Whitney Kimball Coe grew up in Appalachia just a few hours outside of the Great Smokey Mountain State Park. But from a young age, she was on a path — one that would take her right out of town. In her mind, you grow up in a small town, learn what you can, then you take that knowledge to the “big city” and start your real life.
And she did that. Only, it didn’t quite feel how it was supposed to.
“I was 18 when I left for college and I went to the big city, or what I thought was the big city, in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she explains of her time at Queens University in Charlotte. “I was carrying on with that linear path; but pretty quickly after I got to Charlotte, I started to feel not just homesick, but that I had misjudged what was important and what I was supposed to be doing there.”
Coe finished her education, earning a degree in religion and philosophy. With degree in hand, she started working out ways to get back home to Athens, Tennessee. But there were not a lot of professional opportunities in blue-collar Athens where, she says, 33 percent of the population works in manufacturing. She opted for a master’s program at Appalachian State University called Appalachian studies.
“Appalachian State … grounds you in Appalachian culture and history and also showed how Appalachia was changing and how we bounced back from decades and centuries … of exploitation and extraction,” she says. “So I got my master’s at Appalachian State, and I always thought after I was done with that I was going to go home.”
She landed a job at The Center for Rural Strategies, an organization which, according to its mission statement, seeks to improve economic and social conditions for communities in the countryside and around the world through media, while striving to create better opportunities for small towns and rural communities by building coalitions, developing partnerships, leading public information campaigns and advancing strategies that strengthen connections between rural and urban places.
Coe says she’s been with the organization for 10 years and it was through that job and their support that she was finally able to go home five years ago.
“One of the things that made that possible was that we have broadband now, which allows me to make my own professional opportunities online. I can work for Rural Strategies and travel when I need to,” she says. “That allowed me to be able to be a full participant in my community, which is about 15,000 people. So much of the content that I deal with, work with, at Rural Strategies is informed by my being a very local, passionate participant in the Athens community.”
Coe, who is the director of national programs for Rural Strategies, will be the keynote speaker that closes out the Radically Rural event, a two-day summit Sept. 27 and 28 in Keene aimed at discussing the advantages and working through the challenges of living and working in rural America.
Coe’s discussion will focus on the lessons larger communities can learn from rural communities and the role of rural communities in a strong America.
Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, and one of the organizers of the Radically Rural event, describes Coe as someone who made a “very conscious decision” to return to her rural roots. She is someone, Kristiansen says, who can articulate clearly why she made that choice and communicate what she sees is the wisdom that rural areas have to offer to communities of all sizes.
“Her keynote will offer all of us a more intentional understanding of the great value of small communities in the bigger world,” Kristiansen says. “Her presence at the summit itself will add yet one more clear voice to the sharing and shaping of ideas over the course of two days.”
As part of her work with Rural Strategies, Coe focuses on national strategies for strengthening and amplifying the work of rural advocates and stakeholders. In addition, Coe is the director 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.
Coe says that her work, and the talks she gives across the country — including her address at the Obama Foundation’s 2017 Summit — are deeply rooted in her own choice to live and work rurally.
And the way she sees it, our country as a whole is at a turning point where we have to re-think what is important and how we want to live and work in this new reality.
“More urban places are reevaluating what they know about rural people and rural places,” she says. “People are looking at rural places in a way that they haven’t before or at least haven’t looked in a long time. The common stereotype of a rural person is redneck, backward, undereducated. But people also know intuitively that rural communities are where people are most connected. Those connections are very real and very present, and people are desiring to have that again.”
But there are some challenges in rural America as well, Coe notes, including the fact that people in rural communities are poorer, sicker and less connected to services and technologies than the rest of the country.
“One in four rural kids live in poverty, and that’s higher in communities of color,” she says.
But one of the many things rural areas have going for them is that they tend to be more willing to work across sectors to solve these problems, build community and drive economic development.
“We’re pretty skilled at working across sectors because we have to,” she says. “And that’s a lesson that everyone can learn from.”
Coe’s keynote address will take place Friday, Sept. 28 at 11 a.m. at The Colonial Theater on Main Street in Keene. The address is free and open to the public.