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Rural Futures Summit: What future can we build together?

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Seven people stand together, arms around each other at the end of the opening discussion of the Rural Futures Summit in Fergus Falls, Minn.
Springboard For The Arts
Participants include Nancy X. Valentine, left, Mai'a Williams, Autumn Cavender, Awanigiizhik Bruce, Rufus Jupiter, Heidi Holtan and Michele Anderson.

Springboard for the Arts hosted a gathering in June of 2023 in Fergus Falls addressing the intersections of rural, art, economics and land. Rural Regenerator Fellows gathered to communicate about making positive change in rural communities.

FERGUS FALLS — The importance of rural artists in bringing communities together and fostering joy and meaning in people’s lives was a central theme at a recent summit in Fergus Falls.

Four Rural Regenerator Fellows of Springboard for the Arts made up the opening panel for the Rural Futures Summit on June 14, 2023. KAXE’s Director of Content and Public Affairs Heidi Holtan moderated the panel with questions about connