Rural Feminism: Who We Read = How We Lead

This is a guest blog post from Amy Brooks and Pilar McKay of @RuralArtsWeekly (a two-woman Twitter chat group for rural artists, advocates, educators and policy-makers) in which they share their literary and civic role models for creative placekeeping leadership.

Amy Brooks (Program Director and Dramaturg, Roadside Theater): Recently I reread a very short essay I love, bell hooks's Connecting Appalachia To The World Beyond. When I read bell's words I feel seen, honored, and understood as a West Virginian who is ambivalent about place and identity. I feel my concerns addressed and my care for family, community, and workplace answered. I feel solidarity with her vision for an inclusive, sustainable rural life (a theme she explores in her book Belonging, which I'm just starting to read) and confidence that our movements will succeed to the extent that we align ourselves with it in creed and deed. As I asked my colleagues recently: What can we do to guarantee that our leadership reflects the values in our funding documents and foundational literature? How do we build a philosophy of placemaking/keeping that begins with the sovereignty, ownership and protection of our own bodies? How do we walk the walk of belonging and equity? These questions are at the heart of my work as a rural feminist and artist.

Credit: Montikamoss, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Montikamoss, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

bell’s wise, unsentimental critiques of pop culture (see her writing on apparently feminist properties like Lemonade, Lean In, and The Shape of Water) affirm my convictions that our arts-based economic organizing and placekeeping cannot be understood separately from gender or race; that incuriosity and sectarianism are the greatest threats to rural and urban populations alike; and that―when present leadership reflects the limitations of what she calls the “white imperialist capitalist patriarchy”―mentorship can always be found in the literature of our allies and foremothers in the mountains and beyond. Indeed, bell herself lives, teaches, and publishes in Berea, Kentucky, where an Institute in her name “strives to promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect through critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation.” When men I work with pull out Saul Alinsky and Wendell Berry, I think of her up there and say, “Yes, and bell hooks and Cherrie Moraga.” When they pull out Marx and Robert Gard, I say, “Yes, and Joy Harjo and Adrienne Maree Brown and Maryat Lee.” In this way, keeping multiple intelligences at the heart of our recovery, we will decolonize political and artistic leadership of central Appalachia. The womxn I work with at Appalshop understand this; it’s part of their practice as media makers and community organizers. When I see them channel their knowledge the results are breathtaking. There can be no doubt that the future of the region will reflect this new way of understanding the world and our Appalachian peoples’ place in it. 

Pilar McKay (Associate Director, Arts Council for Wyoming County, New York and co-founder of Shake on the Lake): Louise Slaughter is a creative placemaker who worked in my immediate region. As a congressperson for over thirty years, she represented the Rochester, New York area. Rochester is a creative, cultural, and technological city. It’s home of the Eastman School of Music, Strong Museum of Play, Rochester Jazz Fest, and the Erie Canal among other arts and cultural institutions.

Louise Slaughter

Louise Slaughter

Louise moved to the Rochester area for work and she had a background in science (a background that she’d later use in Congress, but that’s for another post). Originally, she was from Kentucky, a fact that could confuse people if you ever heard her be interviewed on the TV.

In the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts was in real jeopardy. A group in Congress started the Arts Caucus, and Louise served as its long-time chair to advocate and support the arts - and in particular the work of the NEA. My congressional district is adjacent to hers, so it has been really easy for me to call them (as my project does work in her district) and just see what was going on with federal arts funding. Her staffers were always friendly and informative.

The Arts Caucus is also very active during the National Arts Advocacy Day - for obvious reasons! They will open their office doors as arts advocates descend on Capitol Hill. Tweets are common on those days, and one of my favorite pictures this year is of Louise Slaughter with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

It’s one of my favorite pictures, but also poignant, because it is the last picture of hers I saw while she was still alive. Days after this year’s National Arts Advocacy Day Louise suddenly died. We lost a regional and national advocate of the arts. It affected me deeply as she worked so close to me both geographically and in my industry.

Almost immediately after she died, there was a movement afoot to rename the renovated Amtrak Station in Rochester after her. You see, she secured the funds to oversee an overhaul of the station in downtown Rochester. Often, we see government move quite slow, but in this instance, it was unanimous and the train station was renamed in her memory. It will serve as a great memorial to her. 

I once sat next to her on an airplane bus shuttle at National Airport. Although she appeared to be just like any of us (cramped is the general emotion on these things), you could tell immediately that it was she was the distinguished woman from Rochester. A blazer had the tell-tale congressional pin on it and she was ready to work even though most of us (who were on average half her age or less) were groggy and for all intents and purposes trying to figure out why we were on a bus this early. I was too shy to tell her thank you during that trip. But in my heart I was telling her thank you and how excited I was to finally meet her.

Louise Slaughter always supported the arts and I’ll keep fighting for the rural arts in her memory. This summer, my theatre company will perform in her district for the first time, and I have hope that if she were still here, she’d be excited to know that a new company was coming to her community.

In 2006, Louise Slaughter visited Rochester-based Metal Sculptor Albert Paley with then NEA Chairman Dana Gioia

In 2006, Louise Slaughter visited Rochester-based Metal Sculptor Albert Paley with then NEA Chairman Dana Gioia

Along with Michele Anderson of Springboard for the Arts, Amy and Pilar will lead the “New Girls Club: Womxn Shaping Rural Futures” breakout session at the 2018 National Rural Assembly.


David Toland: Small Fires, Big Results


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. They are lighting fires and sparking change, each in their own way and in their own place, and we had the pleasure of speaking with David Toland recently. This is a guest post from Anna Claussen reporting on the conversation.

