The 2018 National Rural Assembly will be held May 21-23, 2018. The focus of this meeting will be how we build a more inclusive nation, viewed through a lens of civic courage


This event will be held at the Durham Arts Council in downtown Durham, NC.  The hotel we’ll be staying at is the 21c Museum Hotel, a multi-venue contemporary art museum and a full-service boutique hotel.

Book online here.


This event will include local, regional, and national rural leaders and advocates representing diverse geographies, cultures, ages, and issue areas.

The venue for this event is smaller than we’re used to and will accommodate no more than 200 people. For this reason, we will use a combination of formal invitations and open enrollment to achieve a representative group of rural leaders of various ages, ethnicities, and geographies, and will be pulling in voices from a diversity of places and sectors.


The preliminary agenda for this event is as follows. More details will be provided in the upcoming weeks.

* All events are at the Durham Arts Council unless otherwise noted.

Monday, May 21, 2018

  • Arrivals
  • 1:00 - Registration opens (at Durham Arts Council)
  • 12:30-4:30 - Making a Commitment to Rural Philanthropy – An Afternoon of Strategic Insights - by invitation only
    Location: MDC, Inc.,  307 W. Main St., Durham, NC
  • 3:00-5:00 - Illustrated Journalism workshop with Wendy MacNaughton (optional; additional cost $35)
    Location: Durham Arts Council
  • 6:00-7:30 - Evening reception
    Location: Durham Fruit & Produce Co.
  • Dinner on your own

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

  • 7:30-8:15 - Breakfast and registration (at Durham Arts Council)
  • 8:15-8:30 - Opening welcome
    Robb Webb, Director of Rural Church Program Area, The Duke Endowment
    Kenny Flowers, Assistant Secretary of Rural Economic Development, North Carolina Department of Commerce
  • 8:30-9:30 - Firestarter talks

    Anita Earls, Founder, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
    Ashley Hanson, Founder, Public Transformation Project
    Magaly Licolli, Executive Director, Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center
    Diana Oestreich, Key Relationships Manager, Preemptive Love Coalition
    Liz Shaw, Founder, Citizens Connectivity Committee
    David Toland, CEO, Thrive Allen County

  • 9:30-10:45 - Standing on Their Shoulders
    We are not without wisdom and resources as we imagine a more sustainable and just future for rural communities. As we work to build power in small towns and on reservations, there are playbooks from which to draw lessons and inspiration. Over the past twenty-five years, leaders in the fields of rural community development, housing, philanthropy, and environmental justice have labored for better systems and more inclusive policies. On this stage, we ask them to remind us where we’ve been and offer candid wisdom about where we are heading. 
    Produced by: Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group
    Janet Topolsky, Director, Community Strategies Group (moderator) 
    Robert Mahaffey, Executive Director, Rural School and Community Trust
    Connie Stewart, Executive Director, California Center for Rural Policy at Humboldt State University
    Sherry Salway Black, Board of Directors, Prosperity Now

  • 10:45-11:00 - Break

  • 11:00-12:00 - Breakout session #1
    • Voting Rights in Rural America, produced by the Daily Yonder
    • The New Girls Club: Womxn Shaping Rural Futures, produced by Rural Arts Weekly and Springboard for the Arts, produced by Rural Arts Weekly and Springboard for the Arts
    • What Does it Mean to be a Good Citizen? produced by New Voice Strategies
  • noon-1:00 - Lunch
  • 1:00-2:15 - Building Civic Courage
    We find ourselves in the midst of a critical cultural and political moment where we must have hard conversations about how we achieve equity and inclusion in communities bearing the brunt of violence, poverty, and extreme weather. How do we reckon with overall rural marginalization while at the same time acknowledging inequities within our own communities? On this stage, we offer a conversation among rural organizers and activists who are courageously working for justice for communities within communities. 
    Produced by: YouthBuild USA Rural & Tribal Initiative
    Kim Phinney, Vice President of Program Design, YouthBuild USA
    Marlene Chavez, Colonias Policy Analyst/Educator, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid
    Anna Clausen, Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow
    Abraham Diaz, Education Specialist, La Union del Pueblo Entero
    Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, Director, Southern Regional Office, Children's Defense Fund
    Maureen Holland, Owner, Holland & Associates PC
  • 2:30-3:30 - Breakout session #2
    • Rural Broadband in Our Sights, produced by Rural Broadband Policy Group
    • The Dee Davis Interviews, a live podcast recording, produced by the Center for Rural Strategies
    • Building Civic Courage: The Conversation Continues, produced by YouthBuild USA
  • 3:30-3:45 - Break
  • 3:45-5:00 - New Connections
    The next generation of leaders is putting down roots across rural America. Some are returning to their hometowns and some are looking for community in the countryside. They are committed to creating the future they want to see, building upon the momentum of the creative placemaking movement and the emergence of new economies that support more inclusive communities and a richer quality of life. On this stage, we’ll hear how these leaders make connections across diverse cultures and walks of life to forward the future of their rural places.
    Produced by: Art of the Rural

