Rural Youth Assembly logo

Event Staff

Kim Phinney

Kim Phinney is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Rural Strategies. Previously she was the Vice President of Program Design for YouthBuild USA. In this position, she collaborated with senior leaders to craft  the organization’s strategic direction as well as led the overall design and implementation of TA, training, and organizational learning across education, career pathways, and life skills for rural, Native, and urban programs across the country. Kim joined YouthBuild USA in 2001 to design a national initiative to create and strengthen education and career pathways for rural and Native Opportunity Youth. She served as 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. Across these roles, Kim works on a broad range of policy issues related to rural and Native youth and their communities.

Kathy Moxon

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Vanessa Bennett is a staff member of the Rural Youth Assembly

Vanessa Benett

Vanessa Bennett is an Associate Director with the Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning at Jobs For the Future focused on increasing economic mobility for opportunity youth and young adults. Previously she was the Senior Manager of Career Pathways at YouthBuild USA where she designed and implemented strategies to expand access to careers, post-secondary education, and national service. She has a background in youth development and direct service, and experience in housing and food policy.

Vanessa Bennett is a staff member of the Rural Youth Assembly

Olga Cardosovas


Edyael Casaperalta

Edyael is a Fellow at the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, where she researches and writes about federal Indian law, international human rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and telecommunications & technology. She is a budding attorney dedicated to serving indigenous peoples and poor communities in telecommunications and technology law matters. Prior to law school, Edyael was an Internet Rights Fellow at Public Knowledge and a Programs Associate at the Center for Rural Strategies. In both roles, she focused on rural telecommunications issues; promoting broadband deployment to rural, Native, and poor communities; and directed the Rural Broadband Policy Group – a national coalition of rural organizations advocating for access to affordable, reliable, and high-speed broadband. Edyael’s family immigrated to Elsa, Texas from México when she was 12 years old. She attended Occidental College, obtained a Masters in Latin American Studies from Ohio University, and is a graduate of the University of Colorado Law School. She lives in Denver with her sweet angel of a partner, Julia.

Marlene Chavez

Marlene Guerrero Plua is the oldest of six children and was raised by a single mother. She was a migrant farmworker traveling to work in Michigan and West Texas. She is proud to be the first in her family to obtain a college education.

Marlene has volunteered with the CARA ProBono project where she provided legal orientations to women and children incarcerated at the Dilley Detention Center and represented clients at their credible fear interviews.  In 2015, she was the recipient of the Proyecto Azteca Community Advocacy Award.

She 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 10 year-old boy in Mercedes, TX. She loves to run, write poetry and drink coffee.

Anna Claussen coordinator of the Rural Connectors with the Rural Assembly

Anna Claussen

Anna Claussen is a photographer, community place-maker, policy and social strategist. She bridges years of practice in urban design and sustainable agriculture policy with a life deeply rooted on a Minnesota family farm. Anna founded Voices for Rural Resilience, a collective of rural leaders who embrace a portfolio of empathy building tools to create a reality where rural people are heard, feel moved and take the lead in our collective fight against climate change. She was recently chosen as a 2017-18 Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow. Prior, Anna was the Director of Rural Strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a non-profit working locally and globally pursuing cutting edge solutions that benefit family farmers, rural communities, and the planet. Over the last two decades, Anna has focused on creating resilient communities through the design and vision of alternative land-use plans; by advancing market solutions within the emerging bio-based economy; by sitting in tough spaces, wrestling with problems, and believing in the humanity of all people. 

Anna Claussen coordinator of the Rural Connectors with the Rural Assembly

Abraham Diaz

Abraham Diaz bio

Katherine Ferguson, Associate Director of the Aspen Community Strategies Group

Katharine Ferguson

Katharine Ferguson is Associate Director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (CSG) and Director of CSG’s Regional and Rural Development Initiatives. Since 1985, CSG has helped connect, equip and inspire leaders as they build more prosperous regions and advance those on the economic margins—with a consistent focus on rural America. Committed to civic engagement, bridging perceived divides, and systems change, Katharine served in the Obama Administration as Chief of Staff for the White House Domestic Policy Council and as Chief of Staff for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previously, Katharine worked as U.S. Senate staff in on community economic development, economic and social mobility, agriculture, food, public health and nutrition.  Regardless of the topic at hand, Katharine’s interest is in the practical challenges of institutional change, policy implementation, and collaborative governance. A graduate of Tufts University, Katharine holds an MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. When not in rural America or Washington D.C., Katharine lives in her hometown of Denver.

Ashley Hanson

Ashley Hanson is the founder of PlaceBase Productions, a theater company that creates original, site-specific musicals celebrating small town life and the founder of the Department of Public Transformation, an artist-led organization that collaborates with local leaders in rural areas to develop creative strategies for community connection and civic participation. She is the Director of the Small Town City Artist in Residence program and The YES! House – a radically welcoming creative community gathering space – in Granite Falls, MN. She was recently named a 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow and a 2019 Bush Fellow for her work with rural communities. She spends most of her time on the road visiting with people in rural places and believes wholeheartedly in the power of play and exclamation points! 

