Episode 29 | Impacting Rural through Scholarship and Passion

June 7, 2018

Show Notes:

Joining us for this episode of Catch Up With Chuck is RFI Faculty Fellow Jessica Shoemaker, J.D., who combines scholarship and passion to impact rural people and places. Professor Shoemaker is a distinguished scholar and associate professor of law for the Nebraska College of Law. Tune in to hear what she has to say about the land and people associated with rural issues!

“Thinking about the future of rural places is intellectually and academically such a stimulating and complicated question given the rapid change that we’re experiencing,” Shoemaker said when discussing what drew her to rural issues.

Quick Links:

Full Transcript:

[0:05] Welcome to the Rural Futures Institute [0:07] at the University of Nebraska. [0:09] I’m Chuck Schroeder. [0:10] I’m executive director of the institute. [0:12] And this is our weekly conversation with somebody fun, [0:17] smart, interesting that we like. [0:19] Pressure. [0:20] And we call this Catch Up With Chuck. [0:22] We’re glad that you’re joining us. [0:24] Well I have to say that I have looked forward [0:27] to today’s guest. [0:29] Jessica Shoemaker is a very distinguished colleague [0:32] from the University of Nebraska Lincoln College of Law. [0:36] She is a longtime friend of the Rural Futures Institute [0:40] and a fellow with us, so welcome Jessica. [0:42] Thank you, thanks. [0:43] Glad to have you with us.

[0:45] Okay, so four and a half years ago [0:48] my first day on the job at the Rural Futures Institute, [0:53] I’m meeting with my then boss, Ronnie Green, [0:56] who was vise chancellor and vice president [0:58] for Agriculture and Natural Resources. [1:01] Now chancellor at UNL. [1:02] Ronnie’s a longtime friend. [1:04] And he said I wanna give you a piece of advice. [1:06] There is somebody you need to get to know. [1:09] You need to meet Jessica Shoemaker [1:12] at the College of Law. [1:13] He said she’s brilliant, she’s passionate [1:16] about rural issues. [1:18] Though early in her career she already has [1:21] a national reputation for her work [1:23] in land tenure law, particularly around native communities. [1:28] She’s going somewhere. [1:30] I think she’d be a great asset [1:31] to the Rural Futures Institute, your call. [1:34] Well it turns out Ronnie was absolutely right [1:37] on all counts. [1:39] We’ve been proud to be associated with Jessica, [1:42] really from day one with the Rural Futures Institute. [1:46] And by the way, you were selected for the inaugural class [1:49] of RFI Fellows, which was no small deal. [1:52] We had a long list and you made the short one. [1:55] So that’s been fun. [1:57] But Jess, I’m gonna sort of jump in the middle [2:00] of the story here. [2:03] You’re a distinguished scholar. [2:06] You’ve had a great academic career, high achiever [2:10] all the way along. [2:11] You could be successful in any academic realm, why rural?

