A summer of stories, lessons and the power of listening

Sara Schonhardt

In my first week in Rappahannock I wrote a blog to introduce myself and explain what I, as a journalist, hoped to accomplish during my brief fellowship. I wasn’t sure what audience I was writing for, but I wanted to share my intentions and a bit of background.

What brought me here, I wrote, was appreciation of an effort to cover the issues that matter to people. And I valued the mission of the Foothills Forum to inform and engage with readers through stories in the Rappahannock News.

I spent the next 10 weeks doing what I said I would: Going out and talking to people. And with each new story I learned something about Rappahannock and the people who chose to make it home.

I learned that residents share a lot of the same challenges, concerns and love for this county. I learned a lot of judgments stem from not talking to one another. And I learned that people say they know the problems but don’t always know the people struggling with them.

Some things I thought I knew were driven home: that class differences matter more than we think they do, that divisions aren’t ever as simple as red versus blue, that showing up and just listening can be hugely impactful.

Many people I met struggle to live in Rappahannock due to the lack of adequate work and high living costs. So they pick up multiple jobs or commute long hours. Yet when I talked with them what I heard more than anything was a desire for other people to understand what they were going through.

Rappahannock is complex, a mixture of families that have farmed this land for generations and newer ones with no farming background. Rich and poor, young and old, struggling and comfortable.

Those characteristics don’t make Rappahannock unique. Counties across the country are changing, some in much greater ways.

But Rappahannock does have its own mix of people and personalities, and it takes being here to understand those complexities. Sharing the stories of the people who comprise this county, I believe, is a way to confront the challenges, the divisions, the misunderstandings. Perhaps it’s also a way for people who appear to come from very different backgrounds to realize they have a few things in common.

Not everyone wants to share their stories, of course. Doing so requires trust and it’s hard to trust a stranger — harder still, apparently, when that stranger is a reporter.

Several people bristled when I told them I was writing stories that would appear in the newspaper. Some would talk to me, but never “on the record.” One man I finally got to open up said he avoids conversations with seemingly wealthier or close-minded residents because he doesn’t like being judged or looked down upon.

When people did talk, I was always grateful for their openness.

Local news remains essential in part because people want to know what’s happening in their communities. But small news organizations like the Rappahannock News are constantly seeking new ways to answer core questions like how can our reporting better connect with citizens? How can we provide solutions? What can we do to show that we’re listening and take what we’re hearing into account in our coverage?

I come away from my fellowship with a better idea of the pieces that comprise Rappahannock, but also lingering questions about what role media plays in the county and what the role of Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News should be. Is it merely to inform and educate? Should it take more of a part in mitigating conflict? I do believe proposing solutions to problems is important. But if our stories inform the community about an issue and people still don’t do anything, do we just shrug and walk away?

On one of my last days in Rappahannock, I met Patrick Stark on my way back from a hike near Hazel River. He commutes for work but has lived for years in a modest house off a gravel road in the country. He invited me onto his porch to escape a sudden downpour, and though we’d never met we started talking, first about small things and then about our families and where we came from.

I learned a lot about him that day, and I was pleased to see him weeks later at a public discussion Foothills Forum was hosting to get feedback on its latest series on economic transition.

Patrick wasn’t the type to attend such events. He had his opinions about the paper and didn’t really understand what Foothills Forum was trying to accomplish. But he stood and shared his thoughts anyway. He said that Rappahannock was just too expensive for many people living here, that residents worried about groups like Foothills coming in and changing things because they didn’t know its intentions. Rather than talk about the problems, “tell us the solutions,” he said.

It took courage for Patrick to come to the forum, and I think he provided an important perspective. But I also think it takes those difficult conversations to bring about change that benefits a community.

I left Rappahannock more than a month ago for a job in Washington, D.C. When I meet people I tell them I’m from Ohio and some I tell about my time in Rappahannock. They usually ask if I’ve read “Hillbilly Elegy.”

And so I’ve come back a few times to Rappahannock because it’s not a place with just one story. It’s not just a place of come-heres and been-heres, or even, really, a place with people that embrace those labels. It’s a place that is dynamic and ever changing, a place with people who are fighting for its future in their own way and recognize the importance of that change. It’s a place of many stories, and I don’t feel I’ve heard enough of them.

Sara Schonhardt was the 2018 Foothills Forum fellow and reported for the Rappahannock News.

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 20 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.

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