Picture rural America.

What is the setting — farmland, forest, desert? What buildings do you see — a small town,  houses dotting the landscape? Who lives there — what is their background, what do they do?

Each person who imagines rural America will likely generate their own picture, whether it’s based on personal experience or based on what they’ve seen in the media.

But this often fails to  reflect the vast geography of the rural U.S., made up of varied places with unique histories, landscapes, and peoples.

As a result, our own pictures of rural America can be limiting, which is why we created the Rural Aperture Project, a multi-story series funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Thrive Rural initiative, that uses data to shift the national conversation about racial and economic equity in rural places. 

Much like a photographer adjusting the aperture and exposure on a camera to bring additional details into focus, we have collaborated with  MDC, our partner organization that brings expertise in research on equity issues, to publish data visualizations and accompanying narratives that create a more accurate portrayal of rural America. By zooming in and out to look at rural America on local, regional, and national levels, we can better understand rural America today and begin to debunk long-standing myths and misconceptions.

The Rural Aperture Project is intended to provide all those advancing rural prosperity — from practitioners to journalists, researchers, philanthropists, and government officials — with accessible data, graphics, and narratives to inform how they can better tell stories, conduct research, distribute resources, make investments, or develop policy that is backed by up-to-date data. All data visualizations will be available for download and public use, which we highly encourage.   

Rural Aperture Project data stories

Over the course of the next few months, we will be releasing a series of these data stories, with each story building on the last:

  • The consequences of how we count: This story dives into how the different definitions of “rural” used by the federal government paint vastly different pictures of rural places, and have major implications in both how stories are told and funds are distributed.
  • While the image of rural America is often portrayed predominantly white, conservative, and low-income, this two-part story focuses on the often overlooked and misunderstood realities of racial and ethnic diversity in rural America.
  • How the rise of the knowledge economy, driven by technological advancements, has accelerated economic inequities, and what it has meant for rural America.
  • In our final story, we turn our focus to rural communities that are most affected by various systemic inequities but who are nonetheless demonstrating signs of vitality and improvement.

About our partners

MDC: MDC is a nonprofit organization that partners with Southern leaders and communities to catalyze systemic change and allows more people to thrive, and offers research and analysis, community change and advisory services that can help communities create an “infrastructure of opportunity” — the aligned systems and supports that can boost everyone, particularly those who’ve been left behind, to higher rungs on the economic ladder.

Thrive Rural: A small group of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantees is working collaboratively towards a future where communities and Native nations across the rural United States are places where each and every person belongs, lives with dignity, and thrives. This work is one piece of that effort. For more information, please visit, ThriveRural.org.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committed to improving health and health equity in the U.S. In partnership with others, it is working to develop a Culture of Health rooted in equity that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have.