Eliot Feenstra smiling and looking at the camera

Rural Stories and Realities

In this episode we talk with Eliot Feenstra, a theater artist, teacher, and organizer who has lived in Takilma, an unincorporated community in Josephine County, since 2012. Eliot shares the hopes that drew him from very urban Chicago, Illinois to the very rural Illinois Valley and how those hopes play into the work he does in Takilma and across Oregon in performance, community conversation, and civic engagement.

Show Notes

Eliot Feenstra is a facilitator, teaching artist, farmer, and theater-maker. He has been based in rural southwestern Oregon since 2012, where he's focused on local LGBTQ+ and radical histories, land-based skills, place, and theater. Eliot holds an MA in Performance Studies from York University; he also studied social practice at Portland State University and has a BA in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Chicago. He lives with his partner on a land project in Takilma.

Oregon Humanities offers trainings and facilitated conversations for the public and for nonprofits, foundations, corporations, government agencies, and other organizations. Facilitation Training equips community members and workplace teams with the skills and tools to plan and lead discussions about vital issues and ideas across differences, beliefs, and backgrounds.

The Conversation Project brings people together to talk about their beliefs and experiences around timely and important issues and ideas through reflective conversations. 

RiverStars Performing Arts, the youth theatre program Eliot mentioned, is alive and well! Since 2012, RiverStars has offered valley youth and families meaningful social justice arts education through free weekly classes available to public, private and homeschooled youth.

Fox, whom Eliot moved to Hugo with in 2012, is now leading an intertribal landback project called Native Womanshare with their partner Lycan. NativeWomanShare is a visionary project that reunites Takelma and intertribal indigenous women and Two Spirit people with land and ancient lifeways for community healing, land healing, art and culture. 

 

The transgender woman who left the school district is now a dear friend, mentor and fellow organizer of Eliot's. They met at a school board meeting in 2022 and figured out that their stories were connected. She still lives in the area.

The bandanaed woman Eliot interacted with on the basketball court is named Dee. She and her partner were on the front page of the local paper in 2002, when Dee was awarded volunteer firefighter of the year and gave the awarded roses to her partner. She identified as a lesbian growing up and now just identifies as a human.

Transcript

Adam Davis: [00:00:00] Hey, this is Adam Davis with The Detour from Oregon Humanities. In this episode, we bring you a conversation with Eliot Feenstra, who in 2012, when he was in his early twenties, picked up and moved from the fairly large Midwestern city of Chicago, Illinois, to Oregon—to the less-peopled Illinois Valley in southwestern Oregon.

Eliot and a group of friends decamped from the urban Midwest to the southern part of the rural Northwest because they had an idea about how they wanted to live and the kind of place in which that sort of living might become possible. And they committed to that idea. Eliot and most of those friends are still in the Illinois Valley today, though their specific locations have changed and so, to [00:01:00] greater and lesser degrees, have their jobs and their relationships with one another, the place itself, and many other people who live there.

There were all sorts of risks built into that initial step that Eliot and his friends took, and all sorts of hopes that sometimes made the risks seem worthwhile. The risks and the hopes are still a large part of Eliot's life in the Illinois Valley and of the work he's done around the state—community-building work, experimental work, extremely aspirational and simultaneously big-picture and small-step-by-small-step work. Oregon Humanities and I in my role at Oregon Humanities have been fortunate to do some work with Eliot over the last several years. And toward the end of this episode, we'll say a little more about that work specifically.

But for most of the episode, you'll hear Eliot talking about his life, work, and community in the Illinois Valley, as well as the risks and hopes they contain. Here's Eliot in March of [00:02:00] 2024 in the XRAY.FM studios in North Portland, thinking back to 12 years ago when he made the move from Cook County, Illinois, to Josephine County, Oregon.

Eliot Feenstra: I moved to Josephine County with a couple of friends in 2012.

Adam Davis: All right.

Eliot Feenstra: Yeah, we, we started, uh—I don't know if you remember 2012 was one version of the end of the Mayan calendar, end of the world. And anyway, that's a whole different story. But we started a house called Versailles because we were like, “Where do we want to be at the end of the world? Having a dance party at Versailles, the French palace.” So we got this rental in Southern Oregon and called it Versailles.

Adam Davis: So you and a few friends in 2012 had a thought, let's head down, create a Versailles in Josephine County. How did you pick that part of the world as the place to be?

Eliot Feenstra: I went to school in Chicago and fell in love with [00:03:00] somebody there who was really into nature and trees and farming, which were not things I was really interested in before that. But I got interested.

I had this community garden and a group of friends that became kind of my chosen family. And I decided we would like, after we finished school, move to the West Coast and work on farms. And so, in 2010, I moved to the West Coast. I kind of moved around working. You know, WWOOFing, doing a farm season in California and Oregon and Washington, kind of bouncing around also just learning about living in rural communities. Like I was a young queer trans person and had some early experiences of kind of navigating belonging, not belonging, in those spaces, figuring out how to show up or invite more parts of myself to show up.

And I had this kind of like [idea], “Oh, I have to just move back and forth [00:04:00] between way-out remote situations and the city to kind of meet a mix of needs.” And over those couple of years, I was doing that. I was kind of bouncing back and forth. And at some point in there, we decided—I had been to, to Josephine County, to Southern Oregon a couple of times for some different gatherings and including a big queer gathering, and it felt like, “Oh, this is a place that maybe both of those parts of myself or more parts of myself could show up.” And and we found this—actually, this was, you know, 10 years ago, we found this, beautiful house for 800 bucks that had like three to five bedrooms, depending on how you count them, on a creek with two-and-a-half acres, and we were like, “Great. Let's start a farm.” Which we did not know how to do. Um, [00:05:00] but I guess that's how we got to be there.

