Several of us at the Independent spent a couple of days last week in Keene, N.H. at the Radically Rural Summit, which I have mentioned in this column before. We don’t get out much, but we have found this gathering, which attracts more than 500 people each year, to be unusually stimulating.
The event is cosponsored by the nonprofit Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and the Keene Sentinel, the local independent daily newspaper, founded in 1799. Their mission is to build networks of people who want to “take action to strengthen their small communities.”
The word “rural” has become controversial here: a draft of Truro’s local comprehensive plan has a section called “The ‘R’ Word.” What the organizers of the summit say they mean by rural is something more than just a small population. They mean places with the “shared values of a community.” Being “radically rural,” they say, means valuing innovation, history, and reciprocity along with “positive deviance.”
The conference is organized into seven interrelated areas that make for vibrant small towns: arts and culture, clean energy, entrepreneurship, health, land and community, Main Streets, and community journalism.
We heard from reporters who succeeded in telling complex stories requiring months of research. One of the most inspiring was Victoria Bouloubasis, who has reported on small communities in the South and Midwest as well as from Mexico and Central America. Her documentary film Rising Up in the Heartland follows marginalized and undocumented Latino workers in rural Iowa. Excluded from Covid-19 relief payments even though they were on the front lines of exposure during the early months of the pandemic, they organized to demand better treatment from local officials — with mixed results.
Rural editors and publishers described strategies they are using to keep their news organizations going and their readers engaged. We were struck by their “side gigs.” Tristan Scott at the Flathead Beacon near Glacier National Park in Montana told us about the newspaper’s retail design shop. Lindsey Young from Kansas created a curriculum for her new reporters that she is now marketing to other news organizations.
Keene has a downtown. We walked past the food co-op, the shoe store, and the axe-throwing bar to a place called Brewbakers, where we found good coffee. Also a coffee roaster, a crafting spot, a vinyl record shop, and a flower stand. Everyone in town seemed to stop in. We eavesdropped on grandparents, babies, and students. A group of women were planning a community supported agriculture venture. A quartet of firefighters who came in for coffee were greeted by tie-dye-clad friends. The shindig at the end of the conference was in the same space, which in the evenings serves local beers and live music.
The summit organizers say vibrant Main Streets are essential to small towns and “imbue their residents with a sense of place.” The next day, as we arrived home to Wellfleet, we heard the news that the Fox & Crow, the last year-round café left on our town’s Main Street, was closed for good.