Jasmine Heiss

Jasmine Heiss is the Campaign Director for In Our Backyards, an initiative exploring the shifting geography of mass incarceration, and elevating the surprising truth that America’s highest rates of incarceration in are not in the biggest cities, but in the nation’s hundreds of smaller cities, towns and rural areas. Her work is meant to inform the public dialogue, engage new allies, and advance change in order to end mass incarceration where it begins—in all of our backyards. Jasmine previously served as the deputy director of The Coalition for Public Safety, where she helped lead the nation’s largest bipartisan effort to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, and as Amnesty International USA’s senior campaigner, where she led work on groundbreaking victories, including the passage of the country’s first reparations package for police torture survivors and the release of two of the longest held-prisoners in solitary confinement. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Chicago and a proud alumna of Rockwood Leadership Institute.

Merritt Jones

Merritt Jones bio

Nevada Littlewolf

A member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Nevada has over 20 years of experience working across sectors of community, government, non-profit and business. She served ten years on the Virginia, MN City Council from 208-2018. Nevada is an experienced leader who works for equitable systemic change. She serves the boards of The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, ClearWay MN and Minnesota Urban Debate League. She has AA Degree Mesabi Range College, BFA University of Minnesota Duluth and is a Graduate Student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Nevada is a 2016 Bush Fellow and has spent her life working on behalf of women, communities of color and indigenous people.

Eric Liu


Sarah Minion

Sarah Minion bio

Madeline Moore

In 2017 Madeline Moore co-founded Rethinking Rural, a national network of rural millennials dedicated to supporting, connecting, and uplifting the next generation of rural leaders. She lives in Chinook, Washington (population 450), with her toddler and husband, 15 minutes from her parents and where she grew up. She is also a private chef at an artist in residency nonprofit, elected to the local hospital board, and a former bakery owner. She is dedicated to creating vibrant rural communities guided and led by the people who love them. 

Diana Oestrich

Diana 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 a relief organization based in Iraq, she empowers us  to identify our own rural, urban, political or religious divides to cross our own “enemy lines” in order to remake the world and heal all that’s tearing us apart. As a Soldier turned peacemaker she’s appeared on multiple podcasts and blogs, discussing Justice, faith, peacemaking, refugees, activism with kids and how her posture of love shapes  how she parents and shows up for her neighbors. Diana, her partner Jake and their two sons, Bridger and Zelalem live along the shores of Lake Superior on Ojibwe land. They are an Ethiopian-American family woven together through adoption and a shared love for bad jokes and competitive card games.

Sarah Pytalski of Burness Communications

Sarah Pytalski

Sarah Cline Pytalski has more than a decade of experience in rural community advocacy with a strong background in research and writing, project management, evaluation and strategic communications. As Senior Associate at Burness, she supports the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with a focus on rural, data, and community power-building initiatives. Prior to Burness, Sarah served as Policy Research & Evaluation Manager at the National Congress of American Indians and as Policy Program Manager for Rural Dynamics. She has a Master of Public Policy with a rural policy concentration from Oregon State University and a bachelor’s in international development from McGill University.

Sarah Pytalski of Burness Communications

K. Scarry

K. Scarry bio

Sarah Pytalski of Burness Communications

K. Scarry

K. Scarry bio

Adam Strong

Adam Strong


Rural Assembly Staff

Whitney Kimball Coe

Whitney Kimball Coe is the director of National Programs at the Center for Rural Strategies. In that role, she leads the Rural Assembly, a nationwide movement striving to build better policy and more opportunity for rural communities across the country. As an organizer, speaker, moderator, and writer, Whitney has shared her perspectives on community and civic courage with audiences around the world. She has been featured on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival and the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit, and as a guest on the radio program On Being with Krista Tippett. She writes a regular column for her local newspaper, the Daily Post Athenian, and has participated in Citizen University’s Civic Saturday Fellowship program. She holds a M.A. in Appalachian studies from Appalachian State University and an undergraduate degree in religion and philosophy from Queens University. She lives in her hometown of Athens, Tennessee with her husband Matt, and daughters, Lucy and Susannah.

Mary Sketch

Mary Sketch serves as a Program Associate with the Center for Rural Strategies working on national programs, primarily the Rural Assembly. Prior to joining the Center for Rural Strategies, Mary was working on her Master’s degree in Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. Through her Master’s research she worked with multiple rural communities in the western United States to gain a deeper understanding of how farmers and ranchers approach conservation and land management decisions.  She has also spent time engaged with diverse communities across the country to connect people and places across rural America. She worked on rural community development and forest restoration in the Central Sierras of California following a wildfire that tore through the community in 2015. She has also done seasonal work in multiple regions of the U.S., including time with the Nature Conservancy on Block Island, the University of Montana College of Forestry, and a dude ranch in western North Carolina. She now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.