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.