Women’s Summit: ‘On the Front Lines’ of Rural Leadership

The National Rural Assembly’s Women’s Summit explores ways to strengthen women leaders, who frequently play key roles in their communities without formal titles or recognition.

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As the Center for Rural Strategies neared its 12th year of helping coordinate the National Rural Assembly, they noticed a trend in the attendance at the Assembly’s gatherings, said the conference’s director, Whitney Kimball Coe.

Most of the attendees at the Assembly were women – specifically a diverse group of rural women.

A Focus on Rural Women

“We decided that we wanted to recognize the roles that women play in the health and well-being of our communities,” said Coe, the director of national programs at the Center for Rural Strategies and coordinator of the Rural Assembly.

“When you think about women leaders in rural communities, you see them doing all the things–planning a dinner, organizing all the food, taking care of childcare needs, getting the speakers, handling all of the marketing. They are on the front lines, but they often do it without formal titles or official recognition. We wanted to create a gathering that connects rural women to one another, fortifies them, and gives them more tools for leadership so that they can take ownership of those roles.”

Coe, who lives in hometown of Athens, Tennessee, said she grew up watching women in her small town work to improve life in her community. That activism and strength mirrored what she saw in the attendees of the Rural Assembly. But the roles that these women played were not as clearly identified or encouraged, she said.

It was with this idea in mind that the Rural Women’s Summit was developed. Running October 27-29 in Greenville, South Carolina, the summit is intended to illustrate the role women play in shaping rural communities and to recognize that rural women are often the primary orchestrators in helping communities succeed.

Speakers/Workshops on Leadership for Rural Women

Featuring more than 60 speakers from diverse backgrounds, the summit will focus on developing leadership and tackling issues specific to rural women but relevant to women everywhere.

Starting with a reception on Sunday night, the summit will showcase the diversity of rural women and their experiences. On Monday, the summit begins with a panel discussion by rural journalists looking at issues facing rural America.

“I think all the sessions will be really rich, and I’m particularly looking forward to the plenary conversation among journalists who cover rural beats,” Coe said. “These are journalists who are really grounded in the issues and challenges rural women face. Rural women’s issues are all women’s issues.”

Day one continues after lunch with a number of workshops. These will cover topics as diverse as developing your own human museum, becoming political leaders, and learning about the experiences of Muslim women in Appalachia.

Monday night, a reception entitled “Rural Women Rise: The New Political Frontier” will feature a presentation from actor and activist Piper Perabo and #VoteRunLead founder Erin Vilardi.

The last day of the summit will start with a fireside chat with experts discussing the issues facing Native American women and how the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can help them address those issues. Workshops on Tuesday will focus on racial justice, reforming incarceration and the criminal justice system, and building strong rural communities.

Inspiring through Firestarters

The summit will end with “Firestarters,” a series of talks by six rural women leaders who will tell their own stories as a way to illustrate how rural women show up as change makers.

“These are women who are all leading in different ways,” Coe said. “Our hope is that these stories will illuminate the power of women as leaders, change makers, and organizers in rural America, and also inspire and motivate others to act.”

More than 250 attendees from 35 states will be at the summit. What comes next, Coe said, will be determined by what happens at the summit.

“The mission of the Rural Assembly is to build a more inclusive nation that values all the people in all the places,” she said. “Rural women are allies in that mission, and we hope that the Rural Women’s Summit will reinforce that.”

She said the Rural Assembly will look for ways to strengthen the connections and ideas that arise from the summit. “Maybe this is the first of many summits—and maybe it is the beginning of something bigger than a single meeting. I hope it is.”

Next spring, the Center for Rural Strategies and Rural Assembly will hold a Rural Teen Summit on the Mexico/Texas border to help empower and identify teen leaders in rural areas.

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