[2:19] That’s a big question. [2:20] (laughing) First I have to say it’s very funny [2:24] that you started with Chancellor Green [2:25] because what he didn’t tell you was that I was like [2:27] chomping at the bit to engage with Rural Futures Institute, [2:30] so I actually came to Nebraska when I was looking at offers [2:33] and deciding where to go [2:34] because I was so excited about this. [2:36] So even if you hadn’t wanted me, [2:37] I probably would have been pushing my way in. [2:40] I wouldn’t have been able to resist. [2:42] But the Rural Futures Institute was just such a platform [2:46] for engaging on rural issues, so it was a huge part [2:48] of why I decided to come to Nebraska. [2:52] I have the story of growing up as a rural kid [2:55] and a 4-H and on an acreage and with the long family history [2:59] of farmers and people who are connected to place [3:02] in a really important way. [3:04] Just that kind of personal affinity for rural communities [3:07] and rural life. [3:08] But I actually think it’s important to say [3:09] that I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to caring [3:11] about rural issues. [3:13] I have that, but I also think, hopefully I think [3:16] I’d be interested in this, even if I didn’t [3:18] because I think, you know, thinking about the future [3:21] for rural places is intellectually and academically [3:24] such a stimulating and complicated question, [3:27] given just the rapid change that we’re experiencing. [3:30] It also is just this really important question [3:32] for the world, right, like these big changes are happening. [3:34] It gives us a chance and an opportunity [3:35] to really think about how we want the future to look [3:38] and it’s also really interesting for me [3:40] because it’s this marriage of physical landscapes [3:43] and rural landscapes and natural resources and place [3:45] and then the human dimension of that right on top of it [3:48] and that interrelationship is really important [3:50] and that’s really what a lot of my work is about. [3:52] So for me it’s just kind of a perfect, natural fit. [3:55] Well, that’s what I hoped to hear [3:57] because so often, quite honestly, [3:59] when we get into that question is, well you know [4:00] I grew up on a farm, grew up. [4:02] Well, that’s a foundation for a poet. [4:05] I’m not sure it’s a foundation for a scholar. [4:08] And anyway, you think about things [4:11] in such interesting and complex ways [4:12] and that’s a great rationale.

[4:15] Okay, so you touched on it, but listen, [4:17] I think it’s important for members of our audience, [4:21] by the way, who are lots of moms and families, [4:24] we know that because Facebook let’s you check all that out. [4:28] So we know that we have folks out there [4:30] who are thinking about where their son or daughter [4:34] might go to school or where they might have [4:37] a relationship with an institution. [4:38] So I think getting to know someone like you [4:42] in the heart of the academy is important. [4:45] So I want folks to get to know you both as a scholar [4:50] and as a human being. [4:52] Now setting modesty aside, I want you to give us [4:55] a profile of your academic career [4:58] beginning with number one in your class [5:00] at the University of Wisconsin Law School. [5:03] You were a clerk at the Tenth Circuit [5:08] U.S. District Court of Appeals. [5:10] You’ve done some pretty cool stuff. [5:11] Talk a little bit about that and then [5:13] we’ll talk a bit about what got you there.

[5:17] Sure, okay, so just kind of the academic side [5:19] or the professional side first. [5:21] I went to the University of Iowa for undergrad [5:24] and I thought that I might wanna be a lawyer [5:26] at some point and then thought, no I don’t wanna do that [5:29] and I went and I did kind of community organizing [5:32] nonprofit work in Wisconsin and Wyoming [5:34] for a couple of years and then the law school thing [5:37] kind of kept calling, so I went there and I thought [5:39] I’m never gonna be a lawyer, I’m just gonna go check out [5:41] sort of how the world works and learn about that. [5:44] But it turned out that I just loved law school [5:46] and I actually loved all the experiences I had there [5:48] and I loved being a lawyer. [5:50] So I did go to the University of Wisconsin for law school. [5:53] I did a lot of work with reservation communities, [5:55] tribal governments, tribal courts there in law school. [5:58] And then I did clerk for a wonderful judge in Denver [6:02] in the U.S. Court of Appeals, [6:04] which is just a tremendous learning experience [6:06] as a baby lawyer. [6:08] And then another cool thing I got to do, [6:09] I had a two year public interest fellowship [6:12] that was funded by the Skadden Foundation, [6:14] which funds new lawyers to get salary for two years [6:18] and they say here’s the freedom to fail, [6:20] just go work at a nonprofit and do the work [6:22] that you think is important and try something [6:25] that you wouldn’t get to do otherwise. [6:26] And I worked at Farmers Legal Action Group [6:29] in St. Paul Minnesota, which is a national nonprofit [6:32] working on issues related to family farmers [6:34] in rural communities and using a lot of different [6:36] legal strategies to approach those issues. [6:39] So I did everything from right after Katrina, [6:41] I was doing clinics for farmers and disaster relief [6:44] in Louisiana and then the Gulf Coast after Rita. [6:47] And then doing advocacy work (mumbles) [6:50] working on minority farmer issues in particular. [6:53] And then I went to a big international private law firm [6:56] in Denver and did big litigation. [6:59] Worked for travel governments. [7:01] Did some energy work. [7:03] Did commercial litigation and just learned a ton. [7:06] But through it all, I really hoped that I would be able [7:08] to come and work on a faculty at some point [7:10] so I made that transition here in 2012. [7:13] And I do teach law students. [7:15] Love the law school, the community here [7:17] and my work is mostly on American Indian [7:20] land tenure and rural development issues.