    David Simas, CEO, Obama Foundation (moderator)
    Michele Anderson, Rural Program Director,  Springboard for the Arts
    Tim Lampkin, CEO, Higher Purpose Co.
    Magaly Licolli, Executive Director, Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center
    Nevada Littlewolf , President and CEO, Tiwahe Foundation

  • 5:00 - Adjourn
  • 6:00-7:30 - Reception at Bull McCabes Irish Pub
  • Dinner on your own 

Wednesday, May 23

  • 7:30-8:15 - Breakfast  (at Durham Arts Council)
  • 8:15-8:30 - Welcome back
  • 8:30 - 9:45 - A Dialogue: with Reverend Jennifer Bailey and Ruby Sales
  • 9:45-10:00 - Break 
  • 10:00-11:00 - Faith Communities Building a More Inclusive Nation
    Faith organizations and churches have long served as anchor institutions in rural communities. Historically, they have played key roles as hubs of service and as incubators of organizing for social justice, from labor movements to civil rights. Today, they continue to be on the front lines of community transformation to build a better world for all persons. Faith communities work together with other stakeholders to address the root causes of society’s most difficult challenges, and they organize resistance to the dehumanization of immigrants, people of color, and other vulnerable populations. On this stage, we’ll hear from rural leaders who are engaged in collaborations that build equity and foster inclusion while offering healing, hope and development for all.
    Produced by: The Duke Endowment

    Kristen Richardson-Frick, Associate Director, Rural Church, The Duke Endowment (moderator)
    Michelle Osborne, Come to the Table Program Manager for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA
    Jason Gray, Senior Policy Fellow, NC Rural Center

  • 11:00 - Final remarks and adjournment



We will ignite the 2018 National Rural Assembly with our firestarters - committed citizens who are modeling for the nation how we mend and strengthen the social and civic fabric of our country.

Offering up their personal stories, they will inspire and challenge us to examine our own efforts towards achieving a more just and sustainable future; because building an inclusive nation will require all of us - from those traveling the country offering up their talents to create original, site specific musicals that address community tensions; to those running for office determined to transform the policies and executive orders that are being carried out on the backs of rural, and on the backs of race and poverty. 

Confirmed firestarters include:

Check back as we add more dynamic speakers to this list!


This gathering is generously supported by The Duke Endowment, and we are pleased to have a limited number of travel scholarships available

This gathering is also made possible through support from Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Redwood Coast Rural Action, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Media and Democracy Fund.

If your organization is interested in providing additional support, please contact us.

Presenters and Facilitators

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Michele Anderson is the Rural Program Director for Springboard for the Arts, a community and economic development organizations for artists based in St. Paul and Fergus Falls, Minnesota. In 2011, she launched Springboard’s office in Fergus Falls, which, through programs like the Rural Arts and Culture Summit and the Hinge Arts Residency program, has become a hub of thought and action about arts-based community development and placemaking in rural settings. Michele has her B.A. in Music from Lewis and Clark College, and her M.A. in Cultural Sustainability from Goucher College, where she was awarded the inaugural Rory Turner Prize in Cultural Sustainability in 2014 for her creative nonfiction essay about Springboard’s work in mobilizing artists to foster community interaction about the former Fergus Falls State Hospital. In 2015, Michele was selected by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for their Catalytic Leader Award. Michele serves on the advisory board for the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, and is the chair of the Fergus Falls Human Rights Commission. Michele is also a musician and a writer, and lives in Fergus Falls, MN with her husband, Spencer, and their two cats.


