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After eight years with A Greater Applegate, Seth Kaplan talks about community, rural equity, and the importance of showing up. 

(Interview by Christina Ammon)

Several years ago, I heard rumbles from the local rumor-mill: Apparently, a guy from Oakland, California had moved into the Applegate Valley and was at the helm of A Greater Applegate (formerly the Greater Applegate Community Development Corporation). He was writing grants, forming community groups, and initiating new projects. At the time, this struck me as audacious—particularly for a newcomer.

Soon, that distant rumble-of-a-rumor grew closer, like an approaching train: More talk of projects, gatherings, networks, grants.

But when the “train” finally arrived, I found it wasn’t a train at all. Instead, it was a slow-moving, open-air trolley, steered by a kind, earnest and friendly conductor named Seth Kaplan. Far from being a high-powered city guy, Seth seemed to call “All aboard!” to anyone with an idea and an appetite for community adventure. He’d even let you take the wheel.

I’d eventually work for A Greater Applegate and know Seth better. I found he had a humble managerial-style, backgrounding himself while trusting and emboldening his staff’s skill-sets. And he was great at communication. At our weekly meetings, he’d often preface his comments with “I just want to say this out loud…” This turned out to be more than an endearing verbal tic. The phrase actually revealed a down-deep philosophy: That by creating an environment where thoughts and feelings are expressed aloud—even the ones you disagree with– you can open a conversation and find understanding. This formed the core of his approach to community-building in the Applegate.

I recently visited Seth at his house up Humbug Creek Road on a sunny-ish spring day. After working for AGA for eight years, he was set to retire and his last official day-on-the-job was fast approaching. When I arrived, his wife, Lily, was in the driveway readying their new camper van for a cross-country road trip.

Inside, Seth offered me an almond flour chicken pot pie for lunch. A recent heart attack had hastened his retirement and also inspired  a strict diet. The diet-change was part of an overall downshift from a life of near-constant engagement with civic work. Prior to moving to the Applegate, he’d been Chief of Staff and Policy Director to Alameda County Supervisor, Nate Miley. Although that county included Oakland and other urban areas, nearly half of it was rural. This is where Seth acquired the skill-set essential to his work with A Greater Applegate. 

One of the realizations I had while working with Seth was how many of our rural issues—safety on Highway 238, Internet access, and healthcare —are structural problems; I’d always taken them as necessary trade-offs for opting to live in the country. But Seth viewed these issues differently—through an equity lens. He insisted that unincorporated areas deserve the same services and attention as urban ones do.

Seth knew that in order to secure services, it was essential to build bridges between the Applegate’s various hubs—Provolt, Ruch, Williams etc. “Without a collective voice,” he explained, “it will be hard to get anything done.” With this in mind, AGA held dozens of listening sessions and working groups throughout the valley to gauge the needs and sentiments of the local population.  The findings were organized by AGA in The Applegate Valley Vision Plan, a 90-page document that lays out 500 steps for collective action

The Applegate Valley Vision, and the work leading up to it, is one of the accomplishments Seth says he is most proud of: “I’m proud of what I accomplished in the Bay Area, but I’m not actually sure that there’s anything I did there that’s more significant to me personally than what I’m doing here in the Applegate. ‘

Here is my interview with Seth:

CA: You moved here from the city. What were your first impressions of the Applegate?

SK: When Lily and I first came out to the Applegate we had a mixed impression. I was surprised by how dry it was and I worried about that some. It’s obviously a place where you need to think about your well situation. I also had no idea how I’d make a living here, and I really wanted to work where I live. We were introduced to one couple in the Applegate through a close friend in Utah and we hit it off with them immediately, so we felt welcomed. One of the first things we were introduced to here was the care and pride in small, family farms and I was really drawn to that culture — and how everyone seems to have a relationship with the land. More than anything we were taken by the beauty. I couldn’t say ‘no’ to the beauty. 

CA: You’ve accomplished an incredible amount during your short time here. How does that feel?