Adam Davis: So that already has about 14 different stories built into it. But what you said about sort of big city and remote rural, and finding different parts of yourself in those two kinds of settings. Can you say a little bit more about that? Like what parts of yourself might you have been looking for in the more rural or in the urban?

Eliot Feenstra: I mean, the word that came into my mind as you were asking that question was like, liberation. And actually that's in both, but in different ways. Like when I think about what it was that that made me feel like I need to be able to go to a queer dance party or participate in—that was when [the] Occupy [movement] was happening—and I was part of an insurgent rebel clown army [00:06:00] block in Portland. And, you know, I was like, I can't miss this thing that's happening. This like movement building, shaking-up-the-world stuff that was feeling like it was happening. And then being in wilderness. and learning, starting to learn about how to read landscapes.

And later in my life, I started to learn how to, along with a lot of other people and with a lot of great teachers, I learned, I started to learn how to tend places or even the idea of tending places or that humans have a place in relation to ecosystems that isn't just destructive. And that has, that relates to harvesting and replanting and, you know, being, being in the world in a good way. And that like, that is not the culture I particularly grew up in. But in terms of that kind of much deeper body of work around how to like live well in the world, that felt like something that [00:07:00] wasn't happening in queer dance parties in the same way, you know. But also was this super important—liberatory, you know, kind of space where also I, like, literally my body would relax in a different way.

Adam Davis: Yeah. So, well, it's interesting to think about liberation and relaxation, and where they go together and where they don't. It's also interesting to think about ecosystems and the ecosystem in an urban setting where queer dance parties might, you show up in a way where like, “I see what's going on there. I get where that system comes together and I fit into it.” And the other kinds of ecosystems that you might find in Josephine County or in a farming community or a more rural community, just that, uh, they don't seem like identical ecosystems in lots of ways. Very different pieces that inform them, but there's something going on in both where you're trying to find both, that sounds like liberation and relaxation.[00:08:00]

I want to ask, I guess, about, in the move from, the deliberate move in some way from Chicago to Southern Oregon, you talked about being able to tend ecosystems and learning to take care of the land. But I think a lot of people might hear, move from Chicago to rural places and think not about tending to the space, but about like, what might be risky for me?

Eliot Feenstra: Or what could I, what's the opportunity, right? Like, I mean, especially in Southern Oregon, there's such a history of these, uh, boom-and-bust economies that relate to people thinking, “Oh, there is something here that I could make money off of.” Or there is, there is a rawness or resources or, you know, whether that's setting up a cannabis farm or mining gold, like, “I could get something here.” And that's why I would go there. So, I mean, which feels like another, you know, that that's part [00:09:00] of the kind of like settler ghost that still feels very present in Southern Oregon, but it's another version, you know.

Adam Davis: But you, but you wanted to get something, but not to extract it in the same sort of way. I mean, if pushed, what, what was it you were hoping to get?

Eliot Feenstra: I think at the time that I, we, moved down there, we were looking for space and, um, room to create and gather with people and figure things out where we didn't feel so much pressure of a kind of like, uh, hustle, urban hustle and, and in some ways like meaningful work, which I feel like tending land has totally been meaningful work. And then there's other work I've gotten into since living in Southern Oregon, [00:10:00] and it has never really not felt like meaningful work. Um, and so that's one of the things that's, that's kept me there.

Adam Davis: What's been, uh, from the beginning, have there been things that have felt—I mean, I think we've talked about the positive opportunities, are there things that have felt challenging about making that move?

Eliot Feenstra: Well, and I'll also say I moved there in 2012, I've moved away, then my, my wife and I, my now wife and I, moved back in 2020, in February 2020. Which was a different way to like start a chapter of living in Southern Oregon, you know, ten days before the pandemic started. But your question was are there things that have been challenging? Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean, sure. I mean, I don't even want to like list them all, but I guess, you know, there's a lot of things that are [00:11:00] challenging in Southern Oregon for people living in Southern Oregon, you know, that are challenging for the community, for the place, you know, what's happening around like climate change, some of the political and cultural stuff, you know, there's a lot of things that are, and every place has its challenges.

I think, you know, I've said to people like, I like the challenges in Southern Oregon, which is part of the reason that I'm still there. Um, you know, I think we also. Or I think, as a queer person, as a trans person, there's some particular, and in my broader queer community, there's some challenges that I've seen people face around accessing resources, around building community, and around safety that have been part of my experience in Southern Oregon, although not all of it, you know.

Adam Davis: I'm thinking especially about the last part of your comment about being a queer and trans person in Southern Oregon and thinking a move to a new place and a new kind of [00:12:00] place feels, I think, destabilizing in almost every instance, but I can imagine it feeling a lot more destabilizing and unsafe.

And I guess I want to ask about how, how you have moved towards feeling safe. How, as you said a few minutes ago, you know it's a place you've wanted to stay for quite a while now, even if you've gone and come back, what has made the place come to feel safe for you, particularly thinking about you as a queer trans person who moved there from somewhere else? To the extent that it does feel safe.

