What We Do
The Rural Utah Project seeks to empower underrepresented voters in rural Utah through training, education, voter registration, and issue advocacy. We identify, invest, and ignite a dialogue with voters that live in Utah's rural areas, empowering them to take action and vote on the issues that matter most to Utah's future. We believe that when we organize overlooked communities in our state, that we will be able to inspire important conversations and create life-long citizen advocates for Utah's future.
When we register to vote, we take the first steps towards being counted, recognized, and heard. The Rural Utah Project seeks to bring voter registration opportunities to people where they are, and to remove the barriers between marginalized voices and the ballot.
We have to build tools that are uniquely designed to engage and mobilize rural communities. With limited access to broadband and a depth of local knowledge, the Rural Utah Project creates and employs tactics that allow our neighbors to organize themselves within rural communities for decades to come.
In every county and town in rural Utah, our friends and neighbors have been fighting to improve their communities. We see it as our work to support these local activists, and to build and support the infrastructure that allows them to engage in long-term campaigns for progress.
Politics doesn't stop at the voting booth. To lift up rural voices, we must engage in the many issues that matter most to their communities. This includes mitigating the impacts of industrial tourism, promoting land stewardship, increasing access to emergency services, affordable housing, and much more.
The Rural Utah Project was founded in late 2017 to shake up the status quo in Southern Utah, and to give underrepresented voters in our state a seat at the table. As a 501(c)(4) non-profit, we knew that we needed to take bold action to understand and advocate for the communities that for too long have been misrepresented in Utah’s most rural and remote areas. Our areas of focus include Indigenous Lands, Southern Utah’s recreation communities, growing rural towns, and the hard-to-reach places across Utah’s vulnerable landscapes. We respectfully recognize that all our work occurs on lands stolen by force from many different Indigenous nations and peoples. In these areas of opportunity, we are setting out to register voters, build tools, shift narratives, and change outcomes.
The Rural Utah Project’s work all began in San Juan County, Utah. With the redistricting of the county, in 2018 it became possible for the first time in history to elect an Indigenous-majority County Commission in the home county of Bears Ears National Monument. So, we got to work.
In 2018, the Rural Utah Project registered over 1,600 voters on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County. In concert with a robust non-partisan get out the vote program, this work resulted in historic turnout across the Navajo Nation. This election resulted in landmark election of Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, who now serve on the first ever majority-Navajo San Juan County commission. In addition to withdrawing the county’s support of the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument, this election showed us what could be accomplished when we invested in underrepresented areas of Utah.
Since 2018, our work in San Juan County has only deepened. For too long, the votes of Utah’s Indigenous population have been intentionally suppressed, and while registering voters our team witnessed many of the barriers first hand (see the Rural Addressing Program below). In 2019, a small group of residents in San Juan County sought to undo the progress made for Indigenous representation through a dangerous proposition that could change San Juan County’s form of government. The Rural Utah Project ran an ambitious voter turnout program, and the proposition was successfully defeated, indicating that the Indigenous and fair-minded population of San Juan County have the voting power to win a county-wide election.
Where the streets have no name, the people have no vote.
While registering thousands of voters on the Navajo Nation and in San Juan County, the Rural Utah Project discovered that up to 18% of Native American voters were registered in the wrong precinct – making it nearly impossible for these voters to cast their ballots for the correct candidate.
The main cause for this discrepancy is the lack of physical addresses on the Navajo Nation – making voter registration difficult but also limiting access to many basic emergency services that other Utahns take for granted. To ensure the voices of Indigenous voters in San Juan County are heard, the Rural Utah Project is partnering with Google to provide plus codes – a short location code just like an address – for every resident on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. In the course of this work, RUP has already registered over 1,350 San Juan County voters at plus codes, ensuring they’ll receive the correct ballot in future election cycles.
Our effort will mean Navajo voters will be placed in the correct precincts and that emergency services will be more accessible.
Following the historic election in San Juan County, we began to expand our work at the Rural Utah Project to other rural counties in our state. Leading up to 2020, we successfully built programs in the home counties of Moab, Escalante, Kanab, Torrey, Price and Helper, and many other towns across the region. Our areas of focus currently include Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Garfield, Wayne, and Kane Counties.
We’re in these areas for the long game. Local leaders in these counties have looked backwards and not to the future for too long, and statewide candidates and elected officials have ignored these places unless it was politically expedient. Our local organizers are working to change that. We believe in the power of local organizing, as well as supporting candidates for local office. It is our work to empower our neighbors and the advocates who call this region home. Campaigns are not won by staff who too often are deposited into the places where they organize, but instead by the people that live there. It takes structure, resilience, and a shared vision to create change. We will continue to work to support the many people who advocate for their communities, and to provide infrastructure to local campaigns and candidates.