[7:22] Sure, well what’s always been interesting to me [7:24] is I watched you and been able to associate with you [7:28] over the last four years is that you are here, [7:32] you’re all in with the College of Law, alright, [7:36] and the work there, but your fascination to me [7:40] always seems to be rooted in how this impacts people. [7:44] You have this advocacy root in you [7:48] that fortunately then takes advantage [7:51] of your intrigue with the law and I think that’s cool [7:56] and I know your engagement with students [7:58] really means a lot to you. [7:59] So we’re delighted that you are here in the academy [8:04] engaging with students rather than locked up [8:06] in some big office building in Denver. [8:09] Yeah (mumbles).

[8:12] So okay, so let’s step back and look at the Jessica [8:17] that found herself eventually going to law school. [8:21] Talk a little bit about your upbringing [8:24] and kind of the values foundation that came from that, [8:27] that lead you in this direction. [8:29] Yeah, well I grew up mostly in central Iowa. [8:33] My dad was a plant scientist at Iowa State [8:35] and my mom was a kindergarten teacher at a rural school [8:38] in central Iowa. [8:40] We did all the 4-H projects. [8:42] I did this big citizenship project on how a bill [8:44] becomes a law, which I now look back on and I think, [8:46] you know, that’s what I teach my students in some ways. [8:50] Learned that in 4-H and some other stuff. [8:53] I had that sort of great community [8:56] and school system and family support [8:59] and that lesson of it’s important to give back [9:02] and be of service and care about the people around you [9:05] and you’re connected to those people. [9:08] I think the really like transformative thing [9:09] for the specific work that I do right now, [9:11] so I had done kind of the community organizing stuff, [9:14] but I’m actually an example of the power [9:16] of mentors in college and summer experiences, [9:19] so I know the Rural Futures Institute Serviceship Project. [9:22] I mean, I kind of did a parallel of that, [9:24] that basically changed my life. [9:26] So I was in law school with my very confident, [9:29] I will never be a lawyer. [9:30] I just want to learn how the world works. [9:32] And then literally saw a flier in the stairwell. [9:35] I think it said something like legal externs [9:39] in rural America or who owns rural America [9:41] or something like that. [9:42] It was about property and landownership [9:44] in rural places. [9:45] And it was like everything just sort of clicked [9:47] where I had been doing this other work [9:48] and I hadn’t really put together that I wasn’t just doing [9:51] nonprofit work, I was doing nonprofit work [9:53] directed at rural communities specifically [9:56] and that was something that I really cared about [9:57] and I ended up getting placed with an Indian probate judge [10:01] and a federal Indian probate judge [10:03] who worked on reservations in North and South Dakota. [10:06] I had no through contacts or information [10:08] for that placement whatsoever and just had this [10:11] transformative summer experience with a judge [10:14] and a law professor back at Wisconsin [10:16] who just really supported me. [10:18] It was an instance where I just felt like [10:20] I could really see the law having this very direct impact [10:22] on the community and on people in a way [10:25] that didn’t seem right to me and in a way [10:27] that I was really encouraged to kind of keep pursuing [10:29] and now that’s something that I continue to work on [10:32] and think a lot about. [10:33] So those experiences really make a difference. [10:35] You know, we see that theme weaving through out work here [10:39] over and over and over again. [10:41] And for folks who think the academic experience [10:45] is about passing all your tests and checking boxes [10:48] in some structure, it always comes down to people. [10:52] We have 26 students in 13 communities this summer [10:56] across Nebraska and actually beyond Nebraska a little bit. [10:59] But this is our sixth year of that program. [11:02] We know every year that the community leaders [11:08] are going to come back to us saying, oh my gosh [11:11] these kids did things in our community [11:13] that we couldn’t do in five years [11:16] and the students are gonna come back saying [11:19] this changed my life. [11:21] This set a new course for my career. [11:24] And it all is about meeting people and saying [11:28] I wanna be like her. [11:30] And especially when it’s connected [11:31] in a university environment like this, [11:33] so that there’s really this encouragement [11:34] of just reflect on what you just experienced [11:36] and let’s put this in context with [11:38] the kind of critical thinking and analysis [11:40] that you’re doing in other areas. [11:41] For me, that was what was really transformative too. [11:44] I had this life changing on the ground experience, [11:46] but then I also got to come back [11:48] and really reflect hard about what that meant [11:50] and think about it intentionally [11:51] in a way that made a big difference for me.