Eliot Feenstra: Yeah. Yeah. I was going to say, I don't know that that's 100 hundred percent [true]. You know, gosh, well, I mean, one of the things that I love about living where I do is that there's this dense network of relationships where I know so many people, the world feels kind of small and I see the people I know when I go to [00:13:00] town, when I take a walk, you know, I love that. You know, and everyone wears kind of multiple hats. So I relate to people, you know, as maybe a member of the food co-op I'm a part of, and as my neighbor. and they're a board member of this other organization, and they're—you know, whatever, like at least in a couple different intersecting ways. Somehow that feels like part of a sense of, I don't know. I mean, one part is belonging and one part is safety. I think like over time I've gotten—I just know more. I kind of know a little bit more about the landscape and the places, and I've heard more stories and other people's experiences. So that's one part. You know, I also, like, when I think about where I feel safe in my community, I think about being with a group of friends and swimming naked in the river, which goes back to that liberation relaxation piece. You know, not [00:14:00] necessarily by myself at the river, but like with a crew. I think about going to the post office and seeing like six people I know in line. I went to my wife's show at the local bar the other night and I was like, “I know 80 percent of the people here.” And sometimes in that bar, I wouldn't feel super, you know, comfortable, but it's totally different when the space is like full of people who I have a relationship with.

So I think that's the huge part—and it would be, it's taken time, and it would be different also if I moved to a new rural place to rebuild all those relationships. And I'll say, I also came into that community through a theater program called River Streets Performing Arts that was doing and continues to do community-based theater work in the public schools. And so I was working with elementary and high school and middle school kids to interview their families and community and gather all these stories. And [00:15:00] then we were making these plays to reflect back community stories and issues. And what a like profound, incredible way to enter a place and get to learn about it. Especially working with kids where there's so many different kinds of kids who end up, you know, in the public schools. And I feel like there's few spaces of adults where there's so much diversity of perspective and background as in public schools.

Adam Davis: It's interesting that you're talking about chapters and that a few minutes ago you talked about how important it's been to sort of have a crew.

Eliot Feenstra: Uh huh.

Adam Davis: And I'm wondering if you can think back to your first chapter in Josephine County. Was there a crew there? How has the crew emerged and grown over the years and what does it feel like now versus what you remember of what it felt like then?

Eliot Feenstra: That is a funny question. In part because I just found this old hard drive that [00:16:00] has like all these pictures that I thought didn't exist from that chapter of my life, and a lot of the people from that time are still in my life in different ways and doing slightly more mature versions of what we were doing and talking about ten years ago. Which is like so sweet to me and also feels like it's a testament to, I don't know, the worthwhileness of play as adults, because we were getting together doing things we didn't know how to do and also then it was actually just also spaces of experimentation.

Anyway, my crew that I moved to Southern Oregon connected to radical queer communities and, and other kinds of forest defender, land activist, land project communities, and witches. And I also moved there with, uh, with my [00:17:00] tighter crew that was my chosen family at the time, which was Zee and Fox.

And they're still in my life and, you know, doing other really amazing projects now. Anyway, that was the crew then we hosted a bunch of gatherings. We did an artist residency. There was, I mean, some of it looking back feels like it was prescient. Something that was smarter than we knew it was at the time or something—like we were doing this hundred-year visioning, which is like arrogant to—you know? Like here's our hundred-year vision for the Rogue Valley, you know, and then we were also doing things that seemed—like we hosted a gathering that was for queer folks wanting to move to the country about, sort of, skill-sharing and around [questions of] how do you do that?

And what are the barriers, and what does it take? And I'd say my crew now is a little bit more—I don't know. There's different circles. You know, I have a crew that [00:18:00] are my neighbors. We have a games night through COVID. We had a weekly Pinochle game and that, you know—that was my bubble for a while.

There's also kind of—Southern Oregon's kind of spread out. So in terms of the queer community, there tends to be lots of events in Medford and Ashland. But then there's, I mean, there are lots of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer people in Josephine County, but there's a lot less organization and infrastructure. So there are sometimes these events that then reveal that there's this huge community. But there's—outside of those events, sometimes there's not ways that people stay connected, and that makes it really hard for new people.

Adam Davis: Did you know there was that depth and extent of queer and trans community in Josephine County when you moved there?

Eliot Feenstra: Definitely not. No way. Yeah. I think I got a whisper maybe [00:19:00] that there, that there is a, you know, important gay and lesbian Back to the Lander history in Southern Oregon. I think I knew maybe that much. And I had some experiences of like being in an intergenerational gay queer space in Southern Oregon, which was kind of the first time that had happened in my life. And that was quite transformative to me and is definitely part of why I'm still there. And now it is something that I see as like part of the work I'm doing in my life. Or that I think I should be doing or I keep trying to do or whatever, which is kind of like creating those intergenerational queer spaces.

Adam Davis: Because when you talked about early on, sort of developing that workshop, maybe for queer folks who might be new to rural places, my guess is one of the concerns might be, are my people going to be here?

Eliot Feenstra: Yeah. Uh huh. I have to say in, in hindsight, it [00:20:00] also mirrors kind of, another wave of settler colonialism in a way that I feel embarrassed about, like calling queer people to move to a place as if that place doesn't already have a depth and richness of culture that includes—well, because what it turns out actually there's tons of queer people who are already there. I guess I just want to name that sort of hindsight that I think there's some complicatedness there.

