On June 18, 2021, eight of us at Rural Arizona Action participated in the Freedom Ride, launched in coalition with UNITE HERE Local 11 and Case Action AZ to travel for the next 10 days by bus ride from Phoenix, AZ to Washington D.C. The purpose of this bus ride was to follow the path of past Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement to learn about the history of Black grassroots organizing and to rally for the passage of S.1 The For the People Act. At Rural Arizona Action, I work as a research assistant and provide information on issue areas such as voting rights, broadband equity, and environmental justice.


Our first travel day was our longest, from Phoenix, AZ to Santa Rosa, NM. I have been fortunate enough to have traveled through northern Arizona multiple times in my life. When passing through this land, I always seem to revisit the same emotional wonder that I experienced as a child, to witness a landscape that changes so drastically in such a short amount of time. And it is the type of wonder that lasts into the night, even when the landscape is no longer visible. I have one vivid childhood memory of being nearly delirious out of exhaustion after a long car ride and looking out the window to see the sky so full of stars that it finally made sense to me why we have the word stardust. Revisiting this land was a gift.

Taken on June 19, 2021 of Team RAZA in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.


June was a particularly busy month for Rural Arizona Action, with the Arizona Legislature session ending and several of our roles shifting to new priorities. We had an organization-wide retreat directly before the Freedom Ride, focused on personal leadership growth and team relationship building. I mention all of this because these weeks were so fast that it felt like I did not have time to feel anything other than overwhelmed. Because of this, I wanted to be as intentional as I could during the Freedom Ride, to really ground myself in every location that we traveled through. I was determined to find something to take with me back to the work we do in Pinal County because I knew that I would likely not have the opportunity to travel back to these places for a long time. Each day, I had maybe 3-8 hours of each place that we stopped in to grasp onto the things that I wanted to take with me. I took written notes, mainly describing the environments we were passing through first before attaching the historical context to each destination. I think of Santa Rosa, NM and see sage green and rust. Memphis, TN with soft green grasses and neon lights. Tulsa, OK with cool nighttime air & the boom of fireworks. Little Rock, AR with stifling humidity & lush land. Georgia & Alabama with pools of deep blue and green. The Carolinas with massive clear lakes that mirrored the sky. And D.C. with city rats and cobwebs on marble buildings! So honestly, I got the least back from D.C. which maybe makes sense because it feels like a stagnant space, where so much energy goes that cannot coalesce into transformational change. (Not that rats runnin’ around or like a spider making a web isn’t transformational! I need to check myself.) I don’t know why I got this impression from just D.C. because maybe feeling stagnant is prevalent everywhere. What I do know though is that after over a year of the pandemic, it was of the highest honor and privilege that I was able to collect these memories and contexts in this span of ten days.


In the very northeastern part of Arizona, passing through Navajo and Apache counties, I felt the same emotional wonder from my childhood, but was met with a context that I had never previously experienced. I was passing through one of the most rural areas in Arizona, that had experienced some of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country, and is one of the most disconnected places to live in terms of high-speed internet. It is not a coincidence that these areas, largely populated by the Navajo Nation, have historically been underfunded and excluded from participating in democracy and continue to be the most disconnected in the nation.


Based on U.S. Census data, Arizona counties that are lacking the most in access to broadband, or high-speed internet, are also the most rural counties in the state and have the lowest per capita incomes. Only 23% of Apache county and 59.3% of Navajo county have broadband that meets the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) minimum standards. This is based on data that internet service providers report to the FCC and does not guarantee quality of speed or connectivity. For context, Maricopa county is the most densely populated with 99.3% of the population meeting the FCC minimum standards and has the highest per capita income. Because the internet is regulated more as a private service than a public good, internet service providers have less of an incentive to deploy infrastructure in rural areas. Broadband should be viewed as essential infrastructure. Much like any other public good or service, it attracts people to live and stay within their community which builds social resilience.

Over the past year and a half, the disparities between rural and urban areas in having internet access could not have been more prevalent than in the face of a public health crisis. Broadband is similar to healthcare in the United States because it is not a universal service and is beholden to corporate interests. Telecommunications companies determine the price of broadband and avoid rural areas, due to the high costs of deployment and the risk of no return of profit. Rural areas already suffer from a lack of sufficient health care services. During the pandemic, lack of broadband has exacerbated this crisis as telehealth services have become essential and as the internet has been necessary when registering for COVID-19 tests or vaccinations. Similar to broadband, 20.2% of nonmetro populations in the US lack health insurance compared to 10.5% in metro areas. Because rural populations tend to be older, have less per capita income, and have access to less investment in other public services and infrastructure, a lack of broadband infrastructure further increases the vulnerability of these communities. Like healthcare insurance costs, the United States has the highest monthly costs for internet service compared to other similar economies in Europe, the rest of North America, and Asia. Households with a lower per capita income cannot afford broadband services if the costs of these services are a significant proportion of their income. With these disparities and the added vulnerability of the pandemic, prioritizing the use of public funds for broadband access, both proactively and retroactively, is essential.