Named one of “15 Faith Leaders to Watch” by the Center for American Progress, Rev. Jennifer Bailey is an ordained minister, public theologian, and emerging national leader in the multi-faith movement for justice. She is the founding executive director of the Faith Matters Network and a Fellow with the On Being Project. Jennifer comes to this work with nearly a decade of experience at nonprofits combatting intergenerational poverty. An Ashoka and Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow, Jennifer earned degrees from Tufts University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She writes regularly for Sojourners and The Huffington Post. Rev. Bailey is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Carol Blackmon is founder and President  of C B Enterprises & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm that supports nonprofit organizational development, program development, and special project management.

Her professional experience includes serving as a former program officer with Foundation for the Mid-South; Executive Director of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, Program and Executive Coach with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s Mid-South Delta Initiative, Program Manager for the Mid South African American Philanthropy Program, Senior Consultant with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative and Managing Consultant for the Deep South Delta Consortium. Carol is also a former rural technical assistance coach with YouthBuild USA.

She is a founding board member of the National Center for Black Philanthropy, Greater Jackson Community Foundation, and Mississippi Housing Partnership.  She is also grants committee chair for Rural Education and Leadership Foundation and a former board member of the Association of Black Foundation Executives.


Allie Bohm is Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge, focusing on government affairs work in key issue areas including broadband policy, privacy, artificial intelligence, and other tech policy initiatives.  Prior to law school, Allie was the Advocacy & Policy Strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) covering state policy nationwide related to speech, privacy, and technology, among other issues.  During law school, she was a Legal Fellow for Senator Durbin on the Senate Judiciary Committee and worked for the Office of the White House Counsel during the Obama Administration, the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Charlotte Burrows, the National Women’s Law Center, and the National Partnership for Women and Families.  She began her career as a Legislative Assistant at the ACLU.

Allie earned her J.D., magna cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center and her B.A., magna cum laude, from Tufts University where she was a Citizenship and Public Service Scholar. She is a member of the New York Bar.


Amy Brooks, Program Director and Dramaturg for Roadside Theater, is a 5th-generation West Virginian who returned to Appalachia just before the 2016 election cycle. Through her work in community-based theater for social change she explores the confluence of dramatic narrative (“What is the story we choose to tell onstage?”) and public narrative (“What is the story we are called upon to tell about ourselves, our community, and our future?”) in intercultural rural-urban performance. Amy holds a BFA in acting from West Virginia University and an MFA in dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she co-founded and produced the first two seasons of the UMass New Play Lab. She is the former Humanities Director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival and co-creator of @RuralArtsWeekly, a Twitter forum for policy and practice in rural creative placemaking.

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Marlene Guerrero Chavez is the Colonias Policy Analyst/Educator for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid where she provides policy and legal assistance on legal matters pertaining to real property, wills and estates, employment and environmental justice to residents who live in “colonias,” unincorporated rural subdivisions along the Texas/Mexico border.

Marlene was a Sustain US non-sanction delegate for the 51st Session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development where she help pass a youth resolution and co-wrote the Sustain US (CSocD) oral statement that focused on the quality of education, international migration and unemployment. In 2015, she embarked on a 283-mile walk from North Carolina to DC, walking 80 miles for healthcare reform, alongside activists across the nation. She was also a recipient of the Proyecto Azteca Community Advocacy Award. 

Marlene studied Spanish Language and Literature at the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and graduated from Kalamazoo College where she received a BA in Anthropology/Sociology with a concentration in Media Studies. She currently resides with her husband and 7 year-old boy in Weslaco, TX.

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Anna Claussen is a current Fellow with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a multigenerational family foundation focused on finding solutions to two of the most challenging problems of our time – the climate crisis and growing inequality. On Fellowship her work will leverage cultural narratives, transformative stories, and immersive experiences to shift the way people think and feel about climate change, and about each other; empower rural communities to engage in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change; and advance inclusive climate change policies. Anna is a current Advisor, and former Director of Rural Strategies, at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. A landscape architect by training, Anna bridges years of practice in design and planning with a life deeply rooted on her family’s active Minnesota farm.

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Dee Davis is the founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. Dee has helped design and lead national public information campaigns on topics as diverse as commercial television programming and federal banking policy. 