It’s fire burning season in Kansas. That time of year when you drive through this part of the country and the recently brown landscape is now entirely black. Within just a few days the green shoots are going to come up from the charred rolling hills and the fields will come back stronger and healthier, and much better than they would have had they not gone through that fire. For David Toland, the first CEO of Thrive Allen County, this is not unlike the work they do as a nonprofit working to improve quality of life and economic conditions in Allen County, Kansas (pop. 13,000). For many rural places he believes there is a need to burn the constructs of what we thought was possible in order for new possibilities to emerge.


David Toland left his career in the District of Columbia ten years ago when he was compelled by the vision of locals in his home community to become the healthiest rural county in the state of Kansas. But to be successful David and the community needed to “blow up the idea that things have to be the way they are and that tomorrow is inevitably going to be worse than today.” To transform a small volunteer coalition into a force instrumental in improving healthcare access and improving quality of life required faith. It meant starting lots of little fires in community members. The fire needed to garner voter approval to build a new critical access hospital, to turn zero miles of trail into a 27-mile trail system, and to add amenities that would draw in professionals and services that the community needed to be healthy and vibrant. Fires that would help community members believe that they can fix their problems and seize the opportunities they have always dreamed of. For David, this also means giving folks the backup to take action and drawing on his experience to help rural communities demand more and believe they are worthy.

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Though many may find it hard to draw parallels between the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and the rolling, fertile prairie of Allen County Kansas - David was not one of them. Rather he was informed by his experience as Chief of Staff in the DC Office of Planning and as Deputy COO to DC’s Deputy Mayor and by his time living in an abandoned urban center that recently experienced a renaissance to make it more livable. He found that so much of what he learned in DC was relevant and transferable in his small community of 6000, specifically the importance of good design when it comes to the built environment. David believes wholeheartedly in the universal theme that you need to consider the built environment and how it impacts not only the physical health, but also the culture of the community, regardless of the community’s size or population. He not only believes in this philosophy; he puts it into action.

Struggling for years in a food desert, Allen County desperately needed a grocery store. When advocating for such a basic, necessary and vital service, it can be overwhelming to consider not just whether you will get a grocery store, but to emphasis how that service will be delivered. But looking at economic development through a health lens, Thriving Allen County set out to ensure that the grocery store was not just a metal building at the edge of town, but instead developed in a way that sends the message that this supermarket is walkable, bikeable and accessible to everyone.

Recognized in 2017 with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, Allen County is certainly a success story, though David is also quick to point out the importance and relevance of failure. Doing work in rural communities requires innovation and resilience. Generally in rural America there is no handbook and no manual. We don’t get the kind off attention from academia and elsewhere that our urban counterparts get. Therefore as practitioners we have to create strategies as we go, and this can be exhausting. It requires stamina and humility. It requires failure. David believes that one of the things that holds us back in rural communities is our relationship to failure: “We are really hard on people that try and are not successful”, and as a culture, “we punish them and this is our downfall”. Rather we have to try, and we have to experiment, and we have to share what we learn. We have to have faith.

David Toland doesn't describe his work as courageous. Rather, he feels incredibly privileged to do this work. As a seventh-generation Allen Countian he is grateful to be engaged in the “day to day life of showing up, of civic life and doing what it takes to keep communities alive, eliminating barriers for poverty, for children, for folks that are trying to get ahead.” For David it is clear - “This is what you do if you live in a rural community.”

Reflections on Civic Courage: Civic Courage As Part of a Larger Endeavor

This is a guest post by David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation. David will be facilitating a panel on "New Connections" at the Rural Assembly 2018 convening in May. This is a part of an ongoing series on the topic of civic courage, which is the theme of the National Rural Assembly 2018 convening.

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There is no universal definition of civic courage. Whether it is an issue to solve, an audience to address, or more simply a way to be engaged, everyone values something different. To tell someone their issue is not important, or that their idea on how to be civically engaged is not the most effective method, doesn’t help us achieve our larger goals. What is important is when people realize that they are the change they’ve been waiting for.

That is what civic courage means to me: the willingness to step forward and acknowledge there is a problem that needs to be addressed. But having civic courage is only the first step. The next step, and one equally as important, is applying that courage towards solving an issue by putting a plan into action. You might not know the full scale of the problem or even have all the answers on how to fix it. That’s ok. What matters is that you’re not waiting for someone else to solve it; you’re part of the solution. Together, these two important steps make up our understanding of civic engagement.

That idea is at the center of the Obama Foundation’s mission. We’re focused on making active citizenship accessible to anyone, anywhere. We want to reach everyone – from those who want to make the world a better place but aren’t sure where to start, to those who don’t yet see themselves as change agents. That helps us achieve our broader mission: to inspire and empower the next generation of active citizens and leaders, together defining what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.

By connecting with these individuals, we can truly understand where they are coming from and create the foundation upon which civic engagement and organizing are built. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all strategy. Civic engagement wasn’t built on lecturing one another. But in order to build that foundation, we need individuals to have the courage to step forward and be agents of change.

That is where the National Rural Assembly comes in. You are all spread out across the country but share the common desire to make your community a better place. You’ve already demonstrated the courage that is required for effective civic engagement. That is especially impressive considering that your location may not give you the same access to resources and connections others may have. Still, you’ve overcome the barriers and are working on developing your action plans. On behalf of the Obama Foundation, I cannot wait to hear more about what you’re working on and talk about how we can tackle these challenges together.