Adam Davis: Because you were coming in from outside?

Eliot Feenstra: Yeah, and trying to like call other people along with us enough to have a critical mass without really being, like, deeply connected to the history of what was already happening there and the people who are there, which is not on the surface at all, you know? But, um, I called somebody up in preparation for this conversation, and I learned, you know, this is ten years into living in this area. I learned that in the 80s, there were multiple out lesbian softball teams in the [00:21:00] Illinois Valley. And like, that is crazy to me. I love that. You know, that history is not anywhere. Like, mostly the history sometimes—like the Southern Oregon Historical Society, I reached out before a project one time asking what they had on lesbian, gay, queer history in the area. And the only story they had was about the Abdill-Ellis murders, which were this—they were a lesbian couple, and they went to check out an apartment and got murdered, which was a horrible, homophobic act of violence. And then people organized a center and named it the Abdill-Ellis Center. Anyway, that story is important. But there's a lot of other stories, you know? And so now I know a little bit more—enough to look back on the sense that I had ten years ago of like, “Oh, I have to move here and get all my friends to move here so that I'm safe. And I'm like, it doesn't sit quite right anymore. I wouldn't do that now.

Adam Davis: It's [00:22:00] super interesting to think about coming in with your crew.

Eliot Feenstra: Yeah.

Adam Davis: I guess I'm thinking about, again, the difficulty of being new in a place and what makes that more difficult or what makes it less difficult, but also about I think especially if you're, if you're feeling vulnerable, when you go to a place, you go to a place where you might know less and feel like I'm a little bit more at risk. The argument for going with some other folks is—I don't think that many people are going to quarrel with that.

Eliot Feenstra: Sure.

Adam Davis: Yeah. Can I just push a little bit on the safety question?

Eliot Feenstra: Mm hmm.

Adam Davis: I can imagine it was still, even coming in with some of your crew, some friends, some people who you felt like, yeah, these are people I belong with, and we're here together and we're working on similar things.

I guess I want to ask you about the extent to which Josephine County felt like a hospitable place for you.

Eliot Feenstra: I moved [00:23:00] with this crew of friends. In that period, I think, in that chapter, I think I had, um—I maybe saw the community as somewhat hostile and felt like we were creating this kind of temporary autonomous zone or other kind of space. So I lived there for about two and a half years and then moved to a different small town to be part of this theater program. And that was a really different experience. I didn't move there with a crew. And I had heard there were some stories about the community that, like, this is a scary place. You know, this is a dangerous place. This is a place you have to watch out, especially you, especially people like you. And I had a friend who said to me, like, he had worked in the schools, and he said, “Never be alone with a kid.” Like, you just, [00:24:00] it's just not safe for you—which then, sort of, you know, down the road, it's like, how am I supposed to be a parent, you know? But anyway, so I kind of got some warning. So in that situation, or like in that chapter, especially early in that chapter, I was on high alert all the time. Well, this was, yeah, this was a story I was kind of thinking about. So when I was working in the public schools, the principal called me in the first day and said, “Mr. Eliott, what are you what are you doing here?”

And I was I was like, “I'm here to teach theater.” He was like, “No, but like, what are you doing? What's your agenda?” And I was like, “I'm really here to teach theater.” And they had the HR lady there, and they sat me down and they were like, okay, you can't tell the kids that you're trans. Like that would—how are we going to do this? How are we going to kind of manage you here? You know, you can't tell the kids that you're trans. That would be [00:25:00] absolutely inappropriate. We had, we talked about how are we going to do pronouns? They decided, “Okay, the kids will call you Mr. Eliot. But if they ask why, you can't say anything about it.”

Oh, and on my way out, they were like, “Oh yeah, we did have another trans person who worked here, you know, years ago, but that went really badly. Like we got rid of her.” And so in my mind, I'm like, okay, one like transmisogyny. They were like, we can tell you're different. So it's like, bad sign, you know, that, or just to say, they're kind of like, you're a different kind of trans person than this probably trans woman. you know, who had whatever experience, they didn't tell me more. So that was my first day of class.

And maybe a year and a half into teaching, doing some really amazing work, you know, in the community. I was, one afternoon, [00:26:00] I was in, In the little classroom, helping the last kid put on her shoes, and I heard, I heard somebody yelling, and I went out to see what was going on, and there was somebody there yelling, like, about me and for me, and so I started talking to this person—they were a parent of the kid that I had just been helping. And they were really upset and accusing me of hurting their kid and saying that they were going to talk to the principal and get me fired and what was I doing there? And talking about my gender. And this was like all the things that I was afraid of happening. You know, that it's like, “Oh no, I was just alone with the kid putting on her shoes in the room and I did it wrong. I didn't listen to my friend!” Or, you know, like, but it's not my fault. But anyway, I'm in this situation, which usually, you know, I just like shut down and try to get out of [00:27:00] the situation. And the person said, “I'm going to send my mother to come talk to you.”

