Rural-Urban Exchange members circle up to the Carcassone Square Dance band at Seedtime on the Cumberland in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Photo by Rachel R. Hagan

A couple years ago two arts leaders, one living in the largest city in Kentucky and the other in a small traditionally mining town, had a hunch that good things would happen if they got creative folks from the cities to hang out with creative folks from the country. That was the beginning of the Rural-Urban Exchange. Since starting the Exchange, they’ve brought together people from all three of the state’s distinct regions to share stories and ideas.

The two creators of the Exchange, Art of the Rural‘s Savannah Barrett and Appalshop‘s Josh May, answered some questions for us recently. If you are, like me, not in the arts field, let the context clues guide you around some insider lingo. This is the burden of knowing super smart, creative people.

Describe the Rural-Urban Exchange.
Savannah: The Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange began with a simple idea—we believe that people are more likely to do good work together when they have meaningful experiences in one another’s communities and are invested in their relationship to one another. Grounded in these values, the Exchange was launched two years ago by partner organizations Art of the Rural & Appalshop. Since then, we’ve assembled 75 next generation leaders, from the coalfields of Appalachia to the river towns of western Kentucky. Together, we are creating opportunities for Kentuckians to cultivate relationships across divides in order to build a more unified and equitable commonwealth for all.

How did the idea of a rural/urban exchange come about?
Josh: The story of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange began in February 2014, early in Art of the Rural’s campaign for the Year of the Rural Arts (YORA). We began working with Appalshop staff to plan the first YORA residency, designed as an immersive experience for me to get to know Appalshop, Whitesburg, and the surrounding region through the lens of young people contributing to the economic transition [from a coal-based economy], and then to tell that story through an article and to connect other rural organizers to those folks through Art of the Rural. Savannah proposed a basic idea for an exchange project to explore our commonalities and differences across the state, which really resonated with the needs I was seeing for connecting work happening in eastern Kentucky to initiatives across the rest of the state, and so the idea quickly gained momentum.

The backstory to this “shared recognition” was the result of growing up in Kentucky in the past 30years. Josh and I agreed that Kentucky has tremendous human, natural, and cultural resources and we are rich in opportunity, but we had both seen how real and imagined barriers between regions in the state had prevented these resources from being developed equitably. There are strong cultural associations to each of the state’s five regions, but their shared social and economic future is rarely acknowledged. The most significant of these historic cultural divides takes place along the borders between rural and urban Kentucky, which are essentially dependent on and decidedly ambivalent towards one another.

One significant structural divide limiting our region’s growth is a tendency to work in isolation.We needed an on-the-ground network structure that could help us move beyond our business-as-usual ways of working and towards a more connective approach.

At the same time, eastern Kentucky was experiencing significant economic transition and we recognized an unprecedented opportunity to make the case for community-based arts as a driving force in local economic development. The Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange is a social practice project with a mission to bring together a diverse group our state’s most innovative young leaders.

Our early conversations also reflected frustration about the ways the national creative placemaking field talked about and invested in rural regions. Although creative placemaking is rooted in rural community arts and community cultural development practice, it has largely developed into an urban-centric economic development strategy, and is largely based on site-specific projects. We developed the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange as a new approach to creative placemaking.

Josh May of Appalshop, left, and Savannah Barret of Art of the Rural.
Josh May of Appalshop, left, and Savannah Barrett of Art of the Rural.

Why is it important to have rural and urban organizations working together?
Savannah: While it’s certainly true that regions of Kentucky are both shaped and divided by geographic boundaries, there’s another mapping and orienting of place, a cultural identity specific to each region that has historically placed various parts of the state in opposition to one another and resisted a statewide regionalism.

Economic shifts tied to public policy decisions in recent decades (in coal, manufacturing, and tobacco farming) have created a shared experience across the state. All across Kentucky, there has been a severing of each region’s generational economic ties to land and place that has imparted communities across the state with new mutual interests. These shared experiences, and the resulting migration between rural and urban Kentucky that was catalyzed by these economic shifts, have opened a space for the exploration of shared realities and visions across rural and urban Kentucky.

Region is always a relational term. It’s not about stable boundaries, it’s about cultural history. So when we talk about regional creative placemaking and the state of Kentucky as a region, we’re talking about a shared cultural and historical experience based on relationships – both to one another and to place- and we aim to highlight and expand those relationships through the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange.

Art of the Rural often talks about how popular conceptions of “rural” often lack nuance. That while the term has a demographic meaning, it is also a category of cultural identity: Rural people have moved to large metropolitan areas, and many urban folks have deep relationships and connections to the country.

The Rural-Urban Exchange creates space for an acknowledgement from both rural and urban folks that we’re connected, and that connection between us is one of our greatest untapped assets as a state. Throughout the past two years, we’ve seen that the sense of belonging in multiple communities across the state that happens as a result of the Exchange is fulfilling for many people at both the personal and professional levels.

How did you decide which sectors you wanted to focus on?
Josh: We chose arts and culture, agriculture and food systems (which includes public health), and small business and local economies (which includes community development) because we believe that all these sectors play a vital part in each region’s growth. The mission statement for the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange says, “Together, we are creating opportunities for Kentuckians to cultivate relationships across divides in order to build a more unified and equitable Commonwealth for us all.”

Savannah: One significant structural divide limiting our region’s growth is a tendency to work in isolation, or singularly within your own sector when addressing comprehensive community development. For example, Cooperative Extension may be working on one plan, a cultural institution developing another, and neither of them collaborating with the Chamber of Commerce, USDA Rural Development, state agencies, or city and county officials. We needed an on-the-ground network structure that could help us move beyond our business-as-usual ways of working and towards a more connective approach.

