The Center for Rural Strategies hosts the National Rural Assembly. Can you provide some history about the National Rural Assembly and tell us about this year’s gathering?
The Center for Rural Strategies was founded in 2001 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a small town in the Appalachian coalfields. Rural Strategies seeks to improve economic and social conditions for communities in the countryside and around the world through the creative and innovative use of media and communications. By presenting accurate and compelling portraits of rural lives and cultures, we work to deepen public debate and create a national environment in which positive change for rural communities can occur. One of the key ways we work for positive change is by empowering rural champions and leaders in those communities through the National Rural Assembly. The Rural Assembly is a set of activities and a national gathering, and over the years has engaged over 800 organizations and individuals from rural America across issue areas and geographies, helping them organize around more effective policies for rural America.
The Assembly was first convened in 2007 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation just outside of Washington DC, and participants developed a framework for a new policy narrative for rural America. This narrative grew into the Rural Compact, which is now the foundation for current Assembly work and gatherings. Participants at that first gathering included stakeholders from multiple sectors including government officials and policymakers, Presidential candidates and national nonprofits. Most of the participants, however, were grassroots leaders from all over the country representing sectors like healthcare, education, conservation, climate, food systems, broadband, transportation, and investment, to name a few. The 2007 Assembly also produced a Congressional Rural Summit on Capitol Hill, hosted by U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn), the then-chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee.
On September 8-10, 2015, the National Rural Assembly will bring together many of the same stakeholders for a content-packed program that looks at strategies and opportunities for building a more inclusive nation where rural is part of the solutions to some of America’s greatest challenges. We’ll have representatives from Capitol Hill and the White House, as well as a high percentage of young leaders from across the country. This year’s major focus will be on rural child poverty. No matter the perception of child poverty as an urban phenomenon, the fact is that there is a greater prevalence of rural families living below the poverty line. The policy framework that addresses conditions to move both poor rural and urban children out of poverty is fragmented and increasingly ineffective. Changing this framework and creating a more successful policy response to the needs of rural children will create opportunity for all children. This framework includes addressing climate change, food policy, access to healthcare, education, investment, technology, and leadership development. As Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack said in his address to the 2013 National Rural Assembly: “Folks, we are not going to have that more inclusive nation unless people around this country recognize and understand that we cannot accept failure with impunity.”
This year’s gathering will highlight efforts to move the conversation about rural child poverty from a place of despair to a place of empowerment and action. We’ll talk about what systems need to be in place for children and communities to thrive, and how we build a narrative to achieve better policy outcomes. We are hopeful that grounding this conversation in terms of opportunity and possibility will open the door for essential conversations that have over the years become over-politicized like, how we welcome immigrant populations, encourage entrepreneurs and cultural communities, invest in knowledge-based infrastructure, and address climate change.
In what other ways does the Center for Rural Strategies engage rural communities around climate change?
Rural Strategies is working in its own backyard to help build a new future for Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, where the dramatic decline of the coal industry has created unprecedented opportunity for a more frank and productive conversation about the region’s economy. Transition from extractive to renewable economies and improved infrastructure for some of the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable populations is going to be integral to addressing climate change proactively, and Rural Strategies is working with numerous partners to put forward a vision and strategies for achieving this new economy.
The Daily Yonder is an online rural news source published by the Center for Rural Strategies and it has produced numerous news stories and opinion pieces on the transition in Appalachia. You can read a compilation of these pieces in Life Beyond Coal, found on the Center for Rural Stategies member page.
What are some of the unique climate change challenges in Appalachia?
Appalachia is a wealth of natural resources stretching across 13 states and multiple mountain chains. Even though the region was endowed with a vast wealth of coal, oil, gas, and timber reserves, very little of it went to create thriving communities. The private sector has been dominated by extractive industry that has not re-invested in the region, and in a prolonged period of economic decline, we’ve allowed industry to decapitate the mountains, cover up streams, and dump dangerous toxins into the ground water. Similarly, pharmaceutical firms have dumped vast amounts of highly addictive pain medication into the region, and private waste management firms have dumped trainloads of garbage into the countryside.
One of the biggest challenges to advancing conversations about addressing climate change has been the relentless pro-coal messages and divisive campaigns like the “Friends of Coal” effort, which has aligned climate change with far left-wing politics and the environmental movement and taken it out of forums aimed at creating inclusive agendas for smarter, greener development in the region.
There is great potential for alternative energy economies within Appalachia, and there are key organizations in the region that are having successes with energy-efficient enterprises and infrastructure. There are also strong cultural and arts-focused initiatives that are driving conversations about how we address climate change in creative ways.