Nonprofit Shares Three National Lessons about Rural Higher Education

Nonprofit Shares Three National Lessons about Rural Higher Education

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Across the country, rural educators are grappling with evolving workforce demands in fascinating ways.

In Florida: The Everglades are about to become a $300 million economic hub with the creation of the new Airglades International Airport … if the region can attract the 1,400 workers it needs.

In Indiana: A county whose limestone sheaths the Empire State Building and the National Cathedral is converting a prison education program into a broader adult workforce redevelopment initiative.

In New Mexico: An education collaborative founded to get Taos students better internet during the COVID-19 pandemic is working to create more career opportunities outside of just tourism for its diverse Latino and indigenous populations.

These are three of the five communities that CivicLab — a Columbus, Indiana-based education nonprofit — has been working with in an effort to increase educational capacity in rural areas.

The project began two years ago, with a $750,000 grant awarded by Ascendium Education Group.

Full disclosure: Ascendium sponsors my work here at Open Campus. I was not asked by Ascendium to report on CivicLab’s work, and you can read more about our editorial independence policy here.

The lessons from each of these communities are compelling, and we will explore some of them in future editions of Mile Markers.

However, after recently speaking with Dakota Pawlicki, director of Talent Hubs at CivicLab, it was clear that there are several national trends about rural higher ed worth spotlighting in today’s edition.

1. The role of unlikely champions

Pawlicki further expanded my understanding of the types of champions rural areas can lean on. For example, a local county judge was a key partner to getting justice-involved individuals into workforce retraining programs in rural Duval County, Texas, nearly two hours inland of Corpus Christi.

Regular readers of Mile Markers may not find this to be a huge surprise — : after all, we’ve spotlighted the ways surprising mentors can make a huge difference in rural spaces, from Kansas to California and Colorado.

“In a lot of urban and suburban areas, you have to refer to institutional organizational leadership to spur change,” Pawlicki says. But in rural communities, folks wear a lot of different hats, creating a different set of trust and reputational factors.

“One of the generalizable pieces of advice is to think of a broader set of stakeholders when going about doing this work,” Pawlicki says. “We are constantly finding unlikely champions.”

2. The notion of rural uniqueness

At a lot of national organizations, there is a persistent perception that rural colleges and communities are at a deficit, Pawlicki says. CivicLab tries to push against that with the way it approaches its community building and education efforts.

“We really focus on examining and asking what questions organizations are asking, because, oftentimes, we are asking the wrong one,” Pawlicki says. “So then it becomes about more interesting questions, like: ‘What do you have going for you, for your community?”

One example: CivicLab tries to push communities to find novel solutions within the programs that are already working in their communities, rather than starting some new initiative to reach their goals.

That attitude shines through with the work being done in Lawrence County, Indiana, where local employers were thrilled with a prison workforce retraining program … and started asking for more.

“The program was primarily for people who were currently in the justice system, or people who had recently exited. They would earn credentials tied to a job with high demand, and employers were saying “We need more of this,” Pawlicki says, before chuckling.

“Now, obviously we don’t want to send more people to jail just to get more people into this program. But what if we just opened up this existing program that’s already staffed, and start including people who aren’t in the justice system?”

That thinking led to expanding the program to other area adults who needed ongoing career education and training, a particularly valuable addition considering that there are no community colleges or four-year universities in the county.

3. How do rural communities get to define themselves?

Pawlicki used to work at the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, another funder of Open Campus. He notes that the grant requirements for national education philanthropies often come from a well-meaning place but end up forcing rural communities to define themselves not by what they have, but what they are lacking.

There are many institutional reasons why that is the case. It can be difficult to define rural, as I noted in our very first edition of Mile Markers, and that definitional challenge causes problems when trying to fund education innovation in rural areas.

“At the federal level, there are somewhere between 22 to 25 different rural definitions across agencies, and private philanthropy asks communities to prove they are rural,” Pawlicki says.

“We went about our request for proposals in a different way: We said, ‘Don’t worry about sharing all your demographic data with us. If it’s publicly available data, we’ll grab it ourselves. Instead, tell us about your place, and tell us about your people.”

That approach led CivicLab to notice a curious trend. CivicLab received 10 qualified proposals, generally from three different places: those that were “truly rural” by most metrics, those that were in a neighboring county and “rural-adjacent,” and, finally, those that were “rural-serving” but not rural themselves.

“We found that the further away you were from being truly rural-located, the more deficit-language you ended up using in your proposal,” Pawlicki notes, saying those submissions typically included more stats about poverty rates and unemployment rolls.

“Through the trends and data points were similar, proposals from truly rural places took less of a ‘here’s how poor we are’ approach, and more of a ‘here is our rich history: here are the people who came from our community.’”

For Pawlicki, that discovery made it even clearer to him that any definition of rural that does include primary data – that is, insight and information from the people within those communities – is insufficient.

It was also a reminder that rural communities aren’t often given the same opportunity to tout their special nature as urban and suburban communities might.