[11:53] Okay, so most people would think of a law professor [11:57] as being this pretty disciplined, straight down, [12:00] you know, here are the boxes we take off the shelves. [12:05] Okay, so I think one of the most interesting experiences [12:09] that we’ve had with you at the Rural Futures Institute [12:13] was your research in how to use games [12:16] to help people figure out how to get comfortable [12:19] with the complex sometimes messy decision-making [12:24] that has to be made around land use [12:27] in and around communities. [12:30] Your work on Plainsopoly. [12:32] You’ve already noted that I got a box of cards here [12:34] on my shelf. [12:36] But that was really interesting and actually ended up [12:39] in an international experience for you. [12:41] So, talk a little bit about that. [12:42] And that actually all started [12:44] at a Rural Future’s conference, so it was before your time.

[12:47] I think it was right before you started. [12:52] I was at the conference. [12:53] Right, right. [12:56] Somehow Mark Gustofan talked me into doing a game [12:58] for one of the workshop sessions in collaboration [13:01] with this international partner, Alister Scott, [13:03] who had done a version of this kind [13:05] of land use participation kind of vision building [13:08] conversation starting game and so we wanted to create [13:13] a version that took what Professor Scott, Dr. Scott [13:16] had done in the UK and translated to the Great Plains [13:19] in the Nebraska context. [13:21] And it was just a perfect example for me [13:23] in what R5 really facilitates and can make possible [13:26] because we got together a group of faculty [13:30] and grad students and community stakeholders [13:32] from different disciplines who looked at the world [13:34] in different ways to try to think, based on research, [13:37] what are the questions that matter [13:38] and what are the issues that are most relevant [13:40] and we were going to actually sit around a table [13:43] with diverse stakeholders who might not otherwise [13:45] come together and have a conversation [13:47] about what would we want this place to look like [13:49] in the future and think intentionally about it. [13:52] So we brought these people together. [13:53] We got these sort of great questions and great themes [13:55] and then we made a map with some questions [13:58] and a literal game, right, which sounds a little silly, [14:00] but we actually found the game was just really [14:03] evocative for people and it also was safe in a way [14:06] that it was realistic, but slightly hypothetical, [14:09] so sometimes when it can be hard [14:11] to talk about property rights [14:12] and it can be particularly hard to talk about [14:14] a neighbor telling you what they think you should do [14:16] with your property. [14:18] We’re sort of sensitive about that. [14:19] And so that kind of hypothetical game environment [14:22] let people talk about things that are otherwise [14:24] kind of difficult to talk about perhaps. [14:27] Then it did, it led to this international grant [14:30] funded by the UK government and Dr. Scott [14:33] and some other UK colleagues brought us [14:35] from the Rural Futures Institute. [14:38] An Australian colleague, someone from Sweden, [14:40] and I went over to the UK and went to Wales, [14:44] UK and Wales and did these workshops [14:46] and we ended up creating a whole toolkit [14:48] for different communities really around the world [14:51] to use these resources to create tools [14:54] for having these kinds of vision making conversations [14:57] about place, so now it’s called Participology. [15:00] It’s actually online. [15:01] Participology dot com. [15:02] There’s a whole open access toolkit [15:05] that this kind of workshop session led to. [15:08] And it’s actually pretty powerful when people [15:11] sit down and have those conversations. [15:13] A lot of, when you think about kind of complex problems [15:16] like what the future of rural places might look like [15:18] and what it really requires is a lot of local innovation [15:22] and local experimentation and intentionality [15:24] about what that desired future is [15:26] and unless you come together and hear different perspectives [15:29] to kind of innovate and have those ideas, [15:31] you know, it’s harder to make progress without that. [15:33] So this is just one of many tools.

