HOPKINS, Mo. — The path between Maryville and the land on which Jess Piper lives stretches close to 20 miles, cutting through the vast fields of row crop and hoards of windmills that surround Missouri Route 148. There are grain silos and industrial-sized tractors among the rolling hills. There are signs for political candidates, almost none of whom are Democrats. There are more cornfields than houses, it seems. More shipping trucks pass through this stretch of Route 148 each day than there are residents with addresses on the roadway.
Between the “Randy Strong for Sheriff” signs and those promoting Gov. Mike Parson’s election campaign, there aren’t many inklings of liberal views, save for a “YES on Amendment 2” sign along one cornfield, nearly 5 miles away from Hopkins, Missouri. The same scenery persists once in the rural town of 532 residents.
The stretch of road that leads to Piper’s gravel driveway takes drivers by a Baptist church, a profane Trump sign and to a brick-red farmhouse on 5 acres of land, where bypassers might see Piper’s well-maintained flowerbed, the American flag she flies proudly, her overgrown vegetable garden or the two Joe Biden signs stuck firmly in her front lawn.
This is where Piper, an American Literature teacher at Maryville High School and an advocate for social justice, lives: in a picture-eqsue farmhouse near the outskirts of a conservative community where the Biden signs planted in her freshly-trimmed front yard separate her from many of her neighbors, perhaps as much as Piper’s politics do.
“I think I probably stand out because I am rural,” she said, sitting in a wooden chair underneath the shade of a tall Oak tree in her front lawn, steps away from the sidewalk, covered in grass clippings, that leads to her family’s front door. Piper tapped her right foot as she talked, flattening the grass beneath it a little more each time. She wore fashionable sandals and canary yellow toenail polish, a shade that matched her chandelier earrings and her facemask. “I am, you know, not your typical liberal.”
Piper, 44, is the card-carrying, door-knocking type of Democrat who hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since the first George Bush, when she was still stuck to the ideology she was taught growing up. Raised in a conservative household and brought up in Fundamentalist Baptist churches scattered across the South, Piper has emerged as an unlikely voice in an unlikely place.
From Louisiana to Mississippi to Arkansas, Piper has lived in the most conservative corners of some of the country’s reddest states, and now she’s helping man the progressive front of a nationwide culture war in rural Nodaway County, where row crop is king and where conservatives win in landslides and where Piper raises cattle and chickens and children and fights for what she believes in every chance she gets.
“I can’t stand back while people are actually harmed,” said Piper, who has grown increasingly vocal since casting a fruitless vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. In the 43 months since President Donald Trump took office, Piper has started carrying poster boards and sharpies in the trunk of her Volkswagen Passat, never unprepared for a protest. She’s knocked doors for candidates like Claire McCaskill and Henry Martin — both of whom lost to Republicans in 2018. Her Twitter following has grown from less than 20 to more than 8,000 as Piper speaks up, louder now than ever.
“We’ve seen policies before that could harm people,” she said, critiquing the Trump Administration's actions and inactions, both in the last four months and the last four years. “But this is a — it’s like purposeful to hurt people. … It’s that weird culture war. It’s just things meant to harm other people — especially people who are already oppressed.”
Born on a military base in Louisiana to conservative parents who would later divorce, Piper grew up dirt-poor while moving across the South — the kind of poor that left Piper and her sister without food often, that left Piper behind on class field trips, that left her searching and voting for causes and candidates that supported people like her. Piper grew up in the kind of poverty that made her different, she said. It made her want to fight.
But if it was poverty and hunger that lit a fire in Piper, it was Trump’s election that fanned the flame, or perhaps more accurately, doused the flame with gasoline. Piper has lived in Hopkins for three years, though the changes she’s seen since 2016 have extended far beyond the city limits of the place she calls home now and far beyond the state of Missouri.
Piper is used to conservative rhetoric, of course. But what she’s seen and heard in the 1,300-something days since Trump took office is different than what she used to see and hear.
“I can’t stand back while people are actually harmed.”
There have been friends and even family members who Piper thought were decent people who have grown into something she doesn’t recognize, touting racist ideology and spreading views Piper isn’t really sure they even believe, she said. She has an uncle who has stopped speaking to her since Election Day 2016. Her stepfather won’t let her into her own mother’s home. She didn’t talk to her dad for much of two years.
And the rhetoric aside — although it never really is — the disconnect between Piper, a self-described moderate and sensible Democrat, and those on the other side of the aisle has only grown in the COVID-19 era. She has watched as elected leaders at the state and federal levels have been slow to action as the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 170,000 Americans. She’s watched Parson refuse to issue a mask mandate as cases spike in Missouri. She’s watched officials call for the reopening of schools, putting teachers like her in danger while many officials making those calls nationwide meet via Zoom.
