Rural Assembly Everywhere May 2022 Speakers

Keynote Speakers

Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a Black Hawk, MS, native. Her piece “Chicken-Girls and Chicken-Ladies and All the Possibility of Pillowcases” will be included in Best MicroFiction 2022. Her debut fiction chapbook—Look at All the Little Hurts of These Newly-Broken Lives and the BitterSweet, Sweet, and Bitter Loves—is set for publication with Ethel Zine and Press in April 2023.

Beau of the Fifth Column

Beau of the Fifth Column is a social and political commentator who strives to encourage the creation of community level networks to address immediate problems and then leverage those networks to address larger national issues. His primary platform is Youtube, but can be found on most social media platforms.

Claire Carlson

Claire Carlson (she/her) lives in Portland, OR, by way of Nevada and Montana. She holds a masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and currently reports on agriculture and the environment for The Daily Yonder.

Neema Avashia

Neema Avashia

Neema Avashia was born and raised in southern West Virginia to parents who immigrated to the United States. She has been a middle school teacher in the Boston Public Schools since 2003. Her essays have appeared in the Bitter Southerner, Catapult, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her book “Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place” examines both the roots and the resonance of Avashia’s identity as a queer, desi, Appalachian woman, while encouraging readers to envision more complex versions of both Appalachia and the nation as a whole. With lyric and narrative explorations of foodways, religion, sports, standards of beauty, social media, gun culture, and more, Another Appalachia mixes nostalgia and humor, sadness and sweetness, personal reflection and universal questions.

Skylar Baker-Jordan

Skylar Baker-Jordan is the contributing editor for community engagement at 100 Days in Appalachia. He is also a regular columnist at The Independent, one of the UK’s largest national newspapers, where he frequently writes about American politics and public policy – often from an Appalachian point of view. His work has appeared at Newsweek, Huff Post UK, Business Insider, Salon, and elsewhere. Originally from Southeastern Kentucky, he currently lives in East Tennessee.

Abby Kiesa

Abby Kiesa is the Deputy Director of CIRCLE, a national research institute that focuses on conducting and leveraging research for systemic change for youth civic learning and engagement. CIRCLE’s research informs policy and practice for healthier youth development and a more inclusive democracy and is part of Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Abby brings a broad view of the levers and interventions that make up ecosystems for civic development among a wide diversity of youth. She uses research to catalyze systemic change towards the creation of local ecosystems that promote and support diverse and sustained civic engagement. Abby provides leadership for CIRCLE’s election strategies, among other things and is driven by how to change de facto community, institutional, and political systems to reduce inequality Abby has appeared or been quoted in major media outlets such as The New York Times, CSPAN, NPR, and PolitiFact. Previously, Kim served as the Vice President of Program Design for YouthBuild USA. Prior to her role as a Vice President, Kim established a national rural initiative to develop the YouthBuild model in rural communities and create a framework for technical assistance and training. Kim lives with her family in the wonderful community of Westford, Vermont.

Bethany Lacktorin

Bethany Lacktorin is a performance artist and community organizer who lives and was raised in Pope County on so-called Ordway Prairie in Minnesota. An adopted Korean raised by Scandinavians on this stolen Dakota land, her artistic work is a navigation and interpretation of dual identities and reconciliations. Mindful of the layers of history this land embodies for herself, the Dakota who were forced off, and for the neighboring Scandinavian descendants, Lacktorin's artistic practice rests on modes of co-existence: the understanding that You and I are host and guest to the places we occupy and to each other. And that this relationship is one of continuous exchange and reciprocity. With the hope of reflecting these principals in her work, relationships and in whatever she puts into the world, Lacktorin serves as chair of the New London Arts Alliance, is the Director of Little Theatre Auditorium and chairs the New London Human Rights Commission. Previously, Kim served as the Vice President of Program Design for YouthBuild USA. Prior to her role as a Vice President, Kim established a national rural initiative to develop the YouthBuild model in rural communities and create a framework for technical assistance and training. Kim lives with her family in the wonderful community of Westford, Vermont.

