A Tender Rebellion: Rural Futures Summit (2023)

By Nhatt Nichols, with additional reflection by Michele Anderson, Springboard’s Rural Director

For those of us who wake up in rural places every day, creativity and possibility is abundant. At the same time, isolation and uncertainty is just as real. Artists and creatives in small towns and tribal communities are surfacing long-erased histories, myth-busting unhelpful narratives of rural deficit, and digging deeper into the power and possibility that rural places hold. From protecting the land to providing creative space for residents to connect with one another, this work bears life-saving results. This work can also be exhausting and is often undervalued. 

Springboard for the Arts has been resourcing, exploring, and celebrating the essential role artists play in communities of all sizes for more than 30 years. This work has taken on many forms, from supporting artist micro-grants in response to specific community challenges, to piloting a guaranteed minimum income program, to providing workshops and training on entrepreneurship and community organizing. 

From our rural headquarters in Fergus Falls in West Central Minnesota, we have seen a heightened need to combat the isolation and burnout of rural creative leaders. We have responded by designing intentional pathways for rural creatives to learn from one another, witness each other’s work, and build long term solidarity around the change they know is possible.

In June of 2023, Springboard for the Arts hosted the first Rural Futures Summit in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which brought together over 100 artists, creative organizers, culture bearers, and thought leaders for 3 days of connection, exchange, and solidarity around the challenges and opportunities of rural creative leadership in the Upper Midwest. This was the first large gathering of rural artists since pre-pandemic times. The wide spectrum of feelings was palpable— from reclaiming the energy of in-person artmaking, connecting with old friends and peers after years of change and transition, processing grief and loss, and enjoying the sparks of new, lifelong connections.

While Springboard has hosted national rural convenings in the past, this new event was developed as a companion to Springboard’s Rural Regenerator Fellowship, which supports 10-12 rural artists each year through peer learning and exchange, financial support, and other resources. We wanted to make the Rural Futures Summit a space for the Fellows to shape conversations that had been seeded during their Fellowship retreats, bring more people into those ideas, and deepen relationships across the Upper Midwest. We strongly believe that the future of rural places depends on brave and bold conversations and relationships across geography, race, culture, and generations.

Each of the 20 Rural Regenerator Fellows were asked to invite 4 of their peers from the Upper Midwest to attend the event, as a way to support the networks and efforts they want to support and help make more visible (this was also our practical solution to the necessity of a smaller, safer, and more environmentally sustainable post-pandemic event). Some chose to bring coworkers, collaborators, and family members, while others invited artists they always wanted to meet but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to connect with in person.

The Rural Futures Summit was also a celebration of Springboard’s 12 years of work based out of our rural headquarters in Fergus Falls, showing the transformation that artists can influence and lead in a small community. Local artist Nancy XiaoRong Valentine welcomed Summit guests to her home community in a stunning keynote, sharing the ups and downs of making a life as an artist here, and grounding us in deeply personal reflections on family lineage, cultural identity, accountability, and stewardship.

“A Tender Rebellion,” a phrase which had emerged in conversations at the most recent Rural Regenerator Retreat, was the theme guiding this gathering, reflecting the need for urgent, radical change and repair, while putting care and love first, always.

Rippling out from Nancy’s insights, Northern Community Radio’s Heidi Holtan then facilitated a conversation with Fellows Rufus Jupiter, Awanigiizhik Bruce, Mai’a Williams and Autumn Cavender about what a “tender rebellion” looks like from their own homes, how their artistic practice interacts with the land, and their hopes and fears for the future. 

You can listen to both Nancy’s keynote and the panel conversation on KAXE’s podcast, “Between You and Me.”

From this foundational conversation, our group spread out throughout downtown Fergus Falls for more small and intimate conversations focused on the future of rural places, led and facilitated by Rural Regenerator Fellows. These sessions ranged from the practical, such as how to build community-responsive creative spaces, to the conceptual, such as climate grief, and the power of co-creation and play as artistic values.

In another session, a group of musicians shared thoughts on their own personal healing journeys, with hip hop artist Talon Bazille recording sound samples from the room, demonstrating how he uses sonic memory to connect to youth in his community on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Across the street, visual artists dove deep into concepts of rural aesthetics and what they say about land, identity and history.

Conversations dispersed into an afternoon of creative labs hosted by several of Fergus Falls’ local artists and creative spaces, including The Creation Shop, the Lakes Area Precious Plastics Lab, The Kaddatz Galleries, and Springboard for the Arts, deepening and integrating ideas and concepts while providing space for laughter, movement, and focused silence.

Finally, after a beautiful summer evening coming together around live music, an unforgettable traditional Indigenous meal by Chef Candace Stock, and some late night karaoke and tarot reading, the conversations continued the next morning with a focus on ideas and commitments for the future.

As this newfound community of artists began to say their goodbyes and plan their journeys home, and as a beautiful performance from WEdances Movement Collaborative played out on the Otter Tail River, the June air was sparkling with the joy of being together, and the release of thoughts, feelings, and ideas that had been difficult to articulate in other contexts over recent years. We traded gifts from home, words of encouragement, commitments to reach out, and reminders of our worth and value. The gathering had flown by, but it was clear this was only the beginning of a constellation of possibilities that had always been out there, but simply needed to be charted out— ready to guide us for what lies ahead for the rural places we love and care about. 

Nhatt Nichols is a multidisciplinary artist and writer raised on top of a mountain in the Okanogan, Washington State. A graduate of The Royal Drawing School in London, she uses drawing, poetry, and comics to break down political and environmental issues, finding new ways to meet people where they are, and ask them to reach deeper into their ability to care and take action. Learn more at www.nhattnichols.com.

Michele Anderson is the Rural Director at Springboard for the Arts, and is based in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Since 2011, Michele has been leading local, state, and national programs in rural community and economic development, including the Rural Regenerator Fellowship, Artists on Main Street, and more. She is also a writer, composer, pianist, and a mother.

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