And as she’s listened, over the last four years and the last five months, to the racist rhetoric and the misinformation, and as she’s witnessed the actions and inactions that have harmed or will harm Piper and people like her, she’s grown frustrated, both with the officials and their constituents, with politicians voting for destructive policy changes and the citizens voting for those politicians.
Living in a county that Trump carried by close to 40% in 2016, and in a congressional district he carried by 30, Piper has a question for her rural neighbors, both in a literal and figurative sense, a question that’s been growing louder and more urgent with each passing day since Nov. 8, 2016:
“I look around and think, ‘How in the world could you guys vote for these people again?”
Twenty sixteen changed all of us. It radicalized Jess Piper.
Embracing Her Voice
In his 30 years in education, Dennis Vinzant has seen a vast array of changes come to the field. The English department chair at Maryville High School has watched as classrooms have experienced technology upgrades and as school lunches have weathered a myriad of alterations, and perhaps most importantly, Vinzant has watched as teachers have started to push back against American ideals, confronting those ideals with American realism.
Teachers — particularly in the literature and history fields — have grown from cheerleaders for the Founding Fathers into educators with a more realistic and critical view of the past 250 years or so, Vinzant said, while they’ve received pushback from parents and community members every step of the way. There was a time, Vinzant said, when he was scrutinized for teaching “Of Mice And Men,” the Great Depression-era John Steinbeck novella that landed on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most challenged books in the 21st Century for its vulgarity.
“It is something that we all face to a certain extent,” Vinzant said. But, he said, Piper has probably experienced it more than any other teacher he’s been around in the last decade or so.
As she navigates how to teach students American literature through a modern-day scope, highlighting the hypocrisy of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the words “all men are created equal” as a slave owner, Piper has received backlash, from parents and from elsewhere. She’s been accused of brainwashing, Vinzant said. She’s been targeted, in essence, for wanting students to think critically, and for wanting those students to back up their opinions with evidence that might support their claims, an idea that has somehow been received as radical at times, Vinzant said.
For Vinzant, who oversees Piper at Maryville High School and has worked alongside her for a half-decade, the pushback serves as a paradox. Critics equate the type of realism taught in Maryville’s English department with an attack on American values. But Vinzant said American idealism has always been challenged in American literature. It’s not the job of teachers like Piper and Vinzant to paint a rosy picture of what the country is and isn’t, he said. It’s their job to paint America’s portrait as it is.
“Being in a very conservative area here,” Vinzant said over the phone, pausing and sighing, carefully choosing her next words, “they’re uncomfortable with anything that’s not reinforcing what they already believe.”
They’re uncomfortable, of course, with Piper.
She knows it can be difficult to separate her from her politics, but Piper insists her beliefs don’t make their way into her lesson plans, though the subject matter she teaches does lend itself to social justice. And it’s true that Piper teaches the state-mandated curriculum differently than other teachers might, differently than how parents might have learned it, differently than Piper learned it herself.
The way Piper was taught, she said, both in literature and social studies, there were entire groups of people left out by way of whitewashed textbooks and lesson plans that ignore the darkest chapters in American history. Piper doesn’t ignore those chapters, and her refusal to do so is at times at odds with conventional wisdom, and perhaps more tangibly, at odds with some conservative parents and students in the community.
“I have a thick file,” Piper said. “It’s like a binder with tabs now.”
There is an actual file, Piper said, with actual letters in it. Still, the district granted her tenure last year.
Vinzant said parents seem to be used to an era when teachers didn’t have much of a voice, or at least, didn’t use it. Piper has embraced hers, perhaps more now than ever. As both Trump and Parson have called for students in public schools to return to face-to-face classes nationwide, and as the Maryville R-II School District gets set to offer face-to-face classes this fall semester for any student who wishes to learn in person, already prompting the retirement of at least one teacher, Piper has been outspoken on Twitter.
While she hasn’t directly criticized Maryville officials or the district, Piper has been adamant about her position, one she said is based on the advice of health experts and common sense: returning to class in late August, as cases of COVID-19 ebb and flow in Nodaway County, isn’t safe. A tweet she sent Aug. 15 highlights faults in logic of those comparing teachers to nurses garnered more than 20,000 retweets and 130,000 likes.