So how does S.1 fit into this regional story? Why does internet access matter for rural voting rights? Historically, from the county to the federal level, people in power have used voter suppression tactics to negatively impact the rate of voter turnout and registration in Native communities. Federally, despite the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, the Nationality Act in 1940, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the outlawing of voting literacy tests in the 1970’s, the native vote has been continually suppressed through the use of poll taxes, voter identification laws, voter registration restrictions, and blatant voter discrimination and intimidation. One of the more recent attempts at voter suppression is SB1485, which was signed into law by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey earlier this year, that has the potential to remove tens of thousands of voters from our state’s early voting list. This disproportionately affects rural and native voters who rely on voting by mail and who typically have less access to polling places on election day. S.1 would eliminate several voting barriers that contribute to voter suppression by automatically registering eligible people to vote, expanding opportunities for early voting, and securing universal vote by mail. All of these processes are streamlined when people have sufficient access to information and communication that can only be retrieved by the internet. Digital rights are human rights. And being able to exercise these digital rights is fundamental for fighting voter suppression, advocating for the resilience of our rural communities, and dismantling white supremacy.

One of the biggest takeaways I had from traveling through New Mexico was the value in looking for what lies under the surface. It was surreal knowing that this region had experienced so much loss in the past year and that someone could easily pass through this land without knowing any extent of the suffering that has been occurring. To me, New Mexico has always felt like a sacred place, a place to stop, reflect, and rest. It is the Southwestern state that gets to be shaded, in valleys full of cool air and hidden underneath soft shadows of rain. It is the first stop in the journey east where you get to feel relief, relief that the heat of the lower desert is no longer following you. Passing through here felt like a reprieve and in that feeling, I did not want to miss what I could take with me that could transform into something else someplace else. I wanted it to be something to remind me of the suffering of this land and that we have so much to fight for, not only for voting rights and broadband equity, but for pure survival. This region has had some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, in large part due to the network of public health officials and community leaders who have advocated for and required parts of Navajo Nation to get vaccinated. I bring this to light out of the utmost respect for people who always have to carry the past, the present, and the future in their psyche. There are no words to describe the generational trauma and chronic injustices that they have experienced. And that in the face of all of these circumstances, their resilience appears to be regenerative.


It is difficult in these moments to know when what we are learning will have the most impact. I have been working in this organizing space for about a year now and I think one of the biggest challenges I have is that too often I think of our actions as meeting one resting spot. That at some point, the energy behind the action ends. For sure, there is this underlying worry that what I do won’t be enough. Or that because I lack experience in this space, I will put energy behind the wrong actions and that the energy will not coalesce into anything. Or the even bigger fear that even if I put energy into the “correct” actions, that it still will not coalesce into anything that I can see. As the pandemic starts to feel more chronic than situational, grasping onto what our future could look like is difficult. And at times, entering into a space where I can dream feels impossible. When I get into this headspace, I try to ask myself, what am I certain about? In this moment, I know I am proof that energy was put in to make the path for me by someone else in someplace else. And that the energy put into this path came from both the distant past and right next to me in the very moment that I write this. So because of this, I know I will be okay to not know where or when or who this energy will fall on. And I know that it doesn't ever really end. It is synergetic and pure. It will always be here.


New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment. Years from now, memories will come from the Freedom Ride and road trips from my childhood. I will close my eyes and see starlight. The sound of rain will bring me comfort. Laughter from my fellow travelers will follow me. And I know it will enchant me, hundreds of miles away and decades past.

