During a year when terms such as social distancing and self-quarantining have become prevalent, it can be easy for rural communities to succumb to a greater sense of isolation. And added this year to the mix of challenges that small towns and cities face are the severe COVID-19 economic disruptions, political turmoil and social injustice. Yet despite these challenges, rural communities throughout the country are finding connection and showing resilience in ways that inspire and give promise they can emerge stronger.
That was the message of last week’s Radically Rural summit to connect community leaders from across the nation. The now annual gathering — this was the third — is co-produced by the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and The Sentinel. Of course, missing from this year’s summit was the in-person connection among the participants, but its remote, virtual format brought its own enhancements. Among them was impressive geographic diversity, as more than 40 states spanning the U.S. and two Canadian provinces were represented among the more than 500 registrants for the gathering.
The summit again featured separate presentation tracks for sharing ideas — this year on arts and culture, entrepreneurship, land and community, Main Street, clean energy, and community journalism. Topics for focused discussion included the role of the arts in community connection, how communities can join forces to benefit the environment and reduce costs, and the benefit food hubs can bring to rural farmers and their local economies. Other track sessions addressed achieving a balance of the old and new to enhance downtown livability and new journalism models and ideas that are helping community news organizations adapt in a fast-changing environment.
Local entrepreneurs once again strutted their stuff, making remote funding pitches in the final round of the Hannah Grimes annual PitchFork Challenge. Linda Rubin of Frisky Cow Gelato and Margit Foster of Little Lantern Pediatric Sleep Consulting, both in Keene, were awarded seed funding in the categories of new business development and advancing a business idea. Rural community innovation was also featured in the Livability Idea Slam, sponsored by the LOR Foundation that funds community-driven solutions, particularly across the West, and participants from different parts of the country presented lively videos of their ideas for making small towns and cities more livable.
It was, as the Hannah Grimes Center’s Executive Director Mary Ann Kristiansen noted, “a day filled with ideas and solutions.” Among the heartening takeaways of this year’s Radically Rural gathering was that there’s amazing innovation underway that’s helping small communities navigate their way through the near-term challenges and build for the future.
John Molinaro, formerly of the Aspen Institute and head of Ohio’s Appalachian Partnership, closed the summit by stressing the common denominators of rural communities that rejuvenate successfully. They put the keys to strengthening their communities in local hands, he observed, and emphasized that effective development starts with local people, ideas and assets. In short, he said, “take what you have to make what you need.”
That’s certainly encouraging for this rural region. As PitchFork Challenge winner Rubin commented, she had learned from preparing her pitch “the importance of asking for help,” because “there are so many great people and resources in our community waiting to help out.”