In 2020, the Rural Utah Project is supporting a slate of local candidates for City Council, County Commission, and other local offices across the regions where we organize. It is our belief when good people run for local office, they’ve already changed the status quo. They increase transparency, create a dialogue, and build power. It’s our work to ensure they have the support and infrastructure necessary to run a robust campaign.
Across the country, Indigenous communities are standing up, raising their voices, and voting to bring forth long awaited changes to their communities. At the Rural Utah Project, we’re proud that Tara Benally, our Field Director who has been with us since the beginning, is leading our organizing program on the Navajo Nation.
After years of organizing and relationship building on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, Tara worked closely with stakeholders in Arizona to lead our voter registration program onto the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation. Despite challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arizona expansion team was able to register over 5,672 voters to get out a critical vote across the Navajo Nation using mail, radio, digital, and drive-through voter registration events. Our team helped demonstrate what voters on the Navajo Nation have always known: that Indigenous voices,votes, and perspectives matter.
Additionally, the Rural Arizona Project worked with a team of 12 digital organizers and 133 content creators to create over 383 pieces of unique media in a first-of-its-kind digital organizing program. This program generated nearly 2,000 leads for the field program and reached 2.2 million people. By investing in people over platforms, the program created content that built infrastructure, shifted narrative, and resonated deeply with our intended audience. You can read the full report about the program here.
Working in remote areas means that we’ve had to build our own toolbox when it comes to our work in the field. Without access to reliable internet and without addresses, our work has demanded unique solutions to address the barriers that rural communities face. From plus code addresses to voter registration tools, we’re in the business of creative technology.
It goes deeper than Utah. For too long, the tools that we use to reach voters have excluded people that live in rural areas. The way that we identify and reach voters is designed primarily for residents that live in major cities, not small towns. When it comes time to organize, this leaves huge gaps in how we register and turn out voters. Instead, our organizers wanted to capitalize on small-town knowledge and networks to create a turnout model that mobilizes inwardly, and gives local residents the tools they need to win local campaigns. That’s how, BLOP (Big List of People) came to be.
Our organizers are using BLOP, and other peer-to-peer outreach tools, to create sustainable organizing models in rural communities across Utah. By investing in the local knowledge of people that live in the areas where we organize, we can create a network of activists and voters that lasts beyond one cycle or one campaign, and instead creates a community.
Landscapes in rural Utah are shifting. When we tell the stories of people that live and work in the areas where we organize, we begin to shift the narrative of what it means to be a rural voter. Utah’s rural counties are not a monolith. Each town, county, and neighborhood has its own diverse beliefs, challenges, and landscape. The way we organize, communicate, and share the stories of these counties must look different.
Through a robust communications and digital infrastructure, the Rural Utah Project seeks to shift the way that we perceive and organize in rural areas by handing the mic over to the people that live there. Through a robust storytelling and digital engagement program, we can begin to shed light on landscapes that for too long have had their stories buried under a dominant narrative.
The world changed in March when the COVID-19 pandemic forced governments and organizations to do everything possible to slow the spread. Here at the Rural Utah Project, our mission relies on meeting and engaging with people and voters where they are. The social distancing restrictions forced us to pause and rethink.
With our staff and volunteers in Bluff Utah, we helped create a mutual aid network for the Bluff Area, the 7 Utah chapters of the Navajo Nation, and the White Mesa Areas called Bluff Area Mutual Aid (BAMA). This effort has focused on the delivery of food and supplies to families in need of aid. We’re proud to work with our partners in Bluff, Utah Navajo Health System, and the Navajo Nation on ensuring this program provides sustainable and direct aid.
Starting at the end of March, Bluff Area Mutual Aid has been able to distribute over 900 boxes of food to 3,500 individuals in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute community, and the greater Bluff area. When the needs of the community shifted, BAMA pivoted to deliver through San Juan County school buses and bulk deliveries to chapter houses and deliveries via grassroots Indigenous-led efforts, like The Navajo and Hopi Families COVID 19 Relief Fund, Utah Dine Bikeyah and Protect Diné Mountain Communities. Now, BAMA is working to facilitate bulk deliveries and provide funding directly to chapter houses to enable them to manage the crisis as they best see fit.
The first First Nations Voting Rights Conference held on September 25th – September 27th 2019 was born out of a shared idea between the team at the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and Rural Utah Project. Pre-conference surveys showed participants arriving from over seventeen states and at least as many Indigenous Nations, with more folks and Nations likely represented at the conference. Participants and panelists represented a wide range of expertise and experience from lawyers, researchers, elected leaders, non-profits, organizers, lawyers, and advocates. Discussion at the conference focused on breaking down barriers to accessing the franchise in Indian Country. Participants reported that a conference focused solely on First Nations Voting Rights is critical and hope to see this kind of event continued.