SK: You saying that actually means a lot to me. After living here nine years, I’m still a newcomer and have to tread lightly. I have a skill set that is valuable here, and I’m happy to share it, but am still trying to understand the value of what I’ve been doing. My frame-of-reference is always ‘Us’ and ‘We,’ so it’s sometimes hard for me to think about my role.  

When I left Oakland, I thought the important work of my life was done and I was good with that. I was not exactly retiring, but moving toward a more easeful life. This role with AGA was not in my plan. 

CA: You said it wasn’t your intention to take this role on. How did it happen?

SK: When I first moved here, AGA was called Greater Applegate Community Development Corporation and they were running Cantrall-Buckley Park. The leadership was all-volunteer.  I sat next to board chair, Bonnie Rinaldi, at the Oregon Nonprofit Leadership Conference and we found out we both lived in the Applegate. I was telling her about myself, and she encouraged me to become part of their group. I was hesitant, but went to one of their board meetings –and became the board chair at that meeting!  I almost felt like I had no choice than to say ‘yes’ because nobody was stepping up and she was leaving. But I didn’t at all feel ready.

Still, I’ve always been somebody who believes that if you are going to live someplace, you have to really live there–you can’t be a tourist. You have to learn about it, find out about the history, who the people are and the logic of it

CA: You worked for a Country Supervisor in Oakland as one of the primary people providing services to a rural area where there wasn’t a lot of government. How did it compare? 

SK: Moving to the Applegate, I was quickly humbled. I had prided myself on understanding the needs of our rural constituents. I realized pretty quickly there’s a big difference between working in an area and living there. I had to go back and apologize to a few people for misunderstanding what they had been trying to tell me about their community needs.

Seth Kaplan talking with local farmers.

I was also startled by how different Southern Oregon county government was from what I was used to. Our office and other county staff spent a lot more time in the unincorporated areas than county staff do here. We met monthly with residents in each community. We applied resources to their needs. It just hit me that I had the skill set to know how to deal with this. I knew how it could be.

But what I was lacking here initially was the knowledge of this place–which is a big thing to be lacking! I had to learn the state’s relationship to the counties here. Oregon does things in a certain way. The state has a more direct role in Oregon than in California. It’s good in some ways– and not good in other ways. It took a while to understand that. 

Jackson and Josephine counties have much fewer resources than we had in Alameda County. Most of those resources are housed at the state, so the state is making decisions from a greater distance. What we have to do here is not think of the counties as a funder or service provider, but more as an advocacy partner. This is a more complex relationship and takes time and trust to develop.  

CA: You say you were ‘stunned’ by how the county responds to this area. Can you elaborate? 

SK: The counties here maintain the roads in the Applegate. They provide law enforcement, but would be the first to admit their services here are minimal. With our leadership in Alameda County, the county funded and built a 13-acre youth center, the nicest library in the entire county, a senior center, brought in a health clinic. The local counties aren’t going to take on any projects like this, but people who live here want some of these things. They want bike and walking paths, Internet. If anything like this happens, it will happen through AGA in partnership with the counties. That’s very different from the experience I had previously.

CA: How does AGA help them figure it out?

SK: A Greater Applegate is doing an important service by gathering people together, asking them what they think and inviting the community to participate. But there is only so far an organization like AGA can go. You need the infrastructure.

One of the next steps here is to find out how the local government, AGA, and the community can work together to build these systems. A lot of federal and state funding for bigger projects has to go through counties, but AGA will need to identify the opportunities, possibly write the grants, and work directly with county staff on the planning. With the organizational infrastructure in place, we can accept large sums of money and accept resources from the state and local governments to do the things we want to do. 

CA: I’ve always figured there are personal sacrifices that we just have to make if we want to live out here in the country. But I get a sense from you that some of these issues are actually institutional inequities. 

SK: Sometimes you need a new person to come in and see it with new eyes and say ‘This isn’t the way it should be.’  

It’s true that people who live in rural places have to be self-sufficient and rely on their neighbors—and those are good things! But, also, it’s important for people who don’t live here to understand that equity is not just from an urban lens– that there is also a rural equity lens. 

