October 25, 2019

First CIRD Cohort Gathers for Rural Design Summit in Thomas, West Virginia!

The Citizens’ Institute on Rural DesignTM (CIRD), a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) and buildingcommunityWORKSHOP ([bc]), kicked off the 2019 CIRD Learning Cohort Summit on October 9th. With 34 participants from 18 different states, the event included competitively-selected rural communities looking to engage in design thinking, creative placemaking, and arts and culture to drive economic revitalization.

The Summit was hosted in West Virginia by Woodlands Development Group, a non-profit community development corporation that supports affordable housing and economic development in Northern West Virginia. The gathering was structured to highlight a variety of regional features, with accommodations and some program activities in Elkins and a day-long series of site visits and workshops in nearby Thomas. Elkins, population  7,000 is one of the key economic centers in the area, while  Thomas is a former coal town of fewer than 600 permanent residents. Participants were able to see a budding local arts economy rooted in the culture of the Canaan Valley while touring a beautiful slice of the Appalachian Mountains. The event concluded with an adaptive peer learning exercise that focused on the individual design challenges of the participants involved.

2019 CIRD Participants shared best practices with their peers. Photo: Housing Assistance Council

The Summit was the first of its kind, since the partnership with the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) launched the Learning Cohort element of CIRD . David Lipsetz, CEO of the Housing Assistance Council, has a finger on the pulse of why rural peer exchange events work; “At HAC, we’ve seen that when rural folks get talking to other rural folks, we can figure out how to use our history, culture, and creativity for good. Layer on the expertise of design and placemaking professionals, and this is powerful stuff.”

From many previous workshop communities, CIRD had heard about the need for bringing a broader network of rural communities together through design and creative placemaking. Jennifer Hughes, Design Director at the National Endowmnet for the Arts, explains, “Past participants in the CIRD program have been clamoring for the opportunity to connect with their rural peers. The Learning Cohort Summit offered an opportunity for 23 rural communities to not only to learn more about design and creative placemaking, but to also build a network that enables them to share and draw on each other’s experiences.”

There were a number of special guests in attendance of the event: Lisa Sharp, Director of Business and Cooperative programs for USDA Rural Development in West Virginia; Michael Garcia, Regional Coordinator for Senator Joe Manchin; Wendy Madden, Field Coordinator for US Representative McKinley; Renee Margocee, Executive Director of the Tamarack Foundation;  Jenna Green, Cultural Facilities and Accessibility Coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History (the state arts agency); and Mary Hunt, Program Director at the Benedum Foundation. Including Resource Team members, there were three federal agencies represented at the event, providing participants a unique opportunity to engage directly with program officials. We at CIRD are extremely grateful to all of the guests who supported this event.

Gravel Quire plays at the Purple Fiddle – Photo: Omar Hakeem

The Summit focused on four key objectives:

1. Provide design tools to support holistic outcomes and project implementation

A series of workshops provided participants with hands-on tools and advice for their design projects.

Jennifer Hughes of the National Endowment for the Arts and Omar Hakeem of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP presented on “Introduction to Design and Why It Matters,” which gave participants a foundational understanding of what the design process could do for a community. Workshop topics also included “Community Engagement,” “Designing the Public Realm,” and “Introduction to Main Street.” Participants walked away with strategies for seeking community input in the design process, an understanding of indigenous stewardship of community spaces, how to approach redesign of public spaces, and hands-on examples of Main Street community initiatives.

2. Provide inspiration for design through in-person project tours or presentations

Woodlands Development Group collaborated with [bc] and local partners to present in-person site visits that explored how the community has used arts and design to cultivate a thriving local creative economy. First, participants visited the nearby town of Davis to survey the location of a developing workforce housing project. They heard from Steven Leyh, Director of Economic Development for Tucker County, and Dave Clark, the Executive Director of Woodlands, about how the local effort has involved elements of design and design thinking throughout the process, working closely with Omar Hakeem and [bc]. Participants were able to experience a virtual reality tour of the future affordable housing project and ask questions about the development approach.

Emily Wilson-Hauger of Woodlands led an Art Walk through downtown Thomas, where a number of locally owned art galleries showcased small business innovation and have helped cultivate a sense of pride in town. The group spoke to business owners and learned about Woodland’s efforts to finance historic preservation projects, including historic Cotrill’s Opera House, where the morning’s workshops were held. The hands-on element of the tours as well as seeing how a small rural town has been building on positive momentum resonated with many participants.

Michaela Shirley leads a design workshop on Indigenous Planning. - Photo: Housing Assistance Council

3. Support rural leadership capacity of participants through peer learning exercises

One of the fundamental tenants of the Summit was that rural leaders can learn as much from each other as they can from outside sources. Peer exchange exercises, through small group work and a planning workshop, were key to ensuring that solutions and learning took place on a more personal level and were rooted in each participant community’s own rural context. Participants met several times in small groups to debrief from the workshops and site visits, and then connected more deeply during an adaptive peer exchange workshop on Friday. The program was designed to give participants the opportunity to directly address a design challenge in their home community. Teams presented a detailed design challenge and received feedback and advice from other communities in their small group and from their Resource Team Member. After this exchange of ideas each community filled out an action plan worksheet that encouraged them to commit to specific and actionable steps they could take towards implementing their projects.

4. Build a sense of community and connectivity amongst participants through networking

The Summit would not have been a success if people didn’t also have fun while they were there! The opening reception at Graceland Inn provided a gorgeous view of the Appalachian Mountains in the fall and participants got to know each other over a locally sourced meal in a historic hotel and restaurant. The Purple Fiddle, a must-see Thomas restaurant and music venue, provided the perfect ending to Thursday’s Summit activities. People enjoyed local brews and listened to the band Gravel Quire, who welcomed them into their home and heart through traditional folk music. Participants even cited the drive through the beautiful mountains and the shuttle from the airport as providing opportunities to connect with each other.

The two-day Summit truly created a sense of community. Resource Team Members have committed to authentic follow-up and feedback with their small groups as local design projects evolve, and the 2019 CIRD Learning Cohort now has its own Facebook group for sustained connection and support. Future opportunities to connect include webinars, attendance at relevant meetings and conferences, and regular check-in conference calls.

Arts and design have a way of bringing people together. Here at the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, we’ve seen first-hand the inspiration and motivation that comes from engaging peer-to-peer with rural leaders in arts and design. Thank you to everyone who made this event truly unforgettable, and the launching point for something greater for all communities involved.