How did you identify folks in the community you wanted to bring into the fold?
Josh: The initial success of this project was possible because we began by identifying and working with young leaders who were already active in their communities and ready to engage in statewide dialogue and collaboration. Now that we’ve completed two successful years of the project, we’ve learned that it’s equally important to meet people where they’re at, and we’ve seen the project grow from a place for leaders who are already active to connect with one another to a place where leaders are cultivated within communities across the state. That second piece is critical because it means our project is growing capacity in local communities rather than taking away from it.

Describe the scene at the three meetings of the Rural-Urban Exchange. What did they look like, what did you do?
Josh: Matches of artists, organizers, chefs, farmers, musicians, filmmakers, archivists, cultural workers, politicians, and business owners come together from the Whitesburg, Louisville and Paducah. Over three days, matches get to know one another as friends and collaborators. We visit workplaces, hangouts, gardens, and homes. We watch local films, celebrate at the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival, Louisville’s 8th of August Celebration, and Paducah’s Oktoberfest, dance along to Lee Sexton’s famous Carcassonne square dance band, host concerts for a number of underground bands-in-residence from across the state, and organize collaborative meals featuring chefs from all three communities. Together, we eat at favorite local restaurants, swap stories, swim in lakes and hike our state’s beautiful trails. Then we sit down together and focus on our common issues, visions, and realities.

The Rural Urban Exchange group meets at the Americana in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Aron Conaway
The Rural Urban Exchange group meets at the Americana in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Aron Conaway

What are some take-aways from the meetings?
Savannah: We’ve learned a lot about our generation, our communities, and ourselves in the past two years of the Rural-Urban Exchange. Participation from students in Harlan County helped us understand the necessity of engaging very young people. While traveling across the state for community exchanges in the summer months works for most people, we found that this model was not an effective way to engage farmers who are tied to their farms during the growing season. Designing new and flexible pathways for engagement has been critical to the success of working across sectors. As a whole, the Exchange has taught us that it’s important to meet people where they are, but also to identify and prioritize folks who are flexible and ready to engage in statewide collaboration.

Josh: We’ve learned that this project, and its resonance across Kentucky, is bigger than we could have ever anticipated when we began. Our biggest challenge in the coming years will be to grow the Exchange to an adequate scale that addresses the statewide demand for collaboration across sectors and communities while still ensuring that the project is financially and humanly sustainable. Exceptional new partners have helped us bring this model to its current scale: Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Louisville Flea Off Market, and a diverse Steering Committee with representatives from every corner of Kentucky’s public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  Meaningful consideration of diversity—of geography, race, sector and identity—has helped us to have conversations about Kentucky’s past and future, and helped to bring us closer to an equitable program model.

Savannah: Through years of meaningful engagement with this broad network of young people, we’re beginning to learn about the values and collective culture of Kentucky’s next generation leaders.  Many folks talk about generational divides as one of the many significant divisions in this nation. Together, we’re beginning to articulate the values and needs of our generations. What we’ve learned so far is that young creative leaders are interested in moving beyond the barriers and limitations that have held our communities back: we think regionally, we’re interested in learning from one another through collaborative rather than competitive practice, we value social time as a process for learning, we prefer grassroots organizations to large institutions, we yearn for the trust of our senior leaders to share resources and support for our vision for transforming the regions that we have inherited. We need mentorship to understand how to best make the case for our ideas, but we have our own solutions to systemic problems, and they’re working at the micro-level. With resources and commitment from those in power, they could be BIG solutions.

Josh: The Rural-Urban Exchange has elevated recognition of the rural-urban continuum in a number of other efforts across Kentucky. Since engaging folks in the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, we’ve seen Kentuckians for the Commonwealth chapter exchanges between Whitesburg and Louisville, collaboration between performing arts groups in Louisville and Hazard, the Kentucky Arts Council’s formation of the Kentucky Creative Commonwealth Network to encourage dialogue between folks working in arts-based community development across the state, and a new initiative by the Bingham Fellows to increase their urban network’s impact beyond the city center and into rural communities. Through all these new initiatives, the message is clear: Kentuckians see more in common with each other than ever before and are actively seeking to make connections that allow them to work collaboratively statewide.

What are the long-term goals of the exchange and how will you measure success?
Josh: We’re working toward a more closed economic structure for the state and a collective identity that acknowledges the cultural and natural assets of each region of Kentucky. We’re working toward these ends by forming working groups across regions, sectors, class, and practitioner/academic/policy work, and cultivating a sense of commonality among regions and a desire to advance all of Kentucky through community-driven development.

Savannah: We believe in metrics that are culturally appropriate for this work – yes, we are developing methods for tracking economic impact and dollars attracted to the state, and yes, we are tracking the fruits of these relationships and the collaborations they’ve formed, but we’re also committed to tracking the cultural shifts that occur when networks of next generation leaders and innovators see themselves as working toward a common cause and a shared social and economic benefit. Thinking long-term, we get really excited when we think of the families of those matched together visiting each other across regions and imagine a generation that grows up with a new understanding of the state as a whole and has ownership over their relationship to all of Kentucky.

In 2016, the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange will be taking place in and between the communities of Paducah, Lexington & Harlan County, Kentucky. We’ll also be hosting a number of public events across the state, and hope you’ll join us in investing in Kentucky’s common ground! Applications for this year’s exchange will go live on March 1st, 2016 and can be accessed online at

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