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Rural Americans are confident that major problems facing their local communities can be solved in five years, but most think they cannot be fixed without outside help. So says the 2018 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ) study – “Life in Rural America.”
The challenges of job losses, scarcity of broadband, and retention of young people remain only some of many hurdles that rural residents say can be overcome. The RWJ study found great optimism among rural residents, but with the caveat that outside resources would be necessary to turn the corner to more prosperous and vibrant communities – with the need for ideas for policy changes, advocacy, entrepreneurship and innovative solutions that cannot always be found locally.
Radically Rural, a two-day summit held in Keene, New Hampshire, presents ways and means to uncover solutions. Last year, more than 500 people from 21 states signed up for the inaugural conference, which featured sessions on entrepreneurship, working lands, main streets and downtowns, arts and culture and community journalism. This year, renewable energy has been added as a track.
The Radically Rural Summit was unique in that it connected people and ideas not just on a single issue but over a spectrum of topics, which underpin the vitality – or lack thereof — of small cities and towns. The gathering eschewed the typical hotel conference experience and opened small venues throughout Keene’s quintessential New England downtown to attendees. Conference-goers poured out of these locales to enjoy lunch, coffee and shopping between sessions.
The 2019 summit, September 19-20, kicks off at the historic Colonial Theatre, a fixture on Main Street, with a keynote by Wendy Guilles, president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. From there, attendees can select from 20 sessions across the six tracks to match their interests and their communities’ needs. Each track is a short walk from The Colonial; merchants and restaurants are preparing for the attendees between sessions.
The Main Street track sessions include how to attract and retain young professionals to rural regions, assessing how visitors experience a downtown and a third on managing conflict among the varied interests that spring up in a town’s center.
The Entrepreneurship track will once again feature PitchFork – a rural pitch competition in which a winning business will land a $10,000 prize. A second session focuses on nurturing companies with 10-100 employees, an often overlooked sector called Stage 2 businesses. And internationally recognized consultant Elizabeth Isele will show how towns can embrace the business acumen and entrepreneurship of those over age 50.
Collaborative and solutions journalism, two discussions led by Leah Todd, regional director for Solutions Journalism Network, are new ways small community news organizations come together to provide local coverage in so called “news deserts.” Another session examines 50 ideas to grow audiences and revenue for news and a session on funding journalism.
The track on working lands showcases how rural communities can lead the way in mitigating climate change. Sara Dewey, director of Farm and Food and staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, leads another session on how to ensure farm policy and tax systems work for farmers. The third session highlights innovative financing opportunities for farmers and food producers.
Rural households spend 33% more of their income on energy expenses than their urban and suburban counterparts. The first session in the Renewable Energy track will address ways to close this gap. The second session looks at how communities can prepare infrastructure and municipal policy for electric vehicles. And Kelly Lynch, the senior program coordinator for a Sierra Club initiative, will share effective practices from communities who have successfully begun their transitions toward 100 percent renewable energy electricity by 2030.
In the Arts and Culture track, Emma Weisman from the Burning Man Festival will present how to organize a wildly attractive arts festival, based on the success of the famous Nevada event in Black Rock Desert. Other sessions look at how various communities foster and create arts enclaves and become hubs for local culture.
Radically Rural is partnership between The Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, a 22-year-old business incubator, and the Keene Sentinel, which started publishing in 1799. The summit grew out of a successful networking event, CONNECT, produced together for two years by the partners. CONNECT’s popularity demonstrated how ideas and issues raised during that gathering could grow into something more meaningful, contributing to sustaining rural life and economies.
Mary Ann Kristiansen is founder and executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship. More information on the summit is available at radicallyrural.org.