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Can Exchange Programs Help Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide?

In Kentucky, a rural-urban exchange seeks to foster understanding and a shared sense of identity among participants from around the state.
RUX member Taryn Henning (right), of Lexington, talks with Constance Owens from the Redfox community during the 2018 Knott County Community Intensive.
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

“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.