Dee began his media career in 1973 as a trainee at Appalshop, an arts and cultural center devoted to exploring Appalachian life and social issues in Whitesburg, Kentucky. As Appalshop's executive producer, the organization created more than 50 public TV documentaries, established a media training program for Appalachian youth, and launched initiatives that use media as a strategic tool in organization and development. 
Dee is the chair of the National Rural Assembly steering committee; he is a member of the Rural Advisory Committee of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Fund for Innovative Television, and Feral Arts of Brisbane, Australia. He is also a member of the Institute for Rural Journalism’s national advisory board as well as the advisory board of the Rural Policy Research Institute.  Dee is also the former Chair of the board of directors of Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.


Cheryl DeBerry serves as the rural broadband project coordinator for Garrett County Economic Development in the Appalachian mountains of far western Maryland.  In her capacity, she has managed three Appalachian Regional Commission grants which fund portions of the project.  She also coordinates county government interactions with the private partner, who uses television whitespace and other unlicensed spectrum to serve remote businesses and residences in the rural county.

She brings her more than 14 years’ experience in rural economic development at Garrett County Government.  In this capacity, she has provided assistance to numerous new and expanding small businesses, designed and executed digital, web and print marketing and promotions for the local food movement, and represented western Maryland on two statewide governor-appointed commissions. 


Abraham Diaz was born in the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. At a very young age, his family decided to migrate to the United States to be able to provide him his siblings a better educational opportunity and life.

When he was told that undocumented students were not eligible to attend college, Abraham was determined to find a way. After receiving his work permit in 2012, he continued from high school to college. He was able to graduate at the top of his high school class with honors and went on to study at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he majored in Mexican American Studies and History. While in college, Abraham found out about organizing and fighting for immigrant’s rights when he joined Minority Affairs Council, an immigrant-student organization, where he felt reflected among the stories of over the 950 undocumented students on campus. Through this organization, he was able to speak on behalf of immigrant students on campus and find resources to help them succeed. Abraham continues his advocacy work now as the education specialist at La Union del Pueblo Entero, an organization that focuses on various issues such as fighting deportations, providing immigration and social services, and organizing for infrastructure needs in colonias in the Rio Grande Valley.

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Anita Earls is a civil rights attorney with 30 years’ experience litigating voting rights and other civil rights cases in partnership with community-based organizations.  She was the founder and Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization in Durham, North Carolina. She left that position in January 2018 to run for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.    

Previously Anita served on the North Carolina State Board of Elections and the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission; was appointed as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General to President Clinton in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice;  directed the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; had a 10 year career in private practice litigating voting rights, police misconduct, school desegregation, and employment discrimination cases; and continues to give back to her community as adjunct faculty.

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Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald has devoted her life to the pursuit of justice and equality for all. As Director of the Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office, Oleta has placed special emphasis on education, including early childhood education, children’s healthcare access, and breaking the insidious cradle to prison pipeline pattern, which is all too prevalent in communities of color. Oleta is the Regional Administrator for the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative for Economic & Social Justice (SRBWI). SRBWI operates in 77 counties across the Black Belts of Alabama, Southwest Georgia and the Mississippi Delta. She is also the principal for an innovative project, the Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) Initiative. In 1993, Oleta became President Clinton’s appointee as White House Liaison and Executive Assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. Later, she was named the Department’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Ms. Fitzgerald serves on the boards of the Mississippi Children’s Museum, The Center for Education Innovation, Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, Operation Shoestring, and Mississippi Head Start Association;  is a member of the Stennis Institute of Government advisory committee and a member of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative Executive Committee and on the advisory boards for Excel by 5, Philander Smith College Justice Project, and Mississippi Building Blocks.  She contributed to the Covenant with Black America introduced by Tavis Smiley, and numerous news stories by the New York Times, Huffington Post, the BBC, National Public Radio, Commercial Appeal and NBC National and local affiliates as well as other broadcast and print media.


Kenny Flowers serves as the Assistant Secretary for Rural Economic Development at the North Carolina Department of Commerce. In this role he provides guidance for the Department in its efforts to support rural communities and help foster rural prosperity. Kenny leads a team of community and economic development specialists that help communities make the preparations and infrastructure investments needed to attract business and industry, and spur economic growth.