[15:34] Well, I just have to say, I have seen the tool used [15:38] in a workshop that one of the [15:41] natural resource districts hosted [15:43] and in a region where those vocal conflicts [15:47] are very real. [15:49] And I was amazed at how people engaged. [15:53] Indeed, you’re one step removed from your talking about me [15:59] and my land. [15:59] But there was clearly movement through the course of the day [16:06] in the way people engaged with each other [16:08] and listening to each other about why you’re concerned [16:12] about this and what my role is in responding to that. [16:17] So anyway, I think that was– [16:18] Yeah, and it’s all open and free [16:20] so we let people use it and you can adapt it [16:22] for your needs whether it’s to speed learning [16:25] about these issues or to create new ideas [16:27] or self-conflicts. [16:28] It’s got lots of different uses. [16:30] Well cool.

[16:31] Okay, so Jess one thing that we know [16:34] is that we’ve gone through your track record [16:38] as a faculty member and we know [16:40] you’re a distinguished scholar. [16:42] I also know you’re a mom. Yeah. [16:45] You’re a dedicated mom. Most importantly. [16:48] Raising your girls in a very rural setting. [16:52] You’re doing that on purpose. [16:55] That’s not an easy balance for someone [16:57] with your career responsibilities. [17:01] Most of your colleagues don’t live [17:03] just down the road from you. [17:05] They’re a bit handier to campus. [17:08] Tell us why you are making that choice. [17:12] I was getting ready to say making that sacrifice [17:14] because I think there are sacrifices. [17:16] There’s a lot of driving involved. [17:17] But you’ve also made a very conscious choice [17:20] to do that and I’ve seen you with your girls [17:23] at my place and so I know that you’re serious [17:25] about them really understanding this environment [17:28] in which they’re living.

[17:28] Yeah, I mean, well my girls are just great [17:30] so I might cry at any moment when I talk about them, [17:33] but I adore them. [17:34] I think they’re fun. [17:35] Thanks. [17:36] I used to joke all the time that I was intentionally [17:38] trying to raise feral children, but that’s not so funny. [17:41] Now that they’re getting older, [17:42] they don’t think that’s funny anymore [17:43] and that’s not actually what it’s about. [17:45] I don’t know, it just feels right. [17:48] Like it’s just a kind of a mom instinct, [17:50] this feels like the right place to raise my little girls. [17:53] But, I mean, sometimes I say that there’s lots [17:56] of parts of parenting that are super hard [17:58] and that I question and kind of interrogate [18:01] on an ongoing basis, but the one thing [18:03] that I never never question is early mornings [18:05] in the garden with the chickens running around [18:07] or late nights with friends and they’re playing [18:10] ghost in the graveyard way in the dark, [18:12] way out in the woods. [18:13] You know, I just feel like that’s just this core part [18:14] of their childhood and a kind of open space [18:17] to just be whoever they wanna be and explore [18:19] and be creative and get super dirty. [18:22] I just like it. [18:24] And you know, they’re thriving. [18:26] They’re in a grade school district outside of Lincoln [18:28] and it’s been really great for them [18:29] and they’ve really made great connections. [18:31] We have lovely neighbors and, you know, [18:34] it’s just a really like perfect place for us, [18:36] for our family. [18:37] Sure. [18:39] I hope that’s a really good answer.