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Updated: Sep 22

When we left Phoenix for Washington D.C., not far from our launch site, the Sky Harbor Airport hit two daily records of the warmest low and highest temperature for June 18th. It was 117°F outside when UNITE HERE Local 11 & Case Action AZ launched our coalition of Phoenix Freedom Riders to travel for the next 10 days by bus ride to Washington D.C. Rural Arizona Action was just coming off of a 3-day long, organization-wide retreat focused on team relationship building, leadership skills, and personal growth. To me, everything seemed embarrassing about going on a trip for 10 days with my coworkers because I had just cried my eyes out in front of all of them. I felt maxed out on personal growth and was down to never think about anything that I had shared while being that emotional. What happens at a RAZA retreat, stays at a RAZA retreat. So in a sense, it seemed fitting to have extreme heat peaking at the same time as all of us emerging out of a shared space, where we had been that vulnerable with each other. Because the heat was so immediate and physically encompassing, it was difficult to feel my apprehension and my genuine excitement for what was to come. It seemed inconceivable in that moment and in that atmosphere to imagine what the next 10 days would look like, especially after undergoing so much change with my coworkers. In retrospect, that moment was just one tiny peak, one glimpse, of what was to come. I was not aware of how different the fight for voting rights would feel by the time we’d land back again at the Sky Harbor Airport.


Rural Arizona Action is based in the city of Coolidge in Pinal County. It’s located about five minutes away from the Casa Grande Ruins, a brown structure made of caliche soil that sits underneath a metal awning. Constructed by ancestral people in the Sonoran Desert, it is known as the United States’ first archaeological preserve. As I pass by it on my way to work, it always strikes me as silly that I am about to go to an air-conditioned space, to type emails and have check-in meetings, when a 700-year old structure sits not far from me, baking in the sun, and has had thousands upon thousands of passersby within its existence.


At RAZA, I work as a research assistant. During the spring, I helped with research on bills in the Arizona Legislature & with data for various canvassing campaigns. Back in May, before I knew about the Freedom Ride and before our organization launched our S.1 Campaign, I did not really know much about the For the People Act and my role felt uncertain with the Arizona Legislature winding down. Working in a job that is so directly tied to my personal & political values is hard and the risk of burnout is high. Much like the extreme heat I’d feel later on in June, the environment matched my outlook. The only vibrant green naturally growing in Pinal County came from the small patches of grass dotted along the sides of farmland. Vibrant green that grows by chance of a breeze catching drops of water that are invaluable, but only designated to fall on agriculture. When we left for D.C., the ground was cracked, the Gila River appeared to have no water in it to flow, and the hills in the northwestern part of our county appeared to be locked in lack of color.


In 2020, Arizona had its second hottest & driest summer on record, with Pinal County experiencing its highest combined number of heat-related and heat-caused deaths in the last decade. Back in May, the National Drought Mitigation Center classified the majority of Pinal County in the highest tier of drought intensity called ‘exceptional drought’. These conditions are a part of a regional drought across most of the Southwest. Urgency to act and prepare for both immediate and long-term water shortages has been ongoing for western states. Pinal County farmers are already planning and preparing for cuts in water supply that comes from the Colorado River and will be required to do so with the recent announcement of the Colorado River entering into its first ever Tier 1 shortage. Managing and mitigating extreme drought conditions caused by climate change will be one of the most challenging policy feats of our region. Committing to action now from the perspective of one individual can seem abstract and impossible when it is about a deeply complex, ecological and social issue. Therefore, this fight will require systemic and transformative change.

Source: Curtis Riganti, National Drought Mitigation Center, 2021 [Image displays a map of Arizona and different colors across the state to represent intensity of drought]


For issues that seem insurmountable to fix, like climate change or voter suppression, it can be difficult to know where to start. When I joined RAZA as an intern in late 2020, I did research on Pinal County relating to voting rights. As someone completely new to organizing and to local politics, I was taken aback by how much time, emotional energy, and physical energy was put into our canvassing campaign to get out the vote. I had no idea how massive of an undertaking that can be, especially for an organization that was also completely new to organizing on the ground. With the historic election of Arizona largely turning blue, that was not entirely the case in Pinal County. For the presidential election, Trump won by about 17 percentage points. Compared to surrounding counties, Pinal had the lowest voter turnout at 74.86%. This result is a part of the driving force behind our S.1 Campaign and the reason why we want to engage with our community about rural voting rights. While voting on election day can be the starting point, it should not be the endpoint of what we ask of each other & our community. Democracy is about relationships and about energy. It takes work to transform energy from one state to another. And that starts in the way that we interact with each other.


During the Freedom Ride, there are several memories that live in the back of my mind. After spending over a year either stuck inside my house and at our office in Coolidge, I was in so much awe of every location that we traveled through. I found the most solace and the most transformation in the in-between moments. The long hours of us traveling from one site to the next gave ample time to feel the weight of what I was experiencing. It is from a place of privilege when I say that I had space and time to process the sites that we went to and that my lived experiences allowed for that to happen.


A memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life is a moment of travel in Alabama, close to the Georgia state-line. The day before, we had visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL that commemorates all of the Black lives stolen by lynching in this country. In the exhibit, large pillars of copper metal stand and are suspended over the ground as you walk deeper into the center. Each pillar represents a county in the United States where a person was lynched and has the names of people lost, engraved on the center. Personalizing the names I read was what broke me. Sometimes, 5 or 6 people would be on the same pillar with the same last name and the same death date. I’d think, were they married? Were they siblings? Cousins? Best friends? How close were they? What did they laugh about? Who did they aspire to be before their lives were stolen? The deepest sadness came when I would see “UNKNOWN” engraved on the pillars, along with their death date. It was devastating to me that I had nothing to grasp onto who they were aside from that they were lynched, where they were lynched, and when it occurred. At the end of the display, there are steps that people can sit on to view the wall directly across that reads, “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are all honored here.” All of us arrived at those steps at different times and joined each other to sit in silence, cry, and stare at the wall in front of us.

When we were off to our next destination the next day, this time to Greensboro, North Carolina, I had a moment to process what I had experienced the previous day. It was such a comfort to me to see Alabama and Georgia so green. I had never in my life seen foliage that dense, that green, and that physically encompassing. It seemed to twist around any human-made structure visible, as if the earth was taking back what it had grown. I felt dumb thinking wow, this is what water in the atmosphere can do! Water works? It makes things grow? No way! Passing over bridges, there would be small pools of water underneath, swirling around land that looked like it was made out of gemstones. Rich emerald greens and mist mixing with trees to give off sapphire blues. The beauty and the vitality of the environment appeared to exist at ease, as if there could be no alternative other than to thrive. It was a moment of disbelief, in this question of how is it a reality that so much suffering occurred on this land by the hands of racist & violent oppressors when it is this vital of a place? I felt deep anger. How dare they take people away from this land that is so lush, so full of magic, that it seems impossible to suffer on? How could they bring so much hatred to this place? And how did the original Freedom Riders keep fighting within this landscape, with that reality? How did they do it? And I realized that, as it is with the land, it is acting as if there could be no alternative other than to thrive. Because we have to. It is inherent to who we are as human beings and as life that evolves & transforms on this planet. They did not have a choice, and neither do we. So in a sense, it is strange to me that I can think about Alabama & Georgia and feel this split in my mind of so much simultaneous grief and joy. The grief of the atrocities committed that can never be undone, of the Black people that can never be brought back to live their full and beautiful lives. And the joy. The joy that I get to be in this fight. That I love the people that I will fight for and fight with. And that there is no end to what we can accomplish together.

Taken on June 22, 2021, near the Alabama-Georgia state-line. [Image shows a stretch of highway in Alabama, with two houses. There is thick, dark green foliage and trees, along with power lines parallel to the road. The sky is overcast.]


As I am writing this, it is a little over two months since we arrived back in Arizona from Washington D.C. In this time, we have started canvassing in Pinal County and are about to launch in Coconino County for our S.1 Campaign. Since we’ve been back, we have had several days of persistent and heavy rain. Late summer monsoon rains that have made me question if we are in the right time and place after months and months without a single drop. I have never seen Pinal County so green. And it is green that surprises me, growing in places that I naively did not think could sustain life. The land in between sagebrush and cacti, the land far away from irrigated water, or the land distant from the Gila riverbed. Within the area protected by the Casa Grande Ruins, tiny yellow flowers are growing that almost give off an optical illusion, where at an angle, the ground looks completely yellow. I look around and think, how was I unaware of all that was dormant? While moderate drought still persists and only time can tell for how our region will benefit from the rain in the long term, our region is no longer in exceptional drought. It seems lame that a brief period of rain could make me feel so different, give me so much hope. But the green reminds me of Alabama and Georgia. And the stories and memories and the pain I witnessed. Seeing green makes me remember 2020, when I felt like I would never see rain again. So while the threat of drought is still here, the heat is back, and the fight to pass S.1 still exists, I look at this as a moment to cycle through. Work is being put in. Energy is being used with intention. The green has followed us home. And we are committed to our inherent nature to thrive.

Taken mid-August 2021 by our Pinal Regional Field Director, Devin, of our S.1 Team in Superior, AZ [Image shows three canvassers walking. There are green mountains and homes scattered in the distance.]

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