Prior to joining N.C. Commerce, Kenny served as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Community and Regional Development at East Carolina University's Office of Innovation and Economic Development. In that role he provided leadership and direction for the University's community and regional outreach and engagement programs. Mr. Flowers developed and implemented the ECU Municipal Management and Innovation initiative that delivered administrative, management and project assistance to small, limited capacity municipalities; the ECU Community Enhancement and Capacity Building program that provided financial resources and economic development products and services to distressed and rural communities; and the ECU Rural Community Consortium, that engaged faculty, staff and students in partnership with statewide organizations and rural community leaders. Under his leadership ECU Community and Regional Development programs secured funding in excess of $30 Million for rural development in eastern North Carolina, established more than 70 formal partnerships with local governments and nonprofit organizations, and completed over 50 community development projects with regional partners.

Earlier in his career, Kenny served as Director of Rural Development at the North Carolina Department of Commerce, and as a Fiscal Analyst to the Appropriations Subcommittee for Education at the North Carolina General Assembly.

Mr. Flowers received his Master of Public Policy from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and his bachelor's degree in Public Policy and Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Matthew Fluharty is a visual artist, writer, and field-based researcher living in Winona, Minnesota, a town placed along the Mississippi River. He is the Executive Director of Art of the Rural and its Outpost community studio in Winona, a member of M12 Studio, and he serves on the Board of Directors of Common Field.  Matthew’s poetry and essays have been widely published in the US and abroad. His essay “Burn the Maps,” considering contemporary rural-based art and cultural practice, was commissioned Walker Art Center for their convening Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age. His collaborations with M12 Studio have recently been featured at the Santa Fe Art Institute and the Iowa State Fair, while his multidisciplinary collaboration with Jesse Vogler in the American Bottom region of the Mississippi River was recently the subject of an exhibition at Central Features in Albuquerque and featured in Art in America.

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Ashley Hanson is a social practice & theater artist, community organizer & advocate for arts in rural areas. She is the co-founder of PlaceBase Productions, a community-driven theater company that creates original musical productions celebrating small towns & the co-founder of Curious Incidents, an immersive event collaborative. After the 2016 election, she traveled across the country in a little yellow school bus interviewing artists in rural communities as a multi-media art project called Public Transformation. She is the Director of the Small Town CAIR (City Artist in Residence) Program in Granite Falls, MN & she is also a musician, whose recent album - The Kirkbride Sessions - explores the ‘underbelly of ruralness.’ She holds an MA in Applied Theater from the University of Manchester (UK) with an emphasis on the role of arts in rural community development. She believes strongly in the power of people, places, play and exclamation points!

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Whitney Kimball Coe is director of National Programs for the Center for Rural Strategies. She began working with the Center as a consultant to the Community Philanthropy Initiative and now focuses on national strategies for strengthening and amplifying the work of rural advocates and stakeholders. Coe also directs the work of the National Rural Assembly, an event which brings together rural leaders and advocates from every region with national public- interest organizations, funders, and policymakers in ways that inform public policy and private investment in rural people and places.  In 2017, she was a featured speaker at the inaugural summit of the Obama Foundation and a guest on the radio program "On Being" with Krista Tippett. Her focus on building civic courage in communities is directly tied to a practice of participation in her hometown of Athens, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband Matt and daughters, Lucy and Susannah. Coe has a MA in Appalachian studies from Appalachian State University in North Carolina and an undergraduate degree in religion and philosophy from Queens University of Charlotte. 

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Tim Lampkin is the CEO of Higher Purpose Co., a nonprofit social impact agency based in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He helps build community wealth in underserved areas across the Northwest Region of the Mississippi Delta by focusing on small business development, strategic real estate investing, and social enterprise initiatives. Tim has advised and engaged with the Center for Rural Strategies, Project for Public Spaces, Citizens' Institute on Rural Design, ArtPlace America, and the Next Generation Project. He previously worked as a Community Development Officer for Southern Bancorp Community Partners (SBCP) where he helped secure over a million dollars for various community projects in Coahoma County. Prior to his role at SBCP, he worked with the Debt Education for Business Transformation and Sustainability (DEBTS) Program at Delta State University to support entrepreneurs. 

He has a B.S. in Business Administration from Mississippi Valley State University, MBA from Delta State University, and a M.S. in Organizational Performance from Bellevue University. Tim has completed executive education at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and is currently finishing his Doctorate of Education at the University of Arkansas. He was included on Magic Johnson’s 32 under 32 list in 2016, and has been featured by the Daily Yonder and the Huffington Post. Tim was selected in April 2017 to serve on the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Community Development Advisory Council for three years and was recently named a 2018 BALLE Local Economy Fellow. 