“As funding agencies and policymakers, we let cities do this all the time: They routinely boast their unique assets when competing for high-profile federal investments,” Pawlicki says. “We don’t allow rural America to do the same thing … or at the very least, we don’t give it the same weight.”

yellow wild flowers sit in the foreground of a mountain landscape
A view from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

More Rural Higher Ed News

The opportunity of rural community colleges. The Fifth Federal Reserve District — comprising a district that includes Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia and most of West Virginia — released a report analyzing the critical role of community colleges in rural communities, noting that universities and hospital systems typically receive more recognition as “anchor institutions.”

“To the extent that they play a role in ensuring opportunities and achieving efficient outcomes in rural areas, community colleges may represent an undervalued opportunity,” the report concluded.

Wyoming starts student-centered learning efforts. The Cowboy State started its push for instruction and assessments that better align with students’ needs at a kick-off event in Casper, Wyo. that included a keynote from Governor Mark Gordon.

Montana launches statewide micro-credential program. 12 Montana colleges and universities are collaborating with the Education Design Lab, local employers, and other stakeholders to create 12-20 short-term credentialing programs that lead to an associate degree or immediate employment in economically critical fields.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.

The post Nonprofit Shares Three National Lessons about Rural Higher Education appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Poor regulatory safeguards leave farmworkers suffocating in the face of increasing heat waves

This story is part of the series A Changing Basin from the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. Take a quick survey and let us know how extreme weather is affecting you.

Juan Peña, 29, has worked in the fields since childhood, often exposing his body to extreme heat like the wave hitting the Midwest this week.

The heat can cause such deep pain in his whole body that he just wants to lie down, he said, as his body tells him he can’t take another day on the job. On those days, his only motivation to get out of bed is to earn dollars to send to his 10-month-old baby in Mexico.

Farmworkers, such as Peña and the crew he leads in Iowa, are unprotected against heat-related illnesses. They are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the absence of a federal heat regulation that guarantees their safety and life – when scientists have warned that global warming will continue – increases that risk.

Over a six-year period, 121 workers lost their lives due to exposure to severe environmental heat. One-fifth of these fatalities were individuals employed in the agricultural sector, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data.

One such case involved a Nebraska farmworker who suffered heat stroke alone and died on a farm in the early summer of 2018. A search party found his body the next day.

In early July 2020, a worker detasseling corn in Indiana experienced dizziness after working for about five hours. His coworkers provided him shade and fluids before they resumed work. The farmworker was found lying on the floor of the company bus about 10 minutes later. He was pronounced dead at the hospital due to cardiac arrest.

“As a physician, I believe that these deaths are almost completely preventable,” said Bill Kinsey, a physician and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Until we determine as a society the importance of a human right for people to work in healthy situations, we are going to see continued illness and death in this population.”

Juan Peña (left) with other farmworkers take a quick break in a field in southeastern Iowa. While this summer has not been especially hot in Iowa, the crew leader (standing) said, he’s noticed over the years summers have gotten hotter.Photo taken on Wednesday, July 20, 2023. photo by Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest

Peña harvests fields in Texas and Iowa. This summer, he’s overseen five Mexican seasonal workers picking vegetables and fruits in Louisa County, Iowa. With its high humidity and heat, Iowa’s climate causes the boys, as he affectionately refers to them, to end their day completely wet, as if they had taken “a shower with their clothes on,” he said. They work up to 60 or 70 hours a week to meet their contractual obligations.

“I’m lucky because my bosses are considerate (when it’s hot),” he said in Spanish, recalling that he managed to endure temperatures as high as 105 degrees in Texas. “I’ve had bosses who, if they see you resting for a few minutes under a tree to recover yourself, think you’re wasting your time and send you home without pay.”

Some of his friends have been less fortunate, and a few minutes of rest have been cause for dismissal, he said.

When extreme heat is combined with high humidity, the health risks multiply. Summertime humid heat has increased three times more than air temperatures across the U.S. since 1950. On average it has increased between 6 and 7 percent throughout much of the Mississippi River basin. Credit: Climate Central

The fatalities scratch the surface of what is a more extensive issue, according to health experts, academics and advocacy groups, who say the data on heat illnesses and death is inadequate.

“There is a massive undercount,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers.

She said it is common for the death of a person who died after a heat stroke to be classified as caused by a heart attack on an autopsy.

Strater said it’s difficult to quantify issues that face farmworkers because those that are undocumented tend to shy away from authorities and, in general, the population moves around a lot and lives in secluded areas. “Everything to do with farmworkers is particularly difficult because we don’t know,” she said.

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. More than one-third are undocumented.

A possible federal standard

Although employers are generally responsible for ensuring a safe working environment that protects their employees’ well-being and lives, no federal regulation stipulates a specific temperature threshold that mandates protective measures.

Nearly four in 10 farmworkers are unwilling to file a complaint against their employer for noncompliance in the workplace, mostly out of fear of retaliation or losing their job, according to survey data of California farmworkers conducted by researchers at the University of California Merced Community and Labor Center.

Only four states have adopted outdoor workplace heat-stress standards, and none of them are in the Midwest. California was the first to implement such standards, followed by Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.