“dO TEacHeRs thINk ThEy ArE beTTeR tHAn nUrseS?”— Jess Piper (@EnglishTeach07) August 15, 2020
No, but nurses have PPE, limited patient contact, and infectious disease training. I have a couple English degrees, 120 kids, a mask, and a box of Clorox wipes. Please don’t compare us.
Piper laughed when thinking back to March, when many ordinary people across the U.S. praised teachers as heroes after having the homeschool their kids for several weeks when lockdowns first started. Now, teachers are labeled as lazy and cowardice for valuing their own health, she said.
“My, how things have changed,” Piper said.
For Piper, the realities of the situation are dual-edged. She understands schools serve as a food source and childcare for many parents and students across the county and the country. She recognizes the equity gaps that already exist in education, further emphasized by the pandemic and the move to online learning, a medium that can leave students in poverty behind. She wants to help those students, she said. But she wants to be safe.
She knows schools are everything, especially in places like Nodaway County. She’s frustrated, but she’ll head into work at Maryville High School later this month, prepared to teach the students who opt to learn in person. She’ll leave her 7-year-old daughter, Charlie, to learn at home.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I know I can’t send her to school,” Piper said. “There’s no mask mandate for third grade.”
Both in person and on Twitter, Piper is careful in what she says, or at least, in how she says it, as she toes the line in critiquing the reopening of schools while not implicating the reopening school that employs her.
The practice of restraint is still something Piper is growing accustomed to. It wasn’t long ago that Piper was just a teacher with 14 followers on Twitter, a platform she used mostly to find lesson plans and to connect with other teachers. Now, she’s a growing voice on the platform. The commentary on social issues amid the pandemic and the protests that swept through the country beginning in late May have come with an increase of more than 3,000 followers for Piper, who helped organize and publicize Marvyille’s Black Lives Matter protest in early June. One tweet she made at the event was retweeted by McCaskill, the former senator Piper volunteered for.
But before more than 300 protestors converged on the Nodaway County Courthouse June 6 and before Piper’s tweet about the event caught fire, the educator was there two days before, protesting alongside a former Maryville High School student, with less than 20 other people.
The former student, Hayden Taylor, a 2016 graduate of Maryville High School, made plans June 4 to go protest by himself outside the courthouse and invited friends on Facebook to join him. Piper said another teacher sent the post to her from Taylor, who was conservative in high school and still identifies as conservative now. Piper dropped what she was doing to join him on the square, she said.
“I told my husband — I threw on a T-shirt and I said, ‘I’ve got to go,’” Piper said. “So I just ran down there and he was there.”
The #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd rally in Maryville, MO was just cancelled due to threats from armed militias. A young man posted that he was going to stand on the square in defiance...I joined him. White Supremacy has no place in Northwest Missouri. #BLM https://t.co/kCbfSJU4lw pic.twitter.com/16Jfa6tUmV— Jess Piper (@EnglishTeach07) June 4, 2020
Taylor tells the story differently, though only slightly so. He made the Facebook post, of course, and announced his plans to protest for at least 46 minutes starting at 4:30 p.m. eight days in a row — honoring the eight minutes and 46 seconds it’s believed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed against the neck of George Floyd. Piper did show up to support Taylor along Main Street June 4.
And Taylor said Piper showed up every day he protested, in crowds that ranged from less than 10 to a few dozen. But that first day, when Piper said she arrived at the courthouse to join the former student, Taylor said he was still on his way to the courthouse at 4:30 p.m., when he had promised his Facebook friends he’d be protesting.
“She actually beat me there,” Taylor said.
From fighting to running
Piper has a lot of bones to pick with a lot of people, but perhaps none as many as she does with Sam Graves, the U.S. representative from Missouri’s 6th Congressional District, a man many of Piper’s neighbors have voted for every two years for the last 20, and who many of them will vote for again this November.
It seems Piper’s gripes with Graves go beyond that of normal liberal-conservative disputes. She doesn’t agree politically with Allen Andrews, the Republican state representative for District 1, an area that includes Nodaway County, but she called him a “nice guy.” And her problems with state Sen. Dan Hegeman seem to begin and end at his conservative ideals. But with Graves, it feels different. It feels pointed.
Perhaps it’s because Graves, who first got elected in 2000, has taken a more permanent residence in Washington D.C. than he has in the district in the years since, Piper said. Perhaps it’s because he claims to fight for issues that affect rural voters, like infrastructure, she said, while storefronts in Hopkins sit boarded up and empty, watching over roads that range from unpaved to unkempt, in a community where the fire station resembles a steel shed and the post office might be the nicest building in town.
Or perhaps it’s because Graves has abandoned the rural voter while collecting the rural vote and collecting an annual salary that’s grown from $145,000 when he started in 2001 to $174,000 today.