People in urban areas just don’t know that. There are no rural TV shows, there’s not a national rural TV station. When you think about who is coming up with new ideas in society, it’s easy to think they don’t tend to be from rural areas. But that’s not really true. There are brilliant and innovative thinkers and doers in rural places. It’s just that the media and other communication systems are urban-focused. That is just one very significant example of rural inequity.  

As someone who has lived in an urban place and is now living in a rural place, I see that there are distinctions that need to be named. That doesn’t mean that you need to pick sides, but equity is equity. You can’t narrowly define it—by definition, it has to be broadly defined. 

So, people often forget to think about rural inequity. I do think it’s important. Even after retiring, I think I will remain a voice for that. It feels like one of the more important stories of our time and it’s not being told in the places it needs to be told.

CA: It actually seems to me like the rural story is getting told more and more. Rural issues were a big theme of the Trump presidency and there’s the J.D. Vance book…

SK: Trump is speaking to people’s grievances about inequities–and giving people permission to be angry and be violent and hate people. And that’s what happens when you don’t pay attention and don’t look through the broad equity lens. 

At least what I’m trying to say–and not pretending to be the only one saying this– is that it’s true that jobs have been lost in rural areas. It’s true that there is less access to Internet in rural areas. It is true that quality health care is lacking in rural areas. Those things should be addressed, and it’s important for people in urban areas to acknowledge that. Just acknowledge it. Urban leaders need to take the time and effort to understand rural living. Don’t be so quick to judge or lecture to people you don’t understand. Let’s be humble. Let’s be curious. And then we can start to have an open conversation.

CA: One of the things you just mentioned about when it comes to rural inequity–and one of the projects AGA has taken on– is Internet access. Can you explain how that relates to inequity?

SKBack in the day there was the rural electrification project. The federal government decided they were going to run electric lines throughout the whole country, whether there were people there or not. That was an amazing thing to do, and it made a huge difference for people. Same with phone lines. 

That same thing has to happen for Internet. We saw the inequity of our poor Internet access during the pandemic. How do students do distant learning without Internet access? How do adults work from home? How does telehealth work? What about the deep isolation when people can’t even get online to reach out to friends and family? 

Of course, some people moved here and they don’t want it. That’s fine. But people who live here should have the same right to the same resources as people who live in the city. You should be able to get it and not have to pay $3000 or $5000 to run it up your driveway. That’s not fair.

There is a lot of money that’s come available for rural broadband. There is more federal money for rural programs. But it’s kind of tricky and nuanced: Are the rural communities in a position to actually benefit from that funding?  This gets back to having the organizational infrastructure in place to receive the funding.

CA: Is a nonprofit like AGA the best answer to these kinds of issues?

In our current reality, it’s the only answer. I think we exist because we have to…and I think it will continue to exist because it has to. But this effort has grown to the point where partnerships are the next key step. There are things that the community can do on its own, but some of the things that are coming up in the Vision, the community just can’t do alone–like bike paths, public transportation, and the health system.

CA: You mention the Vision as one of the AGA accomplishments you are most proud of.  Say more.

SK: I have worked with communities  for decades to get projects accomplished, but this is the first time that it was my community. The people who show up are my neighbors. I didn’t realize how much I needed that until it happened. When we first started doing the listening sessions, we weren’t sure where it was going to go. People were showing up even though they weren’t even sure what it was. 

Throughout my life, I’ve held lots of meetings where only one person or three people show up and you do them anyway.  So, when ten or twenty people show up for something, I’m really proud. People who live here say that this matters and care enough to want to be a part of it. I get excited about that every single time. I don’t know if there’s anything better than working with your neighbors on something meaningful.

When the listening sessions ended, I remember saying “Now that they are over, we can do them over again.”  It was just gathering with people. I think AGA will always do that in one form or another.  Rural people may not have the need or capacity to be clustered in the same way that urban people are but still, we don’t want to be by ourselves all the time.

