Touching base with the Rural Reconciliation Project

08 Aug 2023    

Roundtable participants at desks looking at schedules and writing.

Launched in 2021, the Rural Reconciliation Project is a research and engagement initiative hosted by the University of Nebraska College of Law. Led by co-creators and Nebraska Law professors Jessica Shoemaker and Anthony Schutz, the Project pursues an honest accounting of rural past and present, while looking toward a more vibrant rural future. The Project is supported in part by an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship awarded to Shoemaker from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Project fundamentally aims to create space for more truthful, critical assessments of what has transpired and is transpiring in rural America. Since its founding, it has been a catalyst for conversation in the rural and legal spheres.

"We started the Rural Reconciliation Project as a way to leverage our common concerns for rural people and places," Shoemaker said. "The Project has really become an active space of ongoing collaboration across academic disciplines, with scholars from different areas of expertise sharing important ideas and new thinking around some of rural America’s biggest challenges, from climate change to rural poverty to changing population dynamics."

Programming Recap

In the first year of the Rural Reconciliation Project, a virtual seminar series set out to facilitate more robust engagement around some of the difficult questions facing rural America, including rural access to justice and whether policymakers should engage with rural people and places in distinct ways.

Later that year, national experts convened for the Rural Infrastructure Series, where discussions focused on the structure and purpose of infrastructure investments. Conversations were organized around the themes of jobs, power, transportation, broadband, and water, and participants spoke about who benefits from rural infrastructure decisions and why.

"Our programs bring together scholars from different fields to talk about their work and how it relates to rural and give other scholars ideas about what they might draw from other disciplines," said Schutz.

This fall, the Project’s Law and Rurality Workshop returns for a third consecutive year. Past topics of discussion include the state of rural education, aboriginal title and private forest lands, and access to counsel in legal deserts. These workshops are co-led by Shoemaker, Schutz, and Professor Hannah Haksgaard at the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law.

Land and Water: Rural Resources, Rural Livelihoods

Much of this year’s programming has been centered around the theme of “Land and Water: Rural Resources, Rural Livelihoods.” This series asks the question: “Who really owns rural America?” It looks to address the ongoing pattern of essential rural resources being decoupled from rural livelihoods and analyze the changing ownership patterns of land and water.

In January, Nebraska Law hosted anthropologist Lucas Bessire for a discussion of his award-winning book, Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains, which offers a uniquely personal account of aquifer depletion and the complex layers of law, economics, culture, and history that have shaped the current environmental crisis.

In April, Schutz and Shoemaker were joined by Neil Hamilton, Emeritus Professor of Law and former director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, for a panel titled “Agriculture, Food, Land and Water in the Great Plains.” Part of the larger Plant to Table conference hosted by the Center for Great Plains studies, the panel discussed how the law has shaped land and water use for agriculture on the Great Plains. 

Most recently in the Land and Water series, Shoemaker hosted a workshop and roundtable on issues of land and water concentration, commodification, and financialization. In addition to hosting, she also presented her current project, “Re-Placing Property.” Schutz also participated, discussing his work on South Platte River controversies.

"The workshops we do feature scholars from not only different disciplines, but from different countries. There were varying levels of seniority and experience and of course methodologies," added Shoemaker. "It was a great opportunity to have rich conversations with people who think about rural places in different but related ways."

The Rural Review

In conjunction with these programs, the Rural Reconciliation Project’s Rural Review serves as a hub for rural research from across academic disciplines. The Review is an online journal that regularly publishes short summaries of this work, distributing periodic roundups of rural news and events, as well as blog-style scholarly commentary.

Review topics have ranged from discussions of rural political alienation to intimate views of problem-solving encounters in some rural courts. Other digests explore everything from the evolution of federal land titles to the development of Utah water infrastructure. Recent posts also discuss water security in the Colonias and rural journalism rescue.

As the Project continues to explore the complex issues facing rural America and possible ways forward, so will it continue the search for rural identity and a greater understanding of rural communities. To keep up with the Project and receive updates about news and events, subscribe to the newsletter.