[18:40] No, it’s a great answer because I will tell you [18:42] when we had you and your girls out at Eagle Camp, [18:48] there are kids that come, [18:50] we’re always delighted to have kids around, [18:51] but there are some who, when they go to the barn, [18:55] they’re pretty shy about the horses [18:58] and about there are cats around and this and that. [19:02] Your girls were not remotely intimidated by any of that [19:05] and just their curiosity and their willingness [19:09] to just go engage and learn and I just thought [19:12] it was terrific. Oh, thank you. [19:14] So I thought something really good is happening here. [19:15] There’s a richness I think to their experience [19:18] of just being able to kind of make their own space– [19:21] Yeah, if they end up in Chicago, [19:22] they’ll be the kind of people [19:24] you like to have as a neighbor. [19:25] Yeah, yeah, exactly, yeah. [19:26] That’s cool.

[19:27] Well listen, Jess you’re just one of the gifted [19:31] human beings that we’ve had a chance to work with here [19:35] and you’re using those gifts to really improve the world [19:39] for people and their communities. [19:41] So it’s just been a real treat over the last four years [19:44] to enjoy your collegiality, your willingness to challenge [19:49] my own thinking about things and that’s been [19:51] part of the fun, and to just know your unfailing loyalty [19:56] to the mission of the Rural Futures Institute. [19:59] Anything you’d like to add?

[20:01] No, I mean, well thank you so much [20:03] for everything that you’ve done for Rural Futures. [20:05] We’re gonna be super sad to lose you, [20:07] but hopefully not lose you permanently, [20:08] just in a different capacity. [20:10] Drifting, yes. Different capacity. [20:12] I would put in a little pitch for the law school. [20:13] Yeah, I wanted to give you the opportunity [20:15] to talk about it. [20:16] Yeah, just for anyone who’s listening [20:18] and thinking about access to justice issues [20:21] or law school connections with rural places [20:23] and this law school cares a lot about. [20:26] We’ve got our clinics that are doing outreach [20:27] in greater Nebraska on an ongoing basis. [20:30] So I think there’s a state planning clinic [20:32] happening in Chadron this summer. [20:34] Our entrepreneurship clinic is doing really cool things [20:37] with entrepreneurs who are trying to start businesses [20:39] outside of Lincoln and Omaha. [20:41] I have students work with travel governments [20:42] across the country on an ongoing basis. [20:44] So there’s lots of cool kind of stuff happening [20:46] where the law school is trying to be connected, [20:48] but then also be about these programs [20:49] where at Chadron, Wayne State and UNK, [20:52] students can actually get a scholarship [20:54] for undergraduate degrees and if they sort of [20:58] have an interest in rural practice [21:00] and then wanna come to the law school [21:01] and we’ll kind of help facilitate that [21:02] going back into rural communities [21:04] where we need more lawyers, so that would be great.

[21:07] I would invite people to kind of check that out too. [21:09] Nebraska’s really been at the leading edge [21:11] of that very purposeful work in encouraging [21:17] smart young people interested in the law [21:19] to think about practice in rural communities. [21:21] Yeah, and I mean, it’s been really my colleagues [21:23] at the law school who have done great work. [21:24] I can’t really take credit for a lot of that. [21:25] But the bar association is doing great stuff. [21:27] The state supported a loan repayment program, [21:29] so we’re really trying some good efforts there. [21:31] Thank you. Thank you. [21:33] Well listen, we want you to stay in touch [21:34] with the Rural Futures Institute through our website, [21:37] through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. [21:41] Next week, so you know, is gonna be our final episode [21:45] of Catch Up With Chuck. [21:46] We’re gonna look back over what’s now been 30 episodes, [21:50] will be 30 episodes of this program. [21:52] It’s been great fun and I hope you’ll join us. [21:55] Thanks.

Previous Episode

Next Episode

Episode 30 | Behind the Scenes of CUWC