In 2015, 2016, and 2018, I was fortunate to receive journalism fellowships, allowing me the time and resources to explore the American West, its greatest challenges and prospects.
In 2018, I was a fellow with the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voices Journalism program. The fellowship supported my research on “persistent poverty counties” in the American West. This federal designation refers to counties where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for thirty consecutive years. The first of my stories can be read here.
To better understand the federal definition of persistent poverty, I traveled across New Mexico and California in early 2018, focusing on rural counties that have earned the designation, as well as those that haven't and why not. I compared populations and economies, and explored local histories and the nature of generational poverty.
My 2015 fellowship was with Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, and was based on U.S. Department of Agriculture figures demonstrating a noticeable increase in women farming and ranching in the U.S. Curious as to who these women really are, I found that very little had been written about them. With that in mind, I applied for the Bill Lane fellowship with the intent to seek out and chronicle this intriguing demographic.
Once awarded the fellowship, I spent a year meeting hundreds of women across the West – sheep ranchers in the Pacific Northwest and southern Colorado, cattlewomen (among them, Benedictine nuns in Colorado), New Mexico and Montana, vintners in California’s famed wine-growing regions, some of them veteran journeywomen, others enthusiastic and new to the field.
The Stanford fellowship was particularly welcome, as it not only allowed me to meet some most remarkable and capable women, but also to traverse and reacquaint myself with an American West that had become foreign to me. I am a native Californian, but have spent more than half of my adult life in Europe. When I returned to California in 2014, I took a job as the new staff writer writing about the West’s vast and varied territory for the nonprofit Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC). Founded four decades ago upon the principles that guided Cesar Chavez and his farmworker housing movement, RCAC has in intervening years taken on more causes such as clean water, affordable housing, and economic development.
The Stanford fellowship required that I publish my findings. A story reflecting my observations appeared in January 2016 in The Washington Post and can be read here. My story on the Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of St. Walburga was published in October 2015 in High Country News and syndicated in The Colorado Independent. In These Times, The Daily Yonder and Catholic Rural Life have featured my fellowship work in their publications. RCAC has also published an overview of the work which you can read here.
Meanwhile, I realized a common thread running through conversations with, in particular, the ranching women. Working in an oftentimes unpredictable and perilous profession, many commented on health care – and especially, how best to access it in remote areas. In trying to learn more about this, I found literature on the national decade-long trend of rural hospital closures. This reading led me to learn about the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism’s fellowship program for health journalism. I was selected as a 2016 fellow.
Like with the Stanford fellowship, the Annenberg fellowship required that I publish in-depth stories on my chosen topic: rural health care. The first of these published in early September 2016 in High Country News and focuses on hospital closures in California's Central Valley. The second, also in High Country News and exploring the use of telemedicine in rural areas, can be read here. And the third - on how cancer patients in rural areas obtain treatments that can be lengthy, frequent and heavy-handed – appeared in the Redding Record-Searchlight and can be read here. I also wrote a "Lessons from the Field" essay in which I explain the investigative reporting and how I carried it out and in May 2017, the Rural Western Development Center at the University of Utah published an overview of the research, which can be read here. Finally, in May 2018, I revisited the topic for Annenberg, exploring efforts to treat opioid addiction in rural northern California.