So, I mean, I was a mess, and the next day the child's grandmother came, and I saw her standing on the basketball court, and she had this, like, she was wearing this red bandana and looked kind of butch, like kind of masculine, like kind of like me, you know? And I was kind of like, okay, this is interesting. And you know, I'm totally petrified, and I go talk to her, and we start trying to sort it out, like, what happened? And I think immediately, I don't know if she said it or I just felt it, but like, she's trying to—she sees me, like she's trying to protect me in this situation. And there were kind of all these layers of confusion. Like I would sit outside the school and smoke cigarettes, and it turns out that where I was [00:28:00] sitting was across from somebody's house, and so they thought I was stalking them, and, you know, and that was me trying to kind of like have a little bit of respite after this kind of stressful institutional situation. And I was making this piece with the kids about legacy and what they inherited and what they wanted to leave behind, which was to me rooted in this all this kind of thinking about our relationship to place and ancestors and part of a broader agenda of decolonization. And it tripped this family's panic that that the kid was coming home asking about ancestors. And it was—so it was bringing up all this stuff. And we just sort of like sorted it out. And I had been living in that town thinking that I was like the only queer person, like that was the story that I had. And so kind of at this same moment that I had, that all of my fears came true, then it was like, “Oh, actually, that story was wrong.” Like [00:29:00] I'm meeting this other, you know, I don't know how she identified exactly, but the same kind of person who sees what's going on—and we're figuring it out, you know, and it's not just me here.

So that was a turning point. That was an early turning point. A lot of things have happened since then, but it started to shift my story about who is in the community and who lives there. And that's part of shifting my sense of safety and belonging, and even my story about whether I have a right to live there or whether it's okay that I live there or something like that, you know?

Adam Davis: There's so much in that story, uh, including the word story, which you went to multiple times. And in a way it sounded like something you were saying was you had an idea about what the place was and where you did or didn't belong in that place. [00:30:00] And that the idea, you came to see that your idea about it might not correspond fully to the way the place actually is or what your place in it might be.

I'm thinking about what you said about the tires. And being on high alert every time you would come out of the store, like you had a story in your head. And I guess I wonder about the way the story you had in your head did or didn't end up moving towards what you felt to be the place.

Eliot Feenstra: I mean, I'm less—when I go into Grocery Outlet, I no longer really think that my tires are going to get slashed, but I'm not 100 percent sure. But, you know, it has changed. I think there's—I mean, there's two things in there. [00:31:00] One is—okay, well, actually, there's three things that are coming to mind. One is that the thing, one of the things I came into this conversation wanting to do was not like underplay violence against trans people or say whether anyone feels safe, or whether that sense of safety is real or made up in your head, because it's just like, not the moment, you know? Really bad things are happening. You know, there's people, it's—there's reasons that people don't feel safe. So that's one. The other one was, I think something that happened right around the same time is that the town, the community was doing this strategic visioning process, like a 2020 visioning process. And there were all of these open participatory community visioning meetings where they were asking, like, what's your vision for, you know, how this community is going to evolve? And we were doing kind of some similar stuff [00:32:00] with the students in the school, like asking them questions and then turning it into performance pieces and stuff. So we started to kind of like, the kids were not that interested in going to these participatory planning visioning meetings, but we started to kind of like create a little crossover and even with the elementary schoolers, like, what's your vision for the town? And they were like, “Ice cream falling from the sky!” And then we would have the high schoolers start making pieces with that. And, you know, then I would bring that up in the community meeting. Anyway, I had never been in a process before where it felt that open, where it was like you could just show up and be part of, like, what do you want this community to look like? And implicit in there is the idea that people should have a say, and that the people who show up could have a say in what the community will be, and even that we cocreate our community. Like I think I thought that was a very radical idea that was only happening in radical spaces. I [00:33:00] actually think it still is a radical idea. I think there's a lot of really radical things that happen in rural communities because you kind of got to make it happen, or whatever. There's, you know—people can step into their power and, and because they see, you know, that there's room or that they're called to it in a way that's really beautiful. And so I think that participating in that visioning process was also a turning point that was happening at kind of the same time, where I was like, maybe I'm actually wanted here or part of this. Maybe my story doesn't quite fit.

Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour with Eliot Feenstra.

I'm wondering about, uh, sort of knowing and being known, [00:34:00] which feels like it's underneath some of what you've been talking about. Knowing the place, knowing the people there. Feeling known for who you are or thinking about you out in the car smoking for respite. And across the street, there's a house where people are perceiving, like—in a way, both sides are getting the other side of the street wrong. And like, what if they knew you were just chilling out in the car? And why you needed to chill out?

Eliot Feenstra: Gosh, that feels like—it's like, so many people are afraid of each other. And if they knew that the other person was just chilling, you know? I mean, maybe that's like, you know, maybe that's taking whatever—racism and transphobia and all those things that that get like layered onto fear to make it dangerous—you know, like out of the picture, but yeah, what if?

Adam Davis: Yeah I guess I'm wondering if [00:35:00] over time when the way you responded to my question some minutes ago like, “Well, are you asking about what I when I first moved here or now?” I wonder how much of the shift is about, like, both [that] you're getting to know the place and people there are getting to know you. And somehow that means that the stories are running into the reality, and the hope is that reality will actually move in the direction of more safety and less fear. I guess, does it feel like that's happening? Is that wishful thinking?

Eliot Feenstra: I don't really think that's what's happening. That's not my read. But, you know, but for whom? You know, I think—I'm thinking a lot about newcomers to the community that I live in and how to help people have a different experience than what I had, because to me, it seems like sort of a [00:36:00] shame that I thought for so long that I was alone, because I—and I think the stakes of that can be high. I mean, people feel so alone that they, that they die, you know? Um, so that's, I'm thinking about that a lot. And yeah, I think there's another piece: I worked for a couple years, over the past couple years, as a queer community organizer, which was sort of getting to take some of my own experience and then try to figure out how to organize around making it different, which was just a really beautiful thing to get to be part of, um, and hard, like, because it's hard to change things, and everything takes longer than I think [it will], you know? I don't know, maybe that's part of being in my thirties, but just even naming that there might be a distance between the sort of the story that I have about my own safety and kind [00:37:00] of like.

