It took going to law school a decade ago and meeting classmates from small cities and towns across Kentucky for Brandon Coan to be faced with a conservatism that felt at odds with his Louisville upbringing. It led Coan to put some distance between himself and the state of Kentucky.
“I’m a Louisville person; I’m not a Kentucky person,” he said he considered himself at the time.
But that’s changed, he said. “RUX helped bring me back from that.”
RUX, short for Rural-Urban Exchange, brings together Kentuckians interested in getting to know different areas of the state while developing their professional and leadership skills. They take part in three intensive meetings in various communities to build connections across cultural, racial, economic and geographic divides. Participants engage in conversations and activities that can challenge their identities as Kentuckians but also help them to see their similarities.
During the first of three program meetings last month, participants discussed a harmful myth: that Native Americans weren’t present in parts of Kentucky before white settlers arrived. They heard from Native Americans who shared how the myth hurts their communities and erases their history.
The conversation challenged participants to hold one another accountable for their language and highlighted the danger in failing to recognize different experiences, said Savannah Barrett, Kentucky Rural Urban Exchange co-founder.
“Even folks who are deeply rooted in part of the state have a difficult time navigating how to recognize themselves in a broader context in another region and continue to value their own experience,” Barrett said.
For Coan, now a city councilmember for Louisville Metro, RUX meant traveling from Kentucky’s largest city to its southeastern coal country, a region with pockets of lively arts and culture offerings that also struggles with entrenched poverty.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, where the population has dwindled to about 1,900, Coan got to know Appalshop, a vibrant 50-year-old nonprofit media production and multimedia training facility. He developed a greater appreciation for small town Kentuckians, which helps him navigate an often sharp disconnect between the city of Louisville and state government.
“State government is not the people and the cities of the state,” Coan said. “They’re different. The people in these cities and towns want the same thing we do in this town: They want clean, safe, economically healthy communities.”
The experience inspired him to look broadly throughout Kentucky for inspiration for ideas and projects. Coan made connections at RUX that helped him land both a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and support from the University of Louisville to contract a market feasibility study to restore an old hotel on Main Street in Whitesburg.
Rural areas cover 97% of the nation’s land mass, but contain less than a fifth of the population, or roughly 60 million people, according to a statement from U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson.
Exchange programs like RUX are becoming more popular, and participants say they help to build connections between rural and urban residents despite a political and social climate that can put them in opposition.
Many parts of rural America, including in Kentucky, suffer from a loss of industries and population plus an isolation that deepens divisions. In informal ways, advocates say, the new connections can encourage economic prosperity and sustainable development.
For example, a Harlan County, Kentucky, mural project was sparked by connections made during local RUX programs in 2016 and 2017, when artists from other parts of the state traveled to the area to train local artists.
“We want local artists doing these murals,” said Alexia Ault, the project director for the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project who sits on the RUX steering committee. “But we also have to acknowledge that there are artists outside our community who can teach us amazing skills and make us even more powerful. I think that’s an impactful part of exchanges like RUX.”
RUX asks a central question: If the various parts of Kentucky came together and advocated for one another, could these relationships transform the Bluegrass State? Despite structural impediments and regional divides, advocates say that deepening personal connections can serve as a bridge.
Barrett conceived RUX along with Josh May, a former communications director for Appalshop, in 2014. Living in different parts of the state, they recognized how frequently they heard “That’s not really Kentucky.” Barrett said she was frustrated by how many urban and rural people that type of thinking excludes.
Their efforts became a joint program between Appalshop and Art of the Rural, a nonprofit that collaborates with other organizations and advances rural culture, and for whom Barrett serves as director of programs. RUX is supported by donations and grants, including a $45,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Barrett is working to replicate the program in other states and writing case studies to share.
“The human under the suit is the thing that matters,” said Chuck Fluharty, president emeritus of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa College of Public Health in Iowa City.
Rural areas connected by airports or good roads to larger places see benefits over more isolated rural areas: higher median incomes, lower income volatility, lower median ages and higher population growth. Hence, there’s value in state and local policy bolstering urban-rural economic connections, according to the National League of Cities.
