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Giving Youth Louder Voice in Rural America

Public News Service

A nationwide movement aimed at improving the quality of life in rural America, including Kentucky, says it's focused on involving youth.

The National Rural Assembly – a coalition of more than 500 organizations – calls its new effort Kids, Climate, Connection.

In a nation with 50 million rural residents, Rural Assembly chair Dee Davis says some families and communities are disenfranchised by isolation and poverty.

He notes in many small towns, adults often say, “I think I'll be OK, but what about the kids?”

"We've got to create a different landscape,” he stresses. “We have to create more opportunities for rural kids and we've got to put them in a position where they can create their own opportunities."

Davis says the high rate of child poverty has rural America facing, in his words, "a lost generation of kids and families," and addressing that problem is key to creating more opportunities for young people.

Kate Fowler, director of the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop in Whitesburg, says while teens and young adults are aware of their region's background, they display a "sense of agility."

"I see a lot of hopefulness,” she states. “We talk about hope a lot when we do our programming, and I think that young folks are really looking forward and a lot of the young people we're working with are hoping to stay here. So, there's a lot of imagining what is possible, what could come next."

Davis, who lives in Kentucky, says the big challenge is creating innovative business opportunities that will make a difference.

"More and more what we're seeing is, jobs are portable,” he points out. “People are going to live where they want to live. Your employment is going to be in the laptop you carry.”

“It's important that we begin to reimagine rural communities, so that young people have a real opportunity to make a difference there."

Davis says rural America offers a wealth of climate solutions, including wind and solar energy, while broadband-starved rural communities need better connection to the global economy.

Fowler maintains that many young adults, if provided opportunities, may go away to school, but will return to invest in Appalachia.

"Because they really feel a sense of cultural identity in their home that they don't feel in other places,” she explains. “A lot of young people are really engaged in the arts and technology, and there have been a lot of young people who are thinking very strategically about how to build those things here, since the overhead cost is really, really low."