People see Josephine County as just like unsafe or rural areas as unsafe and, you know, and that story—also for queer people and people of color and lots of different kinds of people—that we don't belong in rural spaces or that we aren't safe in the woods, like, that sucks, you know? It cuts us off from all of these kind of this sort of resource around, you know, liberation and relaxation and connection to land, which is like deeply part of being human, you know? And I want that to change. And I know that rural communities are like richer when there's diversity and that in that diversity, there's like strength, and the movement advancement project like has this, I don't know, somewhere in their work, I stumbled across this idea that like rural communities tend to amplify acceptance and rejection, which I think is really beautiful. I've felt both. Like [00:38:00] I've felt more belonging and intimacy and connection than I have in any other place. And also the sense of like aloneness or the fear that's attached to rejection has felt, like, so much more extreme and higher stakes in terms of like literally my ability to be alive or, you know, meet my basic needs, you know, than definitely anywhere else that I've lived because it's more about people than it is—at least, at least in my experience—it's more about people than it is about kind of like institutions or social safety nets, because those also don't like exist as well or as much, you know, so even just like, how do you have a working car? Like, so many basic needs things are related to your ability to rely on other people.

Adam Davis: That word amplify in that context is really powerful, but it amplifies, there's a kind of indiscriminate amplification.

Eliot Feenstra: Mm hmm.

Adam Davis: The positive side would be your, your [00:39:00] example about. community visioning, which sounds quite beautiful. Lots of challenges too, like never be alone with a student because of the risk you put yourself at. That's a kind of amplification too, it feels like.

Let me ask, you have been, even in the time we've been talking now, you've talked about a number of different complicated, difficult, I would say in some sense, uh, risky projects that you've been engaged in for work. I like that you're laughing. Can I ask why you laughed when you heard that back to describe that?

Eliot Feenstra: I don't know. It's just, it's just funny. You know, I'm like, I haven't even told you about some of the weird [00:40:00] things that I've done for work or, you know, that are like normal and other kinds of spaces in my life. But you know, I guess it's just funny to have those things like reflected back as risky sometimes. I just hadn't thought about it that way, I guess.

Adam Davis: Yeah. Risky for the reasons we've been talking about. Risky because you're putting yourself out there in community and you've been told by people, “Hey, you got to be a little careful.” Uh, risky because you're getting people talking about ancestry and the vision for the community going forward. Risky because you're trying to organize community, which it seems to me is risky. So I want to ask you about, uh, maybe this is too obvious a question: Why that work? Why do you keep doing this kind of work in that place?

Eliot Feenstra: Hmm. That's a [00:41:00] funny question. I mean, I guess it's a funny question because sometimes it's felt like the only thing that makes sense or is the next thing, but I read the whole Earthsea Chronicles last summer by Ursula Le Guin, and there's this part in there where—I mean, this is, whatever, there's a thousand ways to answer your question. There's this part in there where the—where one, I think, I forget the characters, but one wizard who's like a quite wise wizard says to this other person, like, the thing that you learn in like becoming wise is to only do the thing that you have to do.

I've had the privilege of choices in my life. It's, like, doing what's meaningful and important and it feels like it wants to be done and kind of something that feels a little unbearable about like not feeling like useful or like I'm using the gifts and resources that [00:42:00] have been given to me to do something worthwhile.

And I think I felt that working to create spaces of belonging and shift some of the stories around queer people's fear of rural spaces, like shift some of those stories in queer community about what rural spaces are, and then shift some of the community, some of the conversation in rural community about who we are and who lives here. And like the idea that queer people are dangerous, it's like, that seems so old, but it's also like not that old—or things that are old actually are just like still alive under the surface. And, you know, and it's dangerous to be perceived as dangerous. So like, you know, kind of working on those different stories and, like, that feels like good, you know? That feels like good work.

Adam Davis: There's a good shrug right at the end of that comment. Last thing I want to ask, I think before closing is a little bit meta, so I apologize. And that's [00:43:00] like, do you feel like there's a question that keeps popping up for you in your head about the work you were just describing? Is there kind of a persistent wondering you have about something?

Eliot Feenstra: Well, in relationship to being a queer person in Southern Oregon, one thing is that there's, you know, these like horrible transphobic laws that are passing in all these different states and Oregon is in some ways like a sanctuary or a place that queer and trans people, many of whom have come from other places—including me, you know—because there's more protections and in part that came out of, you know, like all of the [ballot] measure nine and like fighting homophobic bills in the 90s, like there's this thing where when things when there's opposition or things get bad, then there's like all of this creative brilliance and coming together that comes out. And I totally feel that in [00:44:00] Southern Oregon. And I look to the South. I think there's a lot of, like, amazing stuff happening there. But I mean, I think there's just a question of like, how do we create senses of safety, even if they're like for a little while, you know, for like our people? And how do we organize ourselves? And how do we make safe spaces? And it's sort of a simple, obvious question, except that like, I don't know, it hasn't felt simple in the living of it. You know? And then what does that kind of solidarity look like across places? And how to kind of meet people and support people where they are? And I mean, there's so many questions, but that's one of them.