Sandra Kern Mollman

Sandra Kern Mollman is a mother and co-creator living north of Vermillion, SD. She and her partner returned to the Dakotas 17 years ago to explore live theatre with the people of the prairie. Their “Pretend Farm” has grown to two children, two dogs, three cats, and 10 chickens. Sandra is a community-based theatre-maker, musician, and writer, co-creating Cardboard Boat Regattas, Y Pony songs, Crumpled Paper Players' cantastorias and zoom theatre, and more. Sandra uses her tools and assets as an artist to imagine, devise, and embody the world she wants to see. Her creative practice integrates processes of creativity with science and spirituality for personal and global transformation grounded in justice and employs those processes to co-create the Real World that we want to see; a world that works for everyone.

Kim Phinney

Kim Phinney is the Co-Founder of the Rural Youth Catalyst Project. Working nationally, the Rural Youth Catalyst Project (RYCP) aims to strengthen and create opportunities that allow rural and Native youth to realize their hopes and dreams while remaining in or returning to their communities. RYCP seeks to: strengthen the capacity of local practitioners, pilot replicable innovative solutions to persistent barriers, and change the policy indicators used to measure success for rural young people and their communities.  Previously, Kim served as the Vice President of Program Design for YouthBuild USA. Prior to her role as a Vice President, Kim established a national rural initiative to develop the YouthBuild model in rural communities and create a framework for technical assistance and training. Kim lives with her family in the wonderful community of Westford, Vermont.

Xochitl Torres Small

Xochitl Torres Small

Xochitl Torres Small was confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as the Under Secretary for Rural Development on October 7, 2021. In this role, she oversees loans and grants to provide infrastructure improvements; business development; affordable housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural, Tribal, and high-poverty areas. During her leadership, USDA Rural Development secured $2 billion to support rural broadband through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Prior to coming to Rural Development, Xochitl was a United States Representative for the fifth largest district in the country. As a Representative, Xochitl served as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, the House Armed Services Committee and as chairwoman of the Oversight, Management, and Accountability subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee. Xochitl was the first woman and first person of color to represent New Mexico’s second congressional district.


Kelsey Scott

Kelsey Scott is a family-focused individual (which includes her four legged family of horses, cattle, and dogs), a soil & plant “nerd,” and an avid youth advocate. Kelsey is honored to serve the Intertribal Agriculture Council as their Director of Programs. Kelsey and her family own and operate DX Beef, a direct-to-consumer grass fed beef operation on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. She and her husband are living their dream, supporting their family’s ranches as they care for the landscape, livestock, and local community. Kelsey’s passion is best described as wanting to inspire both producers and consumers in their own lifelong pursuit of biodiversity, resiliency, community impact, and family-focused lives.

Loka Ashwood standing

Loka Ashwood

Loka Ashwood is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kentucky. She studies corporate and regulatory structures that prompt environmental injustices and animosity toward the state, with a mind toward action-based change in rural communities. She published the book, For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America (Yale 2018), and is co-author of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology (6th edition, Sage, fall 2020).

Reyna Lopez

Reyna is a leader and proud daughter of immigrants from Mexico, who came to Oregon in the late 80’s following the migration of farm work in the Marion County area. She is currently the Executive Director of PCUN, which was started by farmworkers and is now Oregon’s longest standing Latinx led organization. Reyna grew up in Salem, Oregon and graduated from Willamette University with her BA in Political Science and Sociology. For over a decade, she has been a fierce leader and advocate for the Latinx community in Oregon, receiving the Immigrant Award from the American Association of Immigration Lawyers of Oregon, and Willamette University’s Young Alumni of the Year Award for her work in social justice causes, campaigns, movement and coalition building. Today, Reyna is also leading on national efforts as a member of the board of the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Secretary Treasurer of the Oregon Working Families Party.

