Inviting ideas: Annual Radically Rural summit kicks off in Keene

Sep. 22—Representatives of health associations, news publications and other organizations descended on downtown Keene Wednesday for the first day of Radically Rural, and more programs are set for Thursday.

Participants from around New England and from across the nation converged in The Colonial Theatre's mainstage area at 10 a.m. for an opening, beginning with a short introduction by Radically Rural Director Julianna Dodson.

The fifth-annual summit, hosted by the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in conjunction with The Sentinel, aims to inspire attendees to better their rural communities through encouraging them to find common ground with neighbors and seek evidence- and data-based solutions.

"This year we were fortunate enough to be sponsored by Cheshire County," Dodson said to participants during the conference's opening. "It was an honor to be the recipient of a portion of our [American Rescue Plan Act] funds as the county commissioners and delegation recognize the work ... Radically Rural is doing for our region."

Next up was a performance by Windborne, a vocal music group whose members hail from around New England, including the Monadnock Region, and who harmonized over songs centered on urban sprawl and Native Americans' loss of land.

Radically Rural kicked off with a keynote speech from Maine Sen. Chloe Maxmin, who also serves as co-director of the nonprofit Dirt Road Organizing. The organization's website says it wants to help rural communities create equitable futures.

Maxmin spoke about how her experiences as a Democratic political candidate whose emphasis on kind dialogue with neighbors cut through divided party lines and engaged voters ranging from twentysomethings like herself to older, deep-seated conservative constituents. In her keynote, Maxmin said she knocked on as many as 120 doors each day leading up to her successful election in Lincoln County, Maine, in 2018.

"You can't go to someone's doorstep and immediately start arguing with them just because you don't have everything in common," she said of her strategy. "You have to listen, [and] you have to find that common ground."

The state senator told The Colonial Theatre audience that she's always prided herself on being a Mainer with a core interest in protecting the wellbeing of her home state. She said she returned to her hometown of Nobleboro, Maine, from Harvard University's undergraduate school in Cambridge, Mass., "... literally the day I graduated."

Her involvement at Harvard included co-founding Divest Harvard. She said the student, faculty and alumni coalition sought to deter the university from holding stocks, bonds or investment funds that would've financially supported a tar sands pipeline cutting through Maine and the northern regions of New Hampshire and Vermont going into Quebec.

In accordance with the schedule, Radically Rural attendees visited locations like The Colonial Theatre and Keene Public Library to listen to panel presentations and hold roundtable discussions with other participants. These sessions are divided into seven tracks: Arts & Culture, Clean Energy, Community Journalism, Entrepreneurship, All in for Health, Land & Community and Main Street.

One panel on Wednesday, titled "Health from the Start," combined the health and Main Street tracks and invited participants to the public library's Cohen Hall. In this session, officials from three health nonprofits and programs spoke about strategies everyday residents of rural communities can use to improve their neighbors' wellness.

Ericka Burroughs-Girardi, outreach specialist for Madison, Wis.-based County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, suggested people use their fellow residents' health stories as data. Kini-Ana Tinkham, executive director of the Maine Resilience Building Network, described how her organization has a goal to combat depression among Maine youth and produced a strategy guide with input from teens. And Romi Hall, director of healthy homes and communities for NeighborWorks America, advocated for creating livable neighborhoods and increasing affordable housing. Hall cited a project by the Champlain Housing Trust of Burlington, Vt., which converted an old motel into inexpensive apartment homes. NeighborWorks America awarded the project a $500,000 federal grant late last year, according to reporting from the Burlington Free Press.

From 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, summit participants and community members who registered for the event were invited to the Wyman Tavern off Main Street for CONNECT, a closing event for the first day with greater focus on the Monadnock Region. The event featured a catered dinner from CC&D's Kitchen Market, a "Farm-to-Closet" fashion show recognizing organically produced food and clothing and live music performed by New England bluegrass band Poor Monroe.

After additional sessions of panels and roundtables on Thursday following morning activities like a group run and a "Badass Women of Keene" tour celebrating women's suffrage in the Elm City, Radically Rural will wrap up with the third-annual Livability Idea Slam at 4 p.m. at The Colonial Theatre. The event will show up to 12 presentations of "... innovative approaches to solving local problems ...," according to Radically Rural's website.

Radically Rural will culminate in an afterparty from 7 to 10 p.m. at Nova Arts, which the general public is invited to attend even if they didn't take part in the rest of the two-day programming. The event is free.

Trisha Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or Follow her on Twitter at @byTrishaNail.