“The consequences of failing to think beyond conventional notions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ will limit the ability of state and local leaders to encourage sustainable growth,” concludes “Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide,” a 2018 report from the organization.
Yet the prevailing national narrative pits urban and rural areas against each other for investments and public resources, according to a 2015 report from the National Association of Development Organizations. Official statistical definitions, for example, often create hard lines between urban and rural; metropolitan and non-metropolitan.
Because of distance, scale and resources, rural and urban people often lack strong social and cultural links and ways to interact, Fluharty said.
“We are going to have to do something as a public policy challenge,” Fluharty said, “and if we don’t, the end game is pretty clear: Two tribes, not interacting, hating one another because there are people in both camps convincing you to do that.”
Exchange programs are one method for building trust, advocates say. Bozeman-based One Montana uses its youth programs to reduce population loss and develop leaders who will stay put. The nonprofit supports entrepreneurial teens and has brought urban and rural high school students together to learn from each other and local businesspeople.
“A lot of the students that we work with, they don’t want to leave their communities, but a lot of them do not see economic opportunities, and so the outmigration, the brain drain happens,” said Jim Masker, One Montana young entrepreneurs program director.
Bringing different people together also can overcome political partisanship by compelling people to engage with opinions they otherwise might have dismissed, according to advocates.
“Otherwise, people just keep hearing the same things from the same people and more people keep leaving, so the problem and the divide just gets worse,” said Dessah O’Neal, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at the University of Chicago.
O’Neal was a participant in a program that draws students from the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, Eureka College in downstate Illinois and Arrupe College of Loyola University in Chicago.
Students set ground rules for participation. Catch phrases such as “Open minds, open hearts” are used to encourage students to respect and try to understand others’ perspectives, even when they disagree, said O’Neal, a sociology major.
Sometimes, students use a safety crutch: looking at their phones while they’re being challenged, said Purvi Patel, director of civic and campus engagement for the Institute of Politics.
“We had the students actually call each other out on that and recommit, so they could be more present and engaged,” Patel said.
In 2007, a group of Portland middle school students testified to the Oregon legislature in support of a bill reintroducing wolves to the state. In opposition were farmers and ranchers who argued that wolves would threaten their cattle and therefore their livelihoods.
“The ranchers in the room got really, really mad, and it kind of blew up,” said Maureen Hosty, 4-H youth development faculty for the Portland metro area. “They said, ‘These kids don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re uneducated. They’re brainwashed,’ and on and on.”
However, behind the scenes a relationship bubbled up between the young people and the eastern Oregon farmers and ranchers. Since the clash, the 4-H program at Oregon State University has been taking Portland middle school students to eastern Oregon to experience rural life.
Over four days, the students stay with local families, rise before dawn to complete farm chores and discuss politics at the dinner table. For some, it’s their first trip over the Cascades, the mountain range that separates eastern Oregon from the rest of the state and signals a shift in politics.
So far, 430 youth and 80 adults have traveled to eastern Oregon, and 150 rural families have hosted, according to Hosty. Most families have hosted multiple times. Only 39 rural youth have come to urban Oregon, however.
It’s difficult for the ranch kids to participate because they have to help with chores, but their parents also are afraid, Hosty said. Some consider the city a dangerous, high-crime place.
There’s also a sense that families know enough about Portland because they come to shop or attend a Trailblazers professional basketball game. Hosty tells them that just because she goes camping in eastern Oregon doesn’t mean she knows that part of the state.
“Sometimes they think they know what they need to know about Portland,” Hosty said. “We’ve found they definitely have a lot of stereotypes about us.”
But the Portland students have returned to eastern Oregon with their parents to visit the families. The program also has resulted in a beef co-op allowing the rural families to sell their meat directly to consumers.
A few years ago, the topic of managing the wolf population came up again, but this time the response was different.
“You guys have to protect your property,” Scot Lawrence, a Portland chaperone, recalls telling the farmers and ranchers. “‘If somebody came and burglarized my house, I have a right to protect my property.’ They all just went, ‘Whoa. We did not expect that at all.’”