CA: Tell me about some of the resistance you’ve encountered.

SK: When we first started talking about the Applegate Valley Vision five or six years ago, there was a lot of resistance. People questioned who I was and why I should be even talking to people. Which is a fair thing to say. Some said, ‘This sounds like communism’, or ‘This sounds like an HOA’—all kinds of things. 

But when you do this kind of work everything that everybody says is GOOD. You have to go in that way because there are a lot of things that people aren’t saying to you, things that you never hear. That’s the troubling stuff! People are saying stuff and if you never hear it, you can’t have a conversation. You get sunk and you don’t even know why. 

But if someone takes the time to actually tell you about what they don’t like, that’s really positive. Now you can change. Or you can try to help them understand something differently, or change your language. People are putting energy into it, so at some level they care. And if there are people who care, then you can always do something.

CA: Did you have doubts along the way?

SK: Up until the last year, I’ve been filled with doubt. At the same time, this felt like I was called to do. It felt like everything I’ve done my whole life came into play in this–all these weird jobs I’ve had, all these places I’ve lived. Now it makes sense. There is none of that that doesn’t come into play in A Greater Applegate. So, I felt like I was understanding my purpose after sixty-some odd years. So that’s very powerful. But I had many times of thinking I need to listen better, I need to do better, I need to work harder, I need to understand better. 

CA: What changed last year?

SK: It changed once we gathered all the information from the listening sessions and looked at what the different neighborhoods had said. People live in different parts of the valley– the Little Applegate, Murphy, Ruch, Williams—they aren’t homogenous. You could tell those communities have unique characteristics. But when we started to look at what mattered to people—what they wanted to preserve and what they wished they had—there was a commonality that I hoped would be true. So, then it was like, YES, this is actually a community. 

There’s now a kind of a growing sense of connection. I just meet more people who know AGA or have heard something about this work. People can talk about it and they can work together—even if they don’t politically agree. That’s community building. 

As long as there is energy for that, things are going to keep happening. They won’t necessarily be the things that I want to have happen, but they are going to be the things that need to happen and that people want to have happen.  I’m just so happy to feel like I’ve been a part of that.

CA: You’ve lived here a while now. What are your impressions now?

SK: The people and the place have a relationship to each other here that’s so integrated. This place has an essence, a personality. When I talk about the Applegate being beautiful, it’s not just that it’s gorgeous. It’s like how when you fall in love with somebody, they become more attractive. And that’s the way the Applegate is. And it’s like that for some many of us and we can collectively feel that and talk about it and act in ways to both protect and honor that. 

CA: Parting advice?

SK: Advice is a little challenging because I feel like the people who are engaged in the work are the ones who know what to do. I don’t need to say this as advice. The Applegate doesn’t want to become anything else. It doesn’t want to be Napa, or Sonoma, or Portland. It just wants to be the Applegate.

People are scared of change. I understand that. But change is always going to happen—that’s one thing we can always be certain of. The issue here is are we part of determining how change happens, or does change happen to us? I think if you’re concerned about what’s happening here, the solution is to become a part of it. The solution is not to become silent or distant because it’s going to happen without you and then you’re going to say “This isn’t what I wanted.” So, if you’re scared or angry and feel like your voice isn’t present then show up and then it will be! If you show up and feel unwelcome then there is something to look at. But so far people have been curious and respectful of everyone’s ideas. Everything has happened because of the people who’ve shown up. By not showing, you are not stopping the organization from happening. You haven’t stopped people from talking and moving forward –they just aren’t getting the benefit of your thinking. 

That’s the thing I worry about. I know that there are people who aren’t showing up and who feel like they are not being represented. There’s this way of thinking in underrepresented places that there’s some all- powerful force making all the decisions. AGA is not that. Anybody who has shown up knows that AGA can’t be that—even if it wanted to. It doesn’t have the capacity. 

AGA is the people who are participating. It’s not me. It’s the people who are participating and there’s more than there has ever been. And the more that are participating the better it will be. 

So, I guess my advice is:

Show up.

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