Dominic Fredianelli, with filmmaker Heather Courtney at right, speaks about his experience as a solder in Afghanistan and his coming home. Fredianelli and two friends from the same small town in Michigan's Upper Penninsula are the subjects of Courtney's new documentary film.

5:30pm, June 29

Where Soldiers Come From

When Dominic Fredianelli joined the Michigan National Guard out of high school, he did it for money and the promise of a free education. Little did he or his friends who joined with him know that they would be deployed to Afghanistan, get hit by roadside bombs, and face the challenges of integrating back into civilian lives.

In her new documentary Where Soldiers Come From, filmmaker and Fulbright Fellow Heather Courtney follows Fredianelli and his childhood friends for four years, from their home in northern Michigan to Afghanistan and back.

But this is not a war film. It is a narrative about rural America, Courtney said. “I’ve always felt that rural America is not portrayed very authentically in television or film. That was my main motivation. It started as a coming of age film and [one about] the place they’re from. At its heart it is a film about rural America.”

Much of the film focuses on the difficulties Dom and his friends faced when they returned home to their small town of Hancock, not the least of which is access to Veterans Affairs (VA) services. “Our big hospital is about two hours away,” said Fredianelli, who was present at this afternoon’s partial film screening. “Some people are still waiting for their compensation. If you don’t have a car, there’s only like one shuttle per week down to the big hospital.”

One of Fredianelli’s friends had his educational funding paperwork lost multiple times, which meant that he didn’t get the promised free education for a significant time after returning home.

Fredianelli said that the group of Michigan boys were lucky in one respect: “Since we were so tight knit, we were our own support group” after coming back from Afghanistan. “A lot of people didn’t have that,” he said.

Despite the fact that rural Americans have a much higher rate of service per capita when compared to the rest of the country, they are not given adequate benefits when they finish duty.

Courtney hopes to spread this message when her film airs on PBS this November.

Alex Bloedel


4:00 p.m., June 29
The “multiple pathways” of rural youth policy

Education has been a common theme at the Assembly, echoed in many of the speeches and group meetings; common, too, since in each of these sessions, education is seen as central to every single person interested in rural and national development.

This afternoon’s conference on rural youth policy was no exception. Conducted as a communal collaboration – everyone introduced themselves by name, place, and profession and participants were free to contribute to the panel discussion – this session proved the omnipresence of education in rural policy discourse.

The range of discussion was broad.

John White of the U.S. Dept. of Education championed education reform that emphasizes “multiple pathways to college and career.” He cited progressive career programs that “not only create jobs but reinvent entire communities,” echoing previous Assembly discussions focused on sustainability and forward vision.

Charlotte Golar Richie of YouthBuild USA illuminated the importance of her organization to diverse communities. YouthBuild focuses a third of its program on rural communities and is in demand; last year 18,000 youths were unable to benefit from the organization’s initiatives because of inadequate funding.

“If we are going to talk about jobs, talk about education – it’s hard to do that without talking about money,” Richie said.

But her ultimate message was one of empowerment. “I think what we do is we really bring our cause right to [policy makers],” she said. “We can’t just wring our hands, these are our communities, our tax dollars.” She previously served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Billy Altom, delivering with the same tenacity as last night’s performance, highlighted the importance of individual involvement even for those who don’t hold public office: “[The] one thing we have the power to do is vote. We can make a difference.”

Altom’s organization, the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL), aims to serve disabled persons by getting them out of institutions and living functionally in their own homes. It is now starting to help youth “transition into the world,” demonstrating the many pathways that can be taken to address youth policy.

Alex Bloedel


12:30 p.m., June 29

“Are They Less Significant?”

Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she expects her agency to issue new rules by the end of the year that could direct new funds toward broadband extension in rural communities.

The FCC has been discussing ways that funds collected for providing phone service in rural communities could be used instead for broadband. Clyburn said those rules should be finished by the end of the year.

The FCC’s intention, Clyburn said, is to close the gap between broadband availability in rural and urban communities. The FCC issued a report in recent weeks finding that 26 million people in the U.S. still don’t have broadband access; 73% of those people live in rural areas.

Access alone, however, isn’t enough. Clyburn said there was still an “adoption gap” that needed to be addressed. She said the FCC should address those reasons that “keep fellow citizens disconnected.”

(Those reasons are largely economic. Clyburn went through the numbers: Forty percent of those families with incomes under $20,000 a year have broadband; 91% of those families with incomes above $75,000 have broadband.)

The message Clyburn sent — one not heard enough — was that size doesn’t matter. Yes, most people have broadband connections. But not everyone.

“When I hear people I respect greatly say we don’t have a significant issue here,” Clyburn said. “I say, what about the six percent that don’t have those opportunities? What about those grandparents and parents and children? Are they less significant?”

Bill Bishop


Deesmealz’s Bill Bishop, Alex Bloedel and Shawn Poynter covered the three days of the National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, MN, a gathering of 300 rural advocates and national leaders June 28-30.

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