Magaly Licolli was born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. She has been living in Arkansas for the past 13 years working closely with the immigrant community. Her special interest in labor led her to become more involved with poultry processing workers. In late 2015, Licolli became the Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center.

Licolli achieved an Arts and Science degree in 2013 at the Umiversity of Arkansas, and thanks to her artistic background and love for social justice, she’s using art as a form of healing and empowerment; her passion and leadership working with immigrants are a key element to continue growing the organization to keep supporting workers' efforts in quest of dignity and respect in poultry plants.

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Wendy MacNaughton is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling graphic journalist and illustrator whose books include Meanwhile in San Francisco (Chronicle), Salt Fat Acid Heat (Simon & Schuster), and The Gutsy Girl (Bloomsbury). Her work regularly appears in publications like The New York Times and California Sunday Magazine where she is a columnist. She is the co-founder of the organization Women Who Draw that seeks to increase visibility of women, women of color, and queer women in the professional arts. 


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Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder, a national rural news site, and a founding staff member of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the site. He worked in daily newspapers in Chapel Hill and Durham before returning to his home region of Southern Appalachia. Tim is the former development director of Appalshop, the media arts center in Whitesburg, Ky. He holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.A. from Berea College. He's married and has a son and a daughter who are in their last semester (he hopes) at the University of Tennessee and Davidson College, respectively.

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Pilar McKay is a rural arts and culture advocate based in rural Western New York. She co-founded Shake on the Lake, a professional theatre company focused on creative placemaking in rural communities, and Silver Lake Brewing Project in Perry, New York. She is one half of Rural Arts Weekly, a social media and digital literacy project for artists and art advocates. In addition to this work, she is the Associate Director at the Arts Council for Wyoming County, the New York State Council for the Arts Decentralization Grant Site and Arts Services Organization for Wyoming County. Pilar studied Rural Sociology and Applied Economics & Management at Cornell University (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and has a Ph.D. in Social Research Methodology at University of California, Los Angeles (College of Education & Information Sciences). 


Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in Minneapolis. Within his capacity at ILSR, he also serves as the policy director for Next Century Cities, a national collaboration of mayors and CIOs seeking universal access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

On a day-to-day basis, Mitchell runs, the comprehensive online clearinghouse of information about local government policies to improve Internet access. Their interactive community broadband network map tracks more than 500 such networks. He also hosts podcasts, including Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. He tweets at @communitynets.

Diana Oestreich is no stranger to pain and the reality that our world desperately needs to be remade. As a former Iraq War Army Combat Medic  and a sexual assault nurse examiner, Diana has committed her life to staring pain in the face and choosing to love anyway, to lean in, and to remake the world around her. Speaking across the country for Preemptive Love Coalition Diana is usually the one laughing when everyone else is trying not to.  

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Michelle Osborne serves as the Come to the Table Program Manager for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. The CTTT program connects faith communities with other community leaders engaged in food access work to increase capacity and promote equity. Michelle earned a Master’s of Divinity from Duke Divinity School and a Master’s of Social Work from the UNC-CH School of Social Work, and has served in leadership positions in churches, nonprofit ministries, and community organizing groups.


Kim Phinney is the Vice President of Program Design for YouthBuild USA. In this position, she leads the overall design of program content and learning for YouthBuild USA and YouthBuild programs across the country. In addition, she works on a broad range of related policy issues. Kim joined YouthBuild USA in 2001 to design education and career pathways for rural and Native Opportunity Youth. She was previously the senior director of Rural and Native Initiatives, overseeing technical assistance and training to the national field of over 70 rural and Native YouthBuild programs. 


The Racial Justice Alliance of Montpelier High School was founded over two years ago in response to specific and generalized racism directed towards students of color in the Montpelier Public School system. Since that time the group has worked to advocate for improved recognition and action steps for better conditions regarding unchecked privilege, implicit bias, and structural racism within the MPS school system. At the urging of the Racial Justice Alliance, the most visible commitment that the school district has taken is being the first (known) public high school in the nation to raise a Black Lives Matter Flag. The Racial Justice Alliance continues to be active both locally and beyond in advocating for cultural competence and racial justice in the public school system.

