Two women talk in a park on a sunny day.
RUX member Taryn Henning (right), of Lexington, talks with Constance Owens from the Redfox community during the 2018 Knott County Community Intensive. Courtesy of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange

In Kentucky, a rural-urban exchange seeks to foster understanding and a shared sense of identity among participants from around the state.

“The future of the 21st century exists in the space between rural and urban,” according to Matthew Fluharty. Fluharty is the founder of Art of the Rural, a non-profit dedicated to supporting rural culture. “Plenty of people out there have questions about the connections between rural and urban cultures, because in their own lives, they’ve moved between the two,” he added. “There are millions of people who aren’t either rural or urban, but rural-urban.”

Fluharty, who lives in the small town of Winona, Minnesota, founded Art of the Rural as a blog, initially, in 2009. (“We literally talked about everything from cornbread to abstract expressionism,” he said with a laugh.) In 2013, as the blog morphed into an organization, Savannah Barrett, an 11th-generation Kentuckian, joined as program director. Although the group’s programming is nationwide, much of its work to date has been in Barrett’s and Fluharty’s home states—including a summit on the relationship between art and health in Owensboro, Kentucky, and a collaborative space in Fluharty’s Minnesota town called “Outpost Winona.”

“I feel like rural areas have a sort of superpower around the ability to connect,” said Barrett, who is from rural Grayson County, Kentucky, but now lives in Louisville. “There’s an interdependence. It’s more natural to look across whatever political or social differences when you have to count on each other. And in the 21st century, when people aren’t really conditioned to connect with one another, that’s a skill everyone needs to learn.”

That’s the idea behind the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX), a program that brings together leaders in diverse fields from across the state. The exchange was launched in 2014 by Art of the Rural and the Eastern Kentucky arts group Appalshop, and is supported by the Rural-Urban Exchange Steering Committee, Host Communities, the Rural Policy Research Institute, and other nonprofits and businesses. Over the course of a year, RUX participants go on three weekend-long retreats to strengthen bonds with people from other parts of the state, creating a “currency of connection” (in the words of RUX organizers) to increase mutual understanding, spark collective problem-solving, and, of course, develop friendships across divides, whether real or perceived.

The retreats move around the state, and each one revolves around activities that reflect local life and culture—whether it’s having coffee with members of the Bosnian community in the south-central Pennyrile region, or talking with residents about the heritage of Redfox, an African-American hamlet outside of Hindman in Eastern Kentucky.

RUX participants work together on a mapping project at the African American Museum in Bowling Green. (Courtesy of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange)

The exchange “really get[s] down to the nitty-gritty,” said Tanya Torp, a past RUX participant who lives in Lexington (home of the University of Kentucky) and is executive director of Step by Step, a non-profit serving single mothers. “In the city, we have a gentrification issue that might not be a rural issue, necessarily. But they have some of the same fallout—like the rent being too high and generational poverty. So we began to really talk about these issues that we thought had totally different causes, and we started to see commonality.”

Actor Emily Stewart, a past participant who has lived across Kentucky, said, “There’s a lot more diversity, and a lot more that unites us, throughout the state than what you realize before you do the program. You really begin to understand the history, heritage, and family you’re a part of by being a Kentuckian.”

Nearly half of Kentucky’s 120 counties are considered rural, but their population only accounts for 23 percent of the state’s total. In keeping with national trends, demographic growth is becoming increasingly concentrated in metropolitan areas. (Four out of 10 Kentuckians live in just 10 of its 120 counties.) With industries like agriculture and coal becoming less dominant in rural communities, the income disparity in Kentucky is steep: The median household income in Oldham County, a wealthy suburb of Louisville, hovers around $79,000, while in Eastern Kentucky’s Owsley County, it’s only $19,000.

Programs like RUX have the potential not only to bridge the growing gulf between urban and rural communities, but to inspire urbanites to return to (or put down) rural roots. “RUX is about making real relationships across all boundaries, and that is radical,” said Torp.

Participants enjoy a square dance at the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County. (Courtesy of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange)

The bonds formed among the now more than 200 RUXers (as they call themselves) have led to offers of support and collaboration. Torp’s RUX friends helped her take a group of young moms from Lexington on their first hiking trip. Once, Barrett recalled, other RUXers “brought together youth of color from Louisville and folks from several counties around [rural] Hazard. They met on a mountaintop for two days and did a mini-RUX with these high-school youth.” Barrett hopes to create a free online toolkit for other states interested in building a program like RUX, and speculated that former RUX participants could even help on the ground.

Attorney Ryan Fenwick, a native of Water Valley in Western Kentucky, recently completed a 500-mile bike ride across Eastern Kentucky. He said he always had places to stop and people to see because of the program.

“I think you learn pretty quickly in RUX that no one in an urban place in Kentucky is that far removed from a rural experience,” said Fenwick, who now lives in Louisville. “You’d be very hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a connection to a rural place, and most of us aren’t even two generations away.”

This story was made possible thanks to a grant from RiseLocal: A Project of New America’s National Network.

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