Wow. What a wild time to be Bush Fellow… what an historic time to be a community and cultural worker… what a monumental time to be working in and with rural communities. I applied to be a Bush Fellow five times over seven years before I was selected. When I was selected, at the beginning of my fellowship in August of 2019, I had the deep realization that it was exactly the right time for me to start this journey. My theater company was eight years old, my non-profit was one-year old, my artistic practice was shifting more toward social and civic practice, and I was one year into a two year Obama Foundation Fellowship. When March 2020 arrived, and the world was thrown into a global crisis, everything shifted. In preparing to write my final learning log of this incredible fellowship program, I spent time rereading my previous 23 months of reflections. Witnessing the shifting perspective, priorities, and even, the tone, of my reflections as a community and cultural worker throughout the course of the pandemic was incredibly illuminating. While many of my initial intentions that I set out to achieve in the beginning stages of my Fellowship had to be drastically adapted (due to the inability to travel, meet in person with mentors, etc.), the conditions of the past eighteen months have provided the opportunity to grow as a leader in ways that I never could have imagined. For this reflection, I would like to share my initial fellowship goals, along with how they were adapted and, in most cases, met through the sense of urgency and responsive, equitable action that the past year required of community leaders.
Goal 1: Contextualization –engage with theory and existing research; learn from other
organizations to discover how my work fits into the national conversation.
Initially, I imagined this goal being reached through a series of in-person conversations with field builders across the country. I imagined reading countless articles and books, and maybe even, enrolling in a college course or two. What actually happened was the pressing need of advocacy for resources in rural communities during the pandemic drove me to diving deep into trying to understand the ways that rural places have been disenfranchised in policy work, politics, and philanthropy. It became a necessary, hands-on, real life need to understand this context in order to advance geographic equity.
Goal 2: Collaboration – connect with cross sector rural workers for collaboration; including Center for Rural Strategies, Center for Small Towns, Art of the Rural, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Rural Policy Institute.
Again, I imagined this being more in-person work, connecting at conferences, events, and front porches; while this did not happen in person, the nature of all of our work moving to the online realm meant that I deeply strengthened my partnerships with each of these organizations. I launched a national online program with the Center for Rural Strategies and Voices for Rural Resilience, highlighting the work of rural arts and cultural workers across the country; I joined Art of the Rural on the design team for expanding the Kentucky Rural Urban Exchange to Minnesota; and worked with the Center for Small Towns on a community development resource guide and marketing strategy model for small communities.
Goal 3: Mentorship –1:1 mentorship sessions with national practitioners.
This happened in such a beautiful and organic way through the course of the pandemic! We started a Rad Rural Womxn’s digital meet-up, and I joined the Radical Equity in Philanthropy working group meeting with an incredible brilliant group of artists and philanthropists from across the state, and joined the Center for Civic Practice Leadership Circle to advance the field of civic practice centering equity and justice.
Goal 4: Skill Development –take online and in person trainings with Propel and MAP for Nonprofits to increase knowledge as an organizational leader; take online courses in rural / regional planning and community development from the U of MN.
I engaged in multiple financial management and governance trainings with Propel nonprofit - realistically, more than I would have been able to if I was still on the road for over half of my time. I
Goal 5: Facilitation – connect with facilitators doing work around race, equity, and generational trauma; invite them to Granite Falls to lead conversations, and learn from their techniques.
After the murder of George Floyd and our country was engaged in a deep racial reckoning, or organization partnered with Springboard for the Arts for a series of Rural Arts Anti-Racism Meet Ups. I also worked with Region 5 Development Commission on a project called the Rural Reveal, using arts and culture strategies to understand and elevate the work of everyday changemakers in rural communities in this region.
Goal 6: Strategy – take a step back to develop systems and processes for delegation; study crosssector approaches to organizational development.
Our board and staff have bonded together over the challenges of the past year to develop incredible systems and processes for replicable models of rural nonprofit leadership and equity work. We have moved from being a volunteer run organization to 1.2 FTE and a number of ongoing contractors. We have expanded our programs to include hyper-local, regional and national rural arts advocacy and equity work, and have become a go-to resource for rural practitioners across the country.
Goal 7: SLOW DOWN – reflect and set intentional plans for my personal leadership development; work with my coach, board of directors and artist advisors to create a longterm model for successful, sustainable development of our organization.
This was a lesson that I am not sure I would have ever learned as deeply as I did during the pandemic. We slowed down. All of us. We deepened our work. We listened to our neighbors and ourselves. We took care of each other. Through our Rural Arts Anti-Racism Meet Ups; Dakota Community Artist-in-Residence Program and the Women’s Empowerment Creative Action Network - all new programs launched in the past two years - and through launching the Granite Falls City Artist in Residence program, working with the City of Lexington, KY and the New London, MN to launch their City Artist programs, and working with Southwest MN Region Arts Council to expand to three other communities in our region, and through the launch of an Artist-Led Activation of Vacant Spaces Resource Guide specifcally designed for small communities in Southwestern Minnesota, I met the following goals outlined in my inital Fellowship application:
• Empower more local leaders through share backs, trainings and networking events; increasing the number of women and people of color in leadership positions.
• Create a regional and national model for increasing civic participation through our Small Town CAIR program. We have already been approached by two communities in Southwest MN that want to replicate our model.
• Create a regional and national model for creative economic development through repurposing a vacant Main Street building into a cultural hub and creative, community gathering space. In partnership with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, the design and programming of The YES! House involves community input at each stage to create a space with, by, for the community.
• Create a regional and national model for addressing rural issues with arts and community based approaches that have compassion for the people and places they serve.
• Increase sustainability for myself as a leader and for our organization. I will spend dedicated time identifying and cultivating the board, staff and support needed to successfully and equitably sustain our organization, so we can deliver the best possible programs for our region.
• Continue to be an artist – the irony with success is that it often pulls you away from the work that got you started in the first place. I want to continue to adapt, expand and produce powerful theater productions across the state in addition to setting up a nonprofit that will support other rural artists and leaders to use their skills and talents to connect people and places.
The challenges of the past year not only provided me the opportunity to increase my leadership in a hands-on way, it amplified the urgency and necessity of training and leadership development for rural leaders and cultural workers. When provided the resources, space to connect and network, and opportunities for shared learning, rural leaders thrive. I will be forever grateful to the Bush Foundation for supporting rural leaders and recognizing the important reality of the need to provide resources to rural leaders to do their work. I will be sharing these findings back with my community for many years to come. With deep gratitude, ash.