June 7, 2019

A Piece of Mississippi: Retrospective on Rural Generation for CIRD

Evelyn Immonen

Picture it: the live oak trees forming a creeping canopy, sheltering a crowd of bodies from the hot early summer sun.  A long gravel road past clusters of old low houses cushioned by lush acres.  A beautiful house with a new back porch and high ceilings, the rooms inside just beginning to fill with color.  How did I get here—to rural Utica, Mississippi—so far from the uniform streets of Washington, DC?

This was a tour and housewarming for Sipp Culture Residency House, an artist in residency, youth media lab, and agricultural education center.  Sipp Culture (formally known as the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production) assisted in hosting Rural Generation Summit 2019, a conference of artists, designers, and creative place makers from rural areas across the country.  Launched in 2014 as a partnership between Art of the Rural, the Rural Policy Research Institute, and a host of national networks, Rural Generation (previously Next Generation) continues to address unique rural challenges and opportunities through this annual summit.  

I came here to talk with folks about the HAC’s work with Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, and I found that everyone was thinking about connecting artists and designers with rural place and community.  What did it look like to have people from different rural communities connect to one another?  What does it mean to design an inclusive and equitable public space in rural areas?  How do people relate to arts and design in different regions of the country, and here in Mississippi?  These and many other questions floated around my mind as I mingled with dancers and painters, with regional supporters like Appalshop and South Arts, and with other national intermediaries.  

This year Rural Generation coordinated with ArtPlace America, a national creative placemaking supporter, to host their conferences together: ArtPlace on Monday through Wednesday and Rural Gen on Wednesday through Friday. ArtPlace gave me my first taste of Jackson, Mississippi through a whirlwind experience that opened with a blessing from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and included a tour to the Jackson Medical Mall, a converted shopping mall turned medical center. It was there that the Mayor of Jackson--Chokwe Antar Lumumba—spoke to us with a clear message: Jackson was open for business with arts and culture at the center. We heard an oral history of the place and witnessed a touching performance from a youth choir. It was a high energy way start which set the stage for both learning and reflection. Artists have a way of doing that.  For me, it brought out my thinking cap and my sketch paper.  

A tribute to Rural Gen and Jackson, MS in watercolor and pen

ArtPlace’s engaging plenaries, thought-provoking workshops, and connection with other like-minded peers set the perfect stage for the Rural Generation Summit, which undertook a totally collaborative understanding of learning and connection.  

Lori Pourier, of the Oglala Sioux tribe and First Peoples Fund, opened the second half of the week by reflecting on her people’s history.  This history resonated with my time spent in tribal nations; after all, her Pine Ridge home is just down the road from my family’s Standing Rock.  She was one of the Steering Committee members, who all worked together on the summit and voiced to the needs of various organizations across the country.  She then introduced Carlton Turner, the co-founder of Sipp Culture.  His remarks profiled the personal and familial story of his work as well as a cultural history of racial injustice—I could not do his words justice to summarize them but the power of his voice as a black man from Mississippi stayed with me through the week.  It helped me sense this shift to a more immersive local engagement guided by the Mississippi Delta host partners themselves.  

A bus from urban to rural led us to Utica, MS, where I could see and feel the Delta, and it got me thinking about history and advocacy. The Housing Assistance Council has been working with our partners in the Mississippi Delta since our inception, but this event was bringing me face to face with the communities HAC represents. I saw the housing conditions and heard directly about local struggles for a decent place to live, improved in some ways but sadly unchanged in others since HAC was founded in1971.  

I also heard from innovative local leaders and saw the music, arts, and cultural pillars that community members were proud of. During the summit, we traveled to a handful of locations for similar experiences: to Hinds Community College in Utica that evening, to Indianola and the B.B. King museum the next day, and to the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson. In each place I felt the sense of the connection to the past and a hope for a brighter future that I’d noticed that afternoon in Utica.  

Every experience felt like an exchange; of ideas, of culture, and of those intangible but meaningful aspects like a smile and an interest in a stranger’s story. I met artists, funders, government officials and other researchers and economic developers like myself. In my “homeroom” I made friends with someone from a state arts agency, a member of an ensemble-owned theater company, a national researcher who’d lived in 12 different places, and a black farmer from Vermont. Each story I heard was like a thread woven into my understanding of a diverse and ever-changing rural America—and that perspective brings clarity and meaning to the less tangible policies and programs I work on in DC.  

It got me thinking more about my own work and the work we are setting out to do with the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD). Being surrounded by artists and community leaders across rural America affirmed the meaning of a citizens’ institute. To me, I think that the neighborly-ness I saw from everyone I met that week strengthened what it means to have a program designed for citizens of rural towns—we’re going to take care of each other. There is so much creativity within rural spaces, and people looking for a boost up so that they can turn around and lend a hand as well. Our CEO David Lipsetz said it best; “Communities lead, CIRD supports, and together we use design to find solutions that work for you.”  I’ve left the summit feeling inspired, grounded, and more excited than ever to spread the word about our call for applications that is open until July 22.  

The summit made clear that there’s more work to be done: only 2 percent of arts philanthropy serves rural places. There are still vast gaps of understanding about rural places and people by institutions in the rest of the country, whether they’re philanthropic, political, or financial; and oftentimes they’re widening that 2% gap. In additions to challenges of geography, rural economies need to push for inclusivity and stand firmly on the side of equity. In HAC’s work with CIRD, we’re intentional about including communities of persistent poverty, tribal nations, and communities of color. We know the odds for minorities, low-income communities, and places far from the nearest metropolitan center: and we are fighting all the harder because of it.

The last day’s capstone was a discussion under the shade of Spanish moss at historic Tugaloo College, where we began looking forward, cementing relationships along the way. For me, I reflected with pride on the open applications for Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, knowing that there are communities out there with similar stories and that I may play a role in telling them. I want more rural towns to feel supported and empowered to shape the built environment around them, to create, and to move forward while remembering their past. I could not be more excited to meet you all.  

I’d like to thank ArtPlace, Rural Generation, and all the organizers of the event. I cannot wait to share more in the work you do.