Sondra Collins (center), board chairperson of the Mississippi-based Higher Purpose Co., speaks with Matt Fluharty of Art of the Rural and Erin M. Brueggemann of Arts Midwest. Collins is senior economist at the Mississippi University Research Center. (Photo by Shawn Poynter | Daily Yonder)

My first day on the job as a summer intern at the Center for Rural Strategies coincided with the start of the 2018 National Rural Assembly in Durham, North Carolina.  I can’t imagine a better introduction to the work I’ll be doing this summer than spending three days with people from all over the country who are passionate about rural places, people and policy.

I can’t do the conference justice, but stalking social media generated from the Assembly provides some of the highlights. You too can get a recap by checking out #Rural18 and #CivicCourage on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Day 1:

The Assembly brought together 177 participants from 35 states. Special “early bird” sessions and a social evening were the highlights of the first day.

Wendy MacNaughton led a workshop on illustrated journalism.

In the evening Assembly-goers met and connected at the Fruit, an event space in Durham. Whitney Kimball Coe kicked off the event with a few remarks. Connections and reunions began.

Day 2:

The second day was jam-packed with remarks and presentations, beginning with seven “fire starters.” These were advocates who gave short and passionate speeches about the importance of rural America and their work to address issues there. Living up to their name, the “fire starters” sparked conversation and action.

During the first break-out session, Assembly participants got to thinking, sharing and connecting. In the “New Girls Club: Womxn Shaping Rural Futures,” attendees shared six-word stories of sexism and brainstormed tactics and shared resources.

A session on voting rights in rural America featured Olivia Pearson, a small-town commissioner from Georgia who was charged with a crime for showing a first-time voter how to use the machine. She was joined by voting rights advocate Anita Earls, who founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and is currently running for North Carolina Supreme Court justice.

Broadband is a popular topic at rural gatherings. The Assembly’s Rural Broadband Policy Group produced a session with national leaders who talked about public policy and community solutions for high-speed internet access.

The day ended with a panel moderated by David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation. It featured panelists who support immigrant workers in rural Arkansas, equip young entrepreneurs in the Mississippi delta, uplift Native communities, and establish a springboard the for the arts in Minnesota.

Day 3:

Day 3 brought a standing ovation from a conversation with the Reverend Jennifer Bailey and civil rights activist and public theologian Ruby Sales.

The Assembly concluded with a panel discussion facilitated by Kristen Richardson-Frick of the Duke Endowment on “Faith Communities Building a More Inclusive Nation.”

Participants discussed issues of race, environmental advocacy, and approaches to combating sexism. They shared their experiences of exercising civic courage.

During the three days of the Assembly, I watched those who exercise civic courage and start fires constantly in action.  I met artists, warriors, organizers, business owners and decision-makers all connecting through their shared concern for rural communities.,

It was not a bad first week on the job.

Merrit Jones is a rising sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from Lexington, South Carolina. Her internship is part of her activities with the Robertson Scholar Leadership Program.

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