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Kristen R. Richardson-Frick serves as Associate Director of the Rural Church program area of The Duke Endowment. She is an ordained clergyperson in the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, and joined the Endowment in June 2012 after serving as a pastor of churches for eleven years. Richardson-Frick holds both a BA and a BS degree from Wofford College, and a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. In her work with the Endowment, Richardson-Frick focuses on building the capacity of rural congregations to engage their communities in new ways, fostering clergy health and effectiveness, and implementing summer literacy programs in rural Methodist churches. From her experiences as a pastor and a program officer, Kristen believes that rural congregations are uniquely called and positioned to work with community partners to change the world for good. She hopes that her work equips churches to do just that. Richardson-Frick resides in the Charlotte area with her husband John and her sons John Edward (13) and Tyoma (10).

Ruby Nell Sales is a nationally-recognized human-rights activist, public theologian, and social critic, whose articles and work appear in many journals, online sites, and books. Under the tutelage of Professor Jean Wiley, Sales joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960’s as a teenager at Tuskegee University and went to work as a student freedom fighter in Lowndes County, Alabama. 

In August 1965, Sales, along with other SNCC workers, joined young people from Fort Deposit, Alabama, who organized a demonstration to protest the actions of the local White grocery store owners who had cheated their parents. The group was arrested and held in jail and then suddenly released. Jonathan Daniels, a White seminarian and freedom worker from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts was assassinated as he pulled Sales out of the line of fire, when they attempted to enter Cash Grocery Store to buy sodas for other freedom workers who were released from jail. Tom Coleman also shot and deeply wounded Father Richard Morrisroe, a priest from Chicago. Despite threats of violence, Sales was determined to attend the trial of Daniels' murderer, Tom Coleman, and to testify on behalf of her slain colleague. Coleman was acquitted by a jury of all white peers.

As a social activist, Sales has served on many committees to further the work of racial, sexual, gender, and class reconciliation, education, and awareness, including the Steering Committee for International Women's Day and  the President's Committee On Race. She was a founding member of Sage Magazine: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women and was featured in Broken Ground: A Film on Race Relations in the South. Sales has preached around the country and spoken at national conferences on race, class, gender, and reconciliation.

Presently, Sales serves as the founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project,  a national nonprofit organization that uses the arts, research, education, action, and spirituality to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and social justice, as well as for spiritual maturity.

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A fifth generation Appalachian fiddler, Liz Shaw is known for her contributions to traditional music as a performer, teacher, and co-host of a nationally distributed public television series about American folk music. However, her secret life has been that of community organizer which landed her a spot on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and hosting John Oliver in her home for the taping. Liz has successfully fought corporal punishment in daycares and ill-advised nuclear waste dumps in North Carolina along with union busting legislation in Ohio.  She also developed an award-winning program addressing food security in Athens County, Ohio. Liz founded the Citizen’s Connectivity Committee, which hosted a nationally recognized broadband summit featuring FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. She has been featured in articles, blogs and podcasts for her tenacious stance on bringing broadband to rural America. Liz lives with her husband Lynn near Athens, Ohio in a historic farmhouse where they like to fiddle on their front porch.

David Simas is the Chief Executive Officer of the Obama Foundation. A native of Taunton, Massachusetts, he was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2007. Simas then joined President Obama’s administration in 2009 as a Deputy Assistant to the President, working with senior advisors David Axelrod and David Plouffe. In 2012, he served as Director of Opinion Research for President Obama's reelection campaign. Following the reelection, Simas returned to the White House as Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. Simas holds a B.A. in political science from Stonehill College and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. He serves on the national board of directors of OneGoal and lives in Chicago with his wife, Shauna, and their two daughters.

David Toland is the first CEO of Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit working to improve quality of life and economic conditions in Allen County, Kansas (pop. 13,000).  A seventh-generation Allen Countian, Toland oversees a coalition known nationally for innovative approaches to improving rural healthcare access, healthy lifestyles and economic development.  As CEO Toland has overseen Thrive’s transformation from a small, volunteer coalition into a force instrumental in the development of 27 miles of trails; voter approval of a new critical access hospital; passage of Kansas’ third Tobacco 21 ordinance and ninth Complete Streets ordinance; the opening of a federally-qualified health center (FQHC); and the redevelopment of the former county hospital site into a supermarket and apartment neighborhood.  Toland also led Allen County’s successful pursuit of the 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize. Prior to returning to Kansas in 2008 Toland served as Chief of Staff in the DC Office of Planning and as Deputy COO to DC’s Deputy Mayor.