Philan Tree. Photo by Shawn Poynter/Daily Yonder

Second of two parts

EDITOR’s NOTE: This article was provided by the National Rural Assembly, a coalition of rural advocates working on diverse rural policy issues. Today’s article examines the role of young people in affecting local and national rural policy. Yesterday’s article looked at perspectives on philanthropy in rural America. The Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.


At 26, Philan Tree is a builder of bridges. In her role as a tribal and program liaison to the county supervisor, she travels to rural communities across 6,000 square miles of Coconino County in Arizona – including the Navajo community where she was born. Philan serves as a key point of communication and coordination between these rural communities and county departments to help improve efficiency and efficacy of services. But she also builds bridges between her portion of rural Arizona and national rural policy.

Her first connection between policy opportunity and rural reality came in 2009, when she was an AmeriCorps member with the Coconino Rural Environment Corps (CREC) and a part-time student at Northern Arizona University. She and an AmeriCorps colleague saw an opportunity to leverage federal community development block grant funds for a weatherization project in tribal communities. “In many of these communities, the homes are in bad shape, and haven’t received repairs or construction in 40 years,” she says. “Our AmeriCorps rep who told us that the city and county were going after the same funding, so we met with them, explained our project and showed them our budget. We applied together, received a $5 million grant, and the county hired us to manage the project. That was my first time managing anything!”

Philan hired and supervised 17 Navajo Nation AmeriCorps members who provided weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades to 204 homes.

Her local leadership provided a springboard to the national stage. In 2012, she was named the Conservation Corps 2012 National Corps Member of the Year, and then was tapped in 2013 to be a founding member of the Opportunity Youth Network’s National Council of Young Leaders (NCYL). As part of NCYL, Philan co-authored a set of national policy recommendations to increase opportunity and decrease poverty in America, including recommendations for improving opportunities for low-income and rural youth. She had an opportunity to share those recommendations with Arizona Senator John McCain’s staff during the 2015 National Rural Assembly, a bi-annual gathering of rural advocates held in Washington DC this past September.

“I met with Nick Matiella, who oversees Native American affairs,” she says. “We talked about NCYL’s recommendations and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act that Senators McCain (R-Arizona) and Michael Bennett (D-CO) introduced in August 2015 to see where there was alignment between the two. As it turns out, there were lots of similarities.” The 21st Century Conservation Legacy Act would expand the Conservation Corps throughout the country, including in tribal communities.

Philan sits on a panel of next generation of rural leaders at the 2015 National Rural Assembly gathering in Washington, D.C.. Photo by Shawn Poynter
Philan sits on a panel of next generation of rural leaders at the 2015 National Rural Assembly gathering in Washington, D.C.. Photo by Shawn Poynter

Matiella put Philan in touch with the senator’s home office staff in Phoenix, where she has continued to provide a rural perspective to policy discussions. “Influencing policy is not something I expected to do, but it’s great because it shows that regardless of the political party, if there is a common interest then things can get done,” says Philan.

She also shares advice for policymakers at all levels: “Keep an open mind. Even if a policy seems good, it will have implications for rural communities. Having a cookie cutter approach doesn’t always work.”

Even though last fall’s meeting marked her first time participating in the National Rural Assembly, Philan served as a panelist in a Next Generation plenary and attended a young leaders workshop. She credits this experience with giving her more tools and connections to expand her bridge-building abilities.

“I knew I’d feel more at home here than at any other conference,” she says. “I like the fact that we are all rural, and that the older people there really wanted to listen to the younger people. And I particularly enjoyed the young leaders work session. There was lots of discussion and I met many new people and learned about their approaches to problem solving. It was relevant to what we’re facing now.”

Back home in Arizona, she’s continuing her work of bringing rural communities together for the benefit of all. “A lot of times rural residents have an understanding of their own communities, but not of others. Sometimes they assume there are more differences than there actually are. Once you get people to the table, they see they aren’t so different. My work isn’t easy, but it’s becoming easier as I bring more people together.”

Betsey Russell is a consultant to philanthropies and to the National Rural Assembly. She is the author of the novel, Other People’s Money, a whodunit set in world of philanthropy and nonprofits.

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