This leaves the protection of agricultural workers from heat stress at the discretion of their employers in most states.

OSHA has been working on a heat-stress rule since 2021 that will require employers to provide adequate water and rest breaks for outdoor workers, as well as medical services and training to treat the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. However, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, this process can take from 15 months to 19 years.

OSHA officials would not comment on the pending federal heat standard.

A farmworker walks past boxes of donated supplies from the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund at an apple orchard just outside of Waverly, Missouri. The organization gives out donated school supplies, food, eyedrops, insulated bags for cold water, baseball caps and thin long sleeve shirts for the heat. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

Last year, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Stress Injury, Illness, and Death Prevention Act, which would force OSHA to issue a heat standard much faster than the normal process, failed to get the votes on the floor.

The bill was named in honor of Asuncion Valdivia, who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours nonstop in 105-degree heat. Valdivia collapsed unconscious and, instead of calling an ambulance, his employer told his son to take his father home. On the way home, he died of heat stroke at 53.

A group of Democratic lawmakers reintroduced the bill last month.

“There is definitely a political decision to be made by members of Congress, in both the House and the Senate, because they have the power to pass legislation to tell OSHA to issue a standard more quickly,” said Mayra Reiter, project director of occupational safety and health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

Reiter added that the legislation would also help shield that standard from future legal challenges in court.

As in several recent years, the summer of 2023 has broken records for heat.

Made with Flourish

In response, President Joe Biden announced new measures to protect workers — including a hazard alert notifying employers and employees of ways to stay safe from extreme heat — as well as steps to improve weather forecasting and make drinking water more accessible.

But farmworker advocacy groups are calling on the administration to speed up OSHA’s issuance of a rule protecting workers. They are also pushing for the 2023 farm bill to include farmworker heat protections.

“Farmer organizations and many other worker advocacy groups are hoping that there’ll be a federal regulation,” Reiter said, “because, going state by state, we have seen that there isn’t that urgency to develop these rules.”

Long way to a new rule

Creating a new rule to protect workers from heat must overcome several hurdles, from bureaucratic procedures to lobbying industries, including the agricultural industry.

“OSHA is uniquely slow,” said Jordan Barab, who served as OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary of labor during the Obama administration.

He said the 1970 act that created OSHA imposes many requirements on the rulemaking process. The agency has to determine the current problem and whether the new standard will reduce risk. OSHA must also ensure that the new standard is economically, technically and technologically feasible in all industries.

Workers sign up to get help setting up healthcare appointments from the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund at an apple orchard just outside of Waverly, Missouri. The organization gives out donated school supplies, food, eyedrops, insulated bags for cold water, baseball caps and thin long sleeve shirts for the heat. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

The road to regulations to protect workers from the heat also has to overcome industry lobbying, including big agricultural and construction groups. One group that has expressed hesitancy to new federal rules is the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has spent on average about $2.3 million on lobbying over the past two years, according to OpenSecrets.

“Considering the variances in agricultural work and climate, (the Farm Bureau) questions whether the department can develop additional heat illness regulations without imposing new, onerous burdens on farmers and ranchers that will lead to economic losses,” Sam Kieffer, vice president of public policy at American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement.

Vulnerable populations

To make a living, Jaime Salinas fills 32 sacks of apples each day in Missouri. His daily quota is one ton, or about 3,200 apples. His wife used to walk 11 miles a day to harvest fruits and vegetables when she worked in the field.

He said when he gets too hot, he sits in the shade to drink water but feels pressured to keep working due to the method of payment, which depends on the amount harvested.

Strater, with Farmworker Justice, believes that the way farmworkers are paid is one of the main obstacles that must be overcome to ensure their safety because it often incentivizes volume, forcing them to expose themselves to continued work without regard to the signs of heat-related illness.

Kinsey, the University of Wisconsin professor and the director of a mobile clinic, said the demographic has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.

“Climate stress,” he said, “has introduced an additional layer of complexity to these existing challenges.”

Nicolas Romero Dominguez works at an apple orchard near Waverly, Missouri. He says the heat on days like this make him feel weak while he’s climbing the ladder. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

Seasonal visa workers are especially vulnerable because they depend completely on whoever hires them: from the house they live in to the food they eat.

“You’re going to endure as much as you can with the hopes of continuing to provide for your family,” Strater said. “The thing is the endpoint for that is death.”

In Tama County, Iowa, David Hinegardner owns a small farm called Hinegardner’s Orchard, where he grows apples, strawberries, corn and soybeans. He sells his crop to supermarkets, farmers’ markets, schools, and colleges.

The farmworkers are immigrants from Latin America who reside in the surrounding area, and some of them have been working on his farm for decades. One of the measures he takes during the summer to avoid risks to his workers is to change the work schedules to avoid the hottest part of the day.

“I think they do a much better job when they’re treated with respect and taken good care of,” he said.

This story is a product of Harvest Public Media, Investigate Midwest and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk as part of the series A Changing Basin. News outlets can sign up to republish stories like this one for free

The post Poor regulatory safeguards leave farmworkers suffocating in the face of increasing heat waves appeared first on Investigate Midwest.