Friday, November 10, 2017

What we can learn from small towns about showing up for your community

Whitney Kimball Coe
Rural Assembly photo
Whitney Kimball Coe dreamed about moving to the city since she was 6 years old, but at age 20 she called her parents from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., and told them she wanted to come home to Athens, her hometown of about 13,000 in southeast Tennessee. In an Oct. 31 speech at the Obama Foundation Summit, she spoke about why rural America matters, and why it holds her heart.

What pulled her back to Athens, she said, "is that deep knowledge that we already have something essential in place. I believe there is something incredibly powerful about the way we show up with each other in small, daily ways. The way we stay within sight and sound of each other.  It’s a practice. That’s the only word I can think of to describe what we do."

Coe, who directs the National Rural Assembly, acknowledges the problems rural America faces, from addiction and lack of health care to poverty. But consistently showing up to participate in the community is, she says, the hardest work we can do, something that requires humility and a level of commitment that's contrary to the individualist narrative of pop culture. She continued:
We can’t control the systemic barriers and disparities that hunt us and haunt us. We can’t control the forces of automation and globalization that have taken our livelihoods and our jobs. But we can control our response to these forces. And usually that means we just keep participating. We keep showing up. At funerals and potlucks. At PTA meetings and choir practice. At football games and city council meetings. We keep checking out library books and performing in community theater productions. We make our plans “for here and about here,” as writer Jo Carson says. And that regular practice of participation is what characterizes our relationships, and that gives us the ability to live and work and worship together in spite of disagreements. It helps us withstand the tangles of partisanship, too. It’s hard to dismiss someone when you expect to see them the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

Read the whole speech here, reprinted in The Daily Yonder.

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