I am so very fortunate to be part of this community of movers, makers, shifters, and shakers shaking up the systems and redistributing the power, lifting voices, and sidling up in close companionship so that all can sit at our abundant table! All of us are working hard on many levels, many of us are exhausted and many of us need support. I humbly take my seat and ask, What can I do for my communities? What am I bringing to the table? How can I support your work? How can your work inspire mine? And it always does. The s/they/heroes in this field have modeled some of the most important lessons for me as an art maker/presenter and community member. If we were a UN conference the tag in front of my seat might simply say, Rural. Or more specifically, Rural New England. Or more specifically Wantastegok (at the river where something is lost), Putney, Vermont, the unceded land of the Abenaki/Wabanaki peoples. A present-day community founded upon exclusions and erasures of many Indigenous peoples. And as I learn more and more about this history, I ask, what gives me the right to represent my community at this table? I am first generation here. But I am sitting here, thinking, if I don’t, who will? So I speak here only from my own perspective and experience.
I have come to understand my passion for rural arts to be not a personal one, not one for my organization, and not even for my own community of two thousand residents, but one of national emergency. It is something I think that has yet to be laid out and clearly defended in its relevancy. We are on the front lines of climate change initiatives and the front lines of the isolation that led to the opiate epidemic, which takes the lives of so many in our communities. The rural vote has historically been dominantly Republican leaning, and accessing this demographic was an important factor in determining this new chapter of political administration, and the rural vote will be for the next one as well. What access means here looks different than in urban contexts.
Rural communities across the country are unique and diverse in culture, nature, and identity. It is important that they are seen and experienced this way. That being said, there are a number of opportunities and challenges that we share.
We provide a unique opportunity for artists to reach audiences not of their choir. In cities, audiences can choose from many cultural/arts events and will inevitably pick the event that speaks to them, their culture, their identity, and their politics. Here we have little to choose from, and when there is an event, the community comes out for a cultural experience. It is a real opportunity for dialogue and change. Communities are often politically mixed, though class is a significant factor that often divides people. Theater spaces are few and often adapted from town halls, granges, and outdoor spaces. Town meetings have established (at least in Vermont) forums for how communities make decisions and how people of opposing views meet. Where agriculture is a prime economy, everyone is a customer regardless of politics. In the words of a colleague: Disengagement is abdication, we all live here. This does not mean that systemic oppression and racism do not exist here. Of course they do. And one of the strongest ways for us to uplift voices that remain unheard and underinvested in here is to bring in outside artists to the community to strengthen representation within the community. However, we are able to experience how the act of listening to a story has led to real, tangible transformation and to people asking certain important questions for the first time, recognizing the diversity that does exist here, and sometimes even being moved into action.
Here is letter from a student who participated in Race Peace, a 2015 NPN-sponsored project with artists from Mississippi and Louisiana (Melissa Cardona, Stephanie McKee, Hannah Pepper-Cunningham, and Carlton Turner):
In the Spring of 2015, I was a Senior at Brattleboro Union High School, getting ready with college applications, and very busy. I was told about a workshop that was happening called Race Peace. I was intrigued but didn’t know whether I had the time or energy for this. A few of my friends were doing it, so I said yes, and decided to do it, even though I had no idea as to what I was getting myself into.
This workshop has completely changed the way I look at the world and people. My eyes were opened wide to people and all of our struggles. I was obligated to sit in a room with people that ordinarily I would not have hung out with. To be honest some of these people intimidated me—some of the students told me that they thought I was exclusive and privileged and snooty. I can totally see how they thought that, after all our worlds never collided at school and they didn’t know me as a person and I didn't know them. This workshop brought us all together—helped us speak frankly to one another—realize that we cannot judge people from their picture. Everyone has a story, and we listened to each other’s story. Some of these people are now my friends. I wish that I had gone to this workshop in middle school or even freshman year.
I am so grateful to Eric Bass from the Sandglass Theater for opening this up to the schools. I feel that I am changing for the better. I am looking at ways I can integrate social change and social justice into my life. I have studied theater all my school life, and now I hope that I can learn more about how to bring people from different social backgrounds together. It sounds dramatic, but this has changed my course in my life.
Another significant change we are seeing in many rural areas is that, because we have the space, many refugees are being resettled in our communities. Demographics are becoming more racially diverse due to displacement in cities from gentrification, and most recently people seeking safety from the pandemic. This has led to a terrible insurgence of racism and Islamophobia, which has come out of the woodwork. As a result, the demographics in our schools are changing—however, the demographics of our teachers and mentors, role models, are not. We need to bring in artists so that our youth can meet people who affirm and give voice to an aspect of their experience. We need to encourage the voice of our local community and break misconceived perceptions of our area.
Less than two percent of national funding goes to rural organizations, and competitive granting models are scary for us, as we have little access and great need. We must work in partnership in order to present NPN artists, and it is sometimes difficult to guarantee our end of the bargain with our partners. Much of our challenge is a lack of funding opportunities. We do have a thriving arts culture here, and all of these organizations/artists are applying for the same small pool of grants. I am currently working on a plan for a rural touring circuit. As we are mostly small organizations that cannot compete with city artist fees and have much higher travel expenses, we hope to develop a circuit in which each presenting venue can pay what they can and together we can meet the needs of paying the worth of the artist. I performed recently in a small schoolhouse in Shrewsbury, Vermont: far out on a dirt road, surrounded by woods and a few farms. We thought, who will even come? But the little house with the wood stove burning was packed, people emerged by foot and by car, some had driven an hour to see the show (not unusual around here), the audience was of all generations, and the gratitude was enormous.
When we speak about bravery and audacity in the arts, my thoughts turn to what it takes to reach these rural populations and what we’re asking when we ask an artist to come into our community and play for, teach workshops to, and engage with audiences that may seem very different to them. But if they can reach that one child struggling for belonging, offer them voice and affirmation, it is transformational to more than just that one. In our local youth theater, we just had our first child transition, and though the community was very supportive, there is a lack of trans mentors for this youth who could directly speak to the journey. We are working to bring artists here who can connect with exactly these folks. The young people here need equity, and we feel we are struggling to deliver.
A group of rural-identified organizations met for an NPN plática in 2018 (the group included Bridgman | Packer Dance, Bunnell Street Arts Center, Callahan Consulting for the Arts, Double Edge, the Myrna Loy, Sandglass Theater, Urban Bush Women, and The Yard). Here are some of the things we feel we can bring to the table that are unique to our rural identity:
Here are some things we identified that we uniquely need from our national networks:
Our wealth is in our relationships, not our assets. The character of rural life is story-based and so specific to each community. When you enter a rural community, you are stepping into another culture and a different economy. We are the thread that can weave a tighter fabric for our national networks. It is hard to understand without experiencing it. So, I invite you! But remember, our internet can be shoddy, your phone might not have reception, and the closest airport is almost two hours away.