Going into its fourth year, Radically Rural, an annual summit that brings people together from across the U.S. to present ideas and solutions to challenges facing rural communities, is on solid footing, despite the switch to an all-virtual event last year because of COVID-19.

  The pandemic created a new opportunity for Radically Rural organizers, one that they may not have been thought of before as the summit puts a premium on face-to-face interaction.

“What we learned from that is that you could do these things remotely,” says Terrence Williams, president and chief operating officer of the Keene Sentinel, who presents a “track” this year on community journalism. “It broadened our reach, so we decided this year, let’s try to take advantage of the programming nationally but also provide the type of experiences we are looking for by making sure we have an in-person event.”

Williams says that last year’s summit drew more than 500 participants from about 45 states and two Canadian provinces.

Radically Rural Director Julianna Dodson — who came on board at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in February under a three-year grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission — agreed that the hybrid model opens the summit to many more but hopes the in-person event can proceed this year without concerns over COVID.

“The in-person experience cannot be replaced,” Dodson says. “There is something magical about it. It is a time when ideas, and connections and innovation and positive solutions just explode.”

Williams says they are keeping a close eye on what he called the “shifting sands” of the pandemic as cases rose in mid-summer from the Delta variant of the virus.

“We will follow what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) protocols are,” Williams says. “We are not sure what they will look like, but if masks are recommended, we will require them. We can space people out and will do what is necessary so people will feel comfortable.”

As for the summit content, Williams says that 70 speakers are lined up for the seven tracks or topics being presented. Healthcare was added this year, with sessions on recruitment, funding and technology.

Other Radically Rural tracks include Arts and Culture, Land and Community, Main Street, Clean Energy and Entrepreneurship. Each track comprises three sessions.

Entrepreneurship includes a session called the “pitchfork competition,” where business startups vie for a $10,000 grant. The winner will be from a group of finalists whose proposals were selected from applicants who attend “pitch clinics” before the summit.

“The thing that you could find in all of these is what sort of solutions are out there for rural health care or land use or for the challenges in supporting local artists or finding funding for start-up businesses,” Williams says. “All of these things are tackled by Radically Rural with the whole idea you can leave Keene or sign off from a couple of days (of the) online session with some really good idea that can you can put in place and really add to the quality of whatever their focus is.”

Dodson says the Land and Community track is particularly relevant this year, with COVID creating an influx of people from population centers to rural areas. One of the sessions is titled “Rural as a Refuge,” which can speak to the desire of many during the pandemic to go where there is more open space and access to land and resources, Dodson says.

“As I understand it, the point of the session is to look at how we prepare our land and infrastructure so we can welcome newcomers and we can protect our natural resources (at the same time,)” Dodson says.

Radically Rural concludes with “Idea Slam,” prerecorded digital submissions where small cities and towns share ideas they have implemented to solve a problem to make their community more livable, Dodson explains.

“It fits with the (Radically Rural) model,” she says. “Ten have a problem; if one finds a solution, let’s mimic that. With so many small towns trying to solve the same problem, if someone is doing a great job, we can look at that and figure out how to adapt it.

“It is a way to go out (of the summit) on an inspiring grassroots note,” Dodson says.

Radically Rural is scheduled for Sept. 22-23 at locations around Keene. For more information, visit https://radicallyrural.org/2021-summit.

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