Like, I'm thinking about that just to make it just to, like, let it be small. Like, I'm thinking about that in the community that I live in, like, I know that there's some really hard and bad stuff that has happened for, like, some people and some young people in the community. And it's kind of like, OK. You know, there's not going to [00:45:00] be an LGBTQ center that's just going to pop up by somebody else, you know? So it's just like, what makes sense? What's the, what are the small steps? What's the way of getting together to kind of make something different even just for a little while and, you know, how do we do it together? Like, I'm totally against working alone, so I'm always kind of looking around, you know, like, what are you thinking? What are you thinking, Adam?

Adam Davis: I mean, one thing I'm thinking is, uh, you are always looking around for people to work with. That's clear. It's clear from listening to you talk for the last chunk of time and to have been fortunate to be one of the people that in some way, uh, I've gotten to work with you in the past. And so, uh, hearing you talk about this is, uh, I feel lucky to hear you talk about it and to get more of a sense even of what you're doing in your place. And so I want to say thanks. I want to thank you for talking today and I want to thank you for the work you're doing and, uh, the combination of what [00:46:00] feels like very large ambition and a real kind of, uh, realism and even a modesty about how you're talking about it and thinking about it. So Thank you.

Eliot Feenstra: Thanks. You know, I started working with Oregon Humanities right in the middle of those chapters, you know? And it kind of helped carve out a space of reflection and community and belonging, which has like deeply served me.

Adam Davis: Eliot Feenstra is a facilitator, teaching artist, farmer, and theater maker. He lives with his partner in Takilma, Oregon.

You can find links to Eliot's work in our show notes at oregonhumanities.org. And every other episode of [00:47:00] The Detour online at the same place: oregonhumanities.org.

Keiren Bond: Hello everyone listening. I'm Keiren Bond, the producer for The Detour. And you are Adam, the host of The Detour. That was an amazing conversation with Eliot. In your conversation, he mentioned that he'd done some work with Oregon Humanities. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Adam Davis: Sure. Yeah. It's actually exciting to think about the work that we've gotten to do with Eliot. Eliot is one of a handful of people who do some facilitation training, uh, around the state and sometimes around the country.

And it's a particular kind of facilitation training where we work with groups of 15 to 25 people. to get them more comfortable, more skilled, leading challenging conversations in their own communities, at their workplace, where they worship, where they volunteer. So the nice thing about that training, or one of the nice things, is it's forward pointed. You're like, we're going to get you some skills. But in order [00:48:00] to do that, we also have two days of experience of having challenging conversations with each other, led by different people participating in the training. It's like a lot of intense conversation among people who care about their communities and the difficult things going on in them.

And so Eliot has been working with us to do that, again, around the state and around the country. And that's part of the kind of experimental work—I think it's part of the experimental portfolio of things that Eliot's working on in the world and that Oregon Humanities is working on in the world.

Keiren Bond: Right. I'm curious what outcomes are people hoping for out of this facilitation training, both within the training in the two days, and then maybe you have some examples of how they've taken that from Oregon Humanities into their own communities and organizations?

Adam Davis: Yeah. And that's good that you asked about outcomes of the experience of the training and also sort of go forward outcomes. I think from the training, the stuff we consistently [00:49:00] hear is people feel really connected to a group of people that they either don't know or don't know as well as they do once it's over. And super excited to have spent those days with this group of people hearing different perspectives, hearing about the work different people do. I think it brings Oregon and sometimes other places more fully into, uh, relief and, uh, also inspires hope because generally the folks going through this training are doing great work in their communities and are trying to improve what's going on.

So that's one outcome. I think people get some good hard skills like shaping questions. What's an open-ended question? How do you come up with a question? How do you scaffold them so that the first questions are approachable, that their entry points are footholds and later become, you know, before you know it, 20 minutes in, you're talking about some of the hardest stuff we think about in our lives.

And if you started with that question, nobody would be able to get in there. But [00:50:00] if you've asked small questions along the way that invite people in, then 20 minutes in you can be really deep. Uh, and Eliot's very good at that, and I think that's the kind of thing that we want to both model and help people see clearly, demystify what good questions are, demystify what good facilitation is.

So we tried to divide it into, What do you do when you're actually in a room with people? How do you carry your body? How do you greet people? How do you have folks introduce themselves? What kind of questions are you asking? Are you putting a photograph or a reading in front of people? Something that's going to give folks a shared experience, that's going to help them reflect together? We also want to focus on planning. What do you do before you get in the room? How do you invite people? How do you explain what you're going to be doing and why? So, those sorts of things. And it's especially, I think, the skills and the confidence that carry forward. We hear about that.

I ran into someone a few days ago in Sisters who had been through a training seven years ago. We haven't [00:51:00] kept in contact. I was meeting someone else in Sisters and ran into this person who was there and she said, “I went through that training several years ago,” and I remembered her. She went through the training in Portland and she works up in Seattle. She's writing a book right now and she uses aspects of the training in shaping the discussions. She leads in her work—and we hear that regularly, that sometimes it's not the whole thing all the time, but maybe it means if you're starting a board meeting, you're going to shape it a little differently. If you're thinking about questions that will invite new volunteers to feel more connected to each other and the organization they're volunteering with—those sorts of things are some of the outcomes we see.