“I know Sam Graves has no idea what it’s like to go hungry,” Piper said.
Piper does. She knows a lot about the rural struggles Graves has done nothing to combat, she said, and perhaps that’s why she’s so critical of him. Perhaps that’s why she might run to replace him in two years, pending the outcome of his November election.
Piper has been approached by several decision-makers and recruiters within the Democratic party to run for office, and while some have urged her to start small and run for a seat like the one Andrews occupies now, others have encouraged the teacher and activist to go big, to go after Graves.
"I make $41,000 a year; I don’t have money to go after someone that big. But then again, I’m like, ‘Why shouldn't I go after his position?’”
There’s a lot about the inner workings of politics that Piper doesn’t know. She’s not sure how to run a campaign, she said. She’s not sure if she has a chance to win the 6th District, where Martin, the Democrat Piper knocked doors for, lost by more than 100,000 votes in 2018. But she’s not sure how Graves keeps winning, either.
If she does run against Graves, Piper will have to win the rural vote, a group that doesn’t seem to be voting any more liberally than it did when Graves first took office. Amendment 2, a ballot measure that would expand Medicaid in Missouri at no cost to taxpayers, passed statewide earlier this month but lost by more than 700 votes in Nodaway County, despite the fact that many rural Missourians are on Medicaid, Piper said.
Piper faces an uphill battle in any race she may decide to run in northwest Missouri. A Democrat hasn’t won the 6th District since Pat Danner served from 1993 to 2001 when Graves replaced Danner, the only woman to ever serve as the district’s representative, following her retirement. Graves has won at least 59% of the district’s vote in every election since.
“To go after him would be tough because I’m a teacher.
What could set Piper apart from the candidates that have tried and failed to unseat Graves for the last 20 years, she said, could be her place in the rural community. There are not rural candidates urging rural voters to vote for Democrats, she said. None of her representatives represent her, nor do they really represent Piper’s Republican neighbor’s a few hundred yards down the road, the ones with a Trump sign in their front yard that reads “NO MORE BULL----.”
Being conservative and rural have become synonymous. Piper doesn’t understand why, but she knows that kind of campaigning won’t win voters in Hopkins.
“You’ll see people from Kansas City or St. Louis talking about the dumb hicks who vote against themselves,” Piper said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s probably not a message that’s gonna resonate well out here.’”
Piper hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll run for Graves’ seat in 2022 or whether she’ll run for office at all. She’s hopeful Gena Ross, this year’s Democratic challenger in the 6th District, will unseat Graves in November. But history suggests Ross’s bid will be unsuccessful. And the last four years suggest Piper will run. She’s lost too much to stop fighting now.
After months of silence between Piper and her father in the aftermath of the 2016 election, there was a break in late 2017, but only briefly, only for a few days, only long enough to say goodbye. Fighting a bevy of health issues, Piper’s dad, a Navy veteran, received the same low-quality healthcare veterans around the country are subjected to, Piper said.
By the time Piper walked into Britt Snodgrass’s hospital room at Kansas Medical Center, where he’d been transferred after doctors at a Belton hospital botched a treatment that left Snodgrass’s health declining, Piper’s dad was on his deathbed. A man that Piper described as “strong” and bear-like died a “fragile and horrible death” at the hands of malpractice, she said.
In those last waking moments, as doctors at the Medical Center burned a lavender scent in the hospital room to combat the smell of Snodgrass’s decomposing skin, Piper’s dad was apologetic, she said. He didn’t regret the politics that drove a wedge between them, but he regretted the division they caused. He asked her to read a story she wrote about growing up in poverty called “Mississippi Mudpies.” He asked Piper’s uncle to play bluegrass music, the music of his people, Piper said. And Snodgrass, who hadn’t asked his daughter for anything in more than a year, asked for advice, or perhaps for permission.
“‘What should I do? What would you do?’” Piper recounted her dad saying.
“And I said, ‘I don’t know, daddy,’” Piper said, her southern accent more pronounced now than ever, as she recalled one of the last conversations she had with her father. “‘I don’t know what I would do.’ Because I didn’t want him to go, but I didn’t want him to be in pain either.”
The next day, doctors helped him along, Piper said, pumping morphine into Snodgrass’s body every 15 minutes until he lost consciousness. His breathing slowed. He inhaled once every 90 seconds. Religious music played. Piper watched and waited as he slipped away, her father a victim of a failing healthcare system that predated 2016, their relationship very much a casualty of Trump’s America.
“Another reason why I fight,” she said.