Richard Besser

Richard E. Besser, MD, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a position he assumed in April 2017. Dr. Besser is the former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ABC News’ former Chief Health and Medical Editor and is now on the Multi-State Council to Get People Back to Work and Restore the Economy and the New Jersey Governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission. At RWJF, Dr. Besser leads the largest private foundation in the country devoted solely to improving the nation’s health. In Dr. Besser’s role at ABC News, he worked to shape how viewers think about health here and around the globe. His weekly health chats on social media reached millions. Before joining ABC News in 2009, Dr. Besser worked as Director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response at the CDC. In that role he was responsible for all the CDC's public health emergency preparedness and emergency response activities. He also served as acting director of the CDC from January to June 2009, during which time he led the CDC's response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic. Dr. Besser received his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Williams College and medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. He continues to practice as a volunteer pediatrician at the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton, NJ. He and his wife Jeanne, a food writer, have two sons, Alex and Jack.

Sarah Eagle Heart

Sarah Eagle Heart is an Emmy award winning social justice storyteller, activist, media strategist, and producer focused on advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Peoples rooted worldview as an Oglala Lakota raised on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is currently the CEO of Return to the Heart Foundation and is an internationally accomplished executive with a diverse background in tribal, corporate, and non-profit organizations. Ms. Eagle Heart recently served as CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a national nonprofit that focuses on investment in Native American communities. She created narrative change endeavors amplifying truth and healing, history and contemporary issues. Her partnerships include: Anne Hathaway, Dispatch, Indigenous Women Rise, John Legend, Mark Ruffalo, Obama White House and Taboo of The Black Eyed Peas. Her partnership with John Legend "Crow: the Legend" led to a 2019 Emmy as a Consultant Producer. Prior to this role, she served as the Team Leader for Diversity, Social Justice and Environmental Ministries and Program Officer for Indigenous Ministry at The Episcopal Church, New York, NY. Under her leadership, The Episcopal Church became the first major denomination to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009 and presented oral interventions at the United Nations in 2012.

Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation and many other publications. Her first book, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Smarsh was Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2018 and is a frequent speaker and commentator on economic inequality. Her new book, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” will be published in October 2020. She lives in Kansas.

Shannon Kring

Shannon Kring is an Emmy-winning producer and humanitarian whose work has been presented by dozens of governments, and by institutions including the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Smithsonian Institution Museum of the American Indian, NASA, MIT, and the British Museum. Shannon works with the UN, US Department of State, and other global bodies concerning the indigenous and other marginalized members of society, environmental sustainability, and cultural preservation. She is a UNWTO Liaison and serves as Honduras’ Goodwill Ambassador. In 2008, Shannon left behind culinary and lifestyle media fame. Gaining unprecedented access into typically fiercely guarded groups in 70+ countries, she has been entrusted with lifting the veil on spiritual and culinary practices long shrouded in mystery and intrigue. To date, she has conducted nearly 3,000 interviews on ancient and indigenous wisdom. After living in places as diverse as Helsinki and San Pedro Sula, Honduras (then the Murder Capital of the World), Shannon returned to the US in 2016 to begin production on her forthcoming feature documentary END OF THE LINE: THE WOMEN OF STANDING ROCK. In 2018, she became the first US director and only third woman to receive the backing of the Finnish Film Foundation. In 2019, she won the Stella Artois-Women in Film Finishing Fund Award. She is the author of five award-winning nonfiction books.

Wašté Win Yellowlodge Young

Wašté Win Yellowlodge Young (Ihunktowanna Dakota/Hunkpapa Lakota) is an enrolled citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Wašté Win grew up along the Mní Šošé—the Missouri River north—of Fort Yates, North Dakota. She graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2001 and worked for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Historic Preservation Office from 2003 to 2015, including seven years as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. In August 2016, Wašté Win’s family moved to the Očeti Šakowin Camp, the epicenter of the indigenous-led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock. They resided there until February 22, 2017, when law enforcement and military forcibly removed the water protectors. On February 1, 2017, Wašté Win was one of 72 people arrested at Crazy Horse's Last Child’s Camp at Očeti Šakowin for peacefully maintaining a physical and spiritual presence on Lakota treaty land. After nearly two years of court proceedings, all charges against her were dropped in December of 2018. Wašté Win is in her second year of law school at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she lives with her four children. Together with her mother, American Indian rights activist Phyllis Young, Wašté Win stars in the forthcoming feature documentary END OF THE LINE: THE WOMEN OF STANDING ROCK.

