizing locally in the North Carolina Democratic Party to pass platform resolutions and elect progressive Democratic leaders at the precinct, county, and district levels. I was elected as the second vice chair for my home congressional district and coordinated trainings and organizing resources for county leaders and volunteers. Investing in hometown Democratic politics felt meaningful and rewarding on many levels. Yet, with unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts still in place in the mountains heading into the 2018 election, I struggled with the question of where to focus my energy. Then came Chloe.
When Chloe told me that she was running for state representative in 2018, I thought it was a little absurd. She was a twenty-five-year-old progressive candidate in a staunchly conservative district that had voted Republican by an average of 16 percentage points over the preceding three elections. It is also the most rural county in Maine and the oldest (by age) in the country. I had a strong enough grasp on basic math to know that electing a Democrat in District 88 was improbable at best. Plus, neither of us had ever run our own campaign before. Yet I could tell that she had made up her mind, and I knew that there is no turning back once Chloe commits to something.
At the same moment, I had received an offer to manage a high-profile State Senate campaign in North Carolina with much higher odds of success—and get paid well to do so. I struggled with which path to take: the leap of faith in Chloe’s town of Nobleboro, Maine, or the more straightforward path in North Carolina. I agonized for days over the decision but finally decided to land in Nobleboro. I kept coming back to the immortal words of Maimonides so often quoted by our Harvard mentor, Marshall Ganz: “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable.” I told Chloe that I believed it was possible. By March, I had uprooted from the mountains of my North Carolina home and moved to Lincoln County, Maine, to build the campaign with her.