So those reflective discussion facilitation trainings that Eliot has been helping lead, anybody could come and participate in that and take what they learn and apply it in their own context. They could be at Tillamook or at Tonkin Torp, the law firm. They could be [00:52:00] anywhere and they want to get a little bit better at facilitating group conversation.

We also train people who will lead Oregon Humanities conversation programs. And often that's in the form of one program called the Conversation Project. And that's basically a rotating catalog of topics that any community organization around the state can request. They can go, “Oh, I want to get us talking about death and dying.” Or, “I want to get my community talking about why there aren't more black people in Oregon.” Or, “I want to get people talking about our relationship to the wild.” They simply request that from the catalog that they see, and then we send out the person who proposed that topic, and they facilitate the conversation in the community that requested it for the group that shows up.

And in that case, those are 90-minute conversations. It's kind of a plug-and-play program where a public library with very few staff, or no staff, can have the facilitator come out. What they do, the library [00:53:00] provides the space, helps do some outreach to get people there. But the facilitation and a lot of the comms materials to get people there are done by Oregon Humanities. And that program's been a key part of what we do for probably 12 years now.

You know, just to get back to your question about outcomes, both for the conversation project and for other conversations we run—and, frankly, for the training—there are three buckets that we're really after. And the first is trust and relationships. Participating in these conversations and the trainings, we hope, will improve the amount of trust you have for the people you're there with and strengthen the relationships. So that's the first bucket. Whatever the topic, trust in relationships.

Second, inquiry and reflection. We want to create more space for questions, especially questions we'll wonder about together. So that's an outcome. And it's not one that's normally measured, but is there more [00:54:00] room for wondering together about stuff that matters to both of us?

And then the third one, and again this is true both with conversations and with trainings, it's the sense of agency. We're hoping that people will feel more connected to and capable of shaping their communities. They'll feel like, uh, I care more and I see more ways into shaping what this place is and might become. I'm biased. I think any hard work we do in the world—or almost all hard work we do in the world, especially when it comes to shaping the world in ways we want it to be shaped—means we need to get better at listening to each other, better at wondering together, better at asking questions that we ourselves find to be open-ended questions.

So anybody who does something in the world that's in some sense values-based, like who cares about justice, or who cares about community, we I think the opportunity to get in a room with [00:55:00] other people who might care about that and see it slightly differently, that's going to be a valuable experience. I also think if you're any sort of role, if you're in any sort of role with your organization or in your community that has you responsible for how groups of people are working on stuff together, it's good to learn how to mix up the format a bit and not always be after consensus, not always be after an immediate solution, but to really work on helping people remember why they come to that activity in the first place and helping people really see the other people in the room as people. Those things generally help good work get done in the world, and it helps people stay with difficult work over time.

Keiren Bond: Sounds like a good foundation building and then also possibly a really good reset for people and organizations.

Adam Davis: Yeah. I don't think it ends. I think, uh, connection actually to the work and to the other people is essential to the doing and the reflecting. So I think it's how we do [00:56:00] good work in the world throughout our lives and throughout organizational life. You're never really done with the hard work at an organization. When things are going well, it's still good to reflect on it. When things are going badly, it's still good to reflect on it and it's good to have many people who feel ready to get folks talking.

Keiren Bond: Who can access these programs?

Adam Davis: So, the reflective discussion facilitation trainings we offer both in person and online, and anyone can access both. We try to host the trainings in different places around the state. We have one coming up in Klamath Falls. We often run them in Portland. Ran one in Redmond last year. We're running one out in Maupin soon, mainly for library staff and partners. And then there'll be one in Newport in the fall, again for library staff and partners.

We run open-call virtual trainings when people can come in from anywhere. There's nothing that disqualifies someone from participating. In other words, no matter what, we're going to try to make it work for you to be there. And so [00:57:00] whether that's price or barriers to participation, that's one of the reasons for the two options, both in person and online.

It can really help with—everyone's showing up and participating in whatever way works for them. Often organizations will send people, especially if they have a team that they're responsible for facilitating meetings with, that sort of thing.

Keiren Bond: Is there a training you ran with Eliot that feels especially memorable to you?

Adam Davis: There's a training that Eliot and I ran in Central Delaware at Killens Pond State Park with a group of people—the Delaware Humanities Council was trying to help prepare to start a new conversation program in Delaware. So this is central Delaware, pretty rural, middle of the state. Eliot and I—I remember the drive there. I remember there was a little exhibit at the nature center where we were meeting. There was a kind of little frog display in the next room. And yeah, [00:58:00] we had two days of sitting with people from all over Delaware, talking about hard questions and connecting, and then got to drive back toward in a couple hours the other way, got to share dinner at Rudy's diner in Harrington, Delaware. And I remember the conversations in the car between Eliot and me felt a lot like the conversations we're having around the room at Killens Pond State Park, except closer, even more open, and I feel like through the work, we both got more comfortable with each other. We're able to have those conversations in the car. In the car, we've gotten more comfortable with each other, can do more of the work together. And so this is one, to me, one of the exciting things about this work that Oregon Humanities does. Before you know it, you're like building friends[ships] all over the place, and it feels like friends for life that defy the organizational [00:59:00] beginnings in the way that I think we all hope for.

The Detour is produced by Kieran Bond. Kyle Gilmer is our editor. Ben Waterhouse, Karina Briski, and Alexandra Silvester are our assistant producers. I'm your host, Adam Davis. Thanks for listening. See you next time.

Related

Other Episodes