Poets, Artists, Musicians

Anthony Wiles

17 year-old Anthony John Wiles, Jr. (also known as A.J. by family and friends), is the National Student Poet representing the Northeast region of the country. A resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he attends the Sewickley Academy and is an active member of his school community. In addition to this, he has been active in several other organizations, as well as performing community service and engaging in writing workshops in the Pittsburgh region. Anthony is a proud ninth-generation Affrilachian, with roots in the rural Mountain South. His identity and his heritage shape him as a writer and as a storyteller. He dedicates his writing to telling the stories of the people and places that make him whole, giving voice to himself and his community in the process. Anthony plans to become an educator and historian in addition to his creative writing so that he can continue to make change and tell his story.

Anna Herrod

Anna Harrod

Anna Harrod is a Kentucky born and raised musician, farmer, researcher, and activist. Anna grew up in a musical family where she inherited a deep love for Appalachian music. Anna currently performs in an all female old-time band, The Possum Queens.

Becky Hill

Becky Hill is a sought-after percussive dancer, Appalachian square dance caller, and choreographer “slides and shuffles her feet with the precision of snare brushes” (NPR Music). As an avid community organizer and teacher, Hill’s work is deeply rooted in the connections between music and community. She believes there is always more to learn and is dedicated to creating choreography that blurs the lines between music and dance.

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera is the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States (2015-2016) and is the first Latino to hold the position. From 2012-2014, Herrera served as California State Poet Laureate. Herrera’s many collections of poetry include Every Day We Get More Illegal; Notes on the Assemblage; Senegal Taxi; Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, a recipient of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. He is also the author of Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse, which received the Americas Award. His books of prose for children include: SkateFate, Calling The Doves, which won the Ezra Jack Keats Award; Upside Down Boy, which was adapted into a musical for young audiences in New York City; and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box. His book Jabberwalking, a children’s book focused on turning your wonder at the world around you into weird, wild, incandescent poetry, is forthcoming in 2018. Herrera is also a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth.

Kyshona Armstrong

Kyshona has always lent her voice and music to those that feel they have been silenced or forgotten. She began her career as a music therapist, writing her first songs with her patients--the students and inmates under her care. She soon found the need to write independently and find her own voice, and endeavor which led her to the fertile ground of the Nashville creative community and songwriting culture. Since then, she has learned how to balance her music career with her passion to heal the hurting. Audiences will find a common thread of empowerment, overcoming adversity, and finding hope in her work. On February 28, 2020, Kyshona will release her new LP Listen, co-produced with Andrija Tokic (St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Alabama Shakes, Hurray For The Riff Raff) and recorded mostly at his famed Nashville studio The Bomb Shelter. Within the grooves of its 10 tracks, Kyshona blends roots, rock, R&B, and folk with lyrical prowess to uplift the marginalized and bring awareness to the masses. It's for every silent scream, every heavy load, every fearful thought, and the simmering sense of anger that the silenced, the lost, and the forgotten try to hide from the world.

Rui Fu

Singer-songwriter Rui Fu specializes in improvisational and impressionistic interpretations of Chinese ethnic musical traditions and modernist portrayals of ancient Taoist meditative music. Through her music, Fu initiates conversations between indigenous music cultures and rare instruments around the world, often employing her signature, non-lexical vocals as her own “language” and lyrics to illustrate a crossing of cultural and religious barriers.

SG Goodman

S.G. Goodman was raised in Western Kentucky on the Mississippi River Delta, in a strict church going family of row crop farmers. She went from singing in church three times a week to becoming a prominent member of the Murray, KY indie scene and an impassioned voice in the political and social movements she supported. Old Time Feeling is an authentic sonic experience built upon beautiful songs that provide glimpses into ordinary lives filled with extraordinary emotion. S.G. Goodman does it all with unforgettable vocal performances. “I go to a different place when I sing,” she says. “When playing all these little bars with no monitors, you have to know what you sound like when you’re singing something, right in your body. You have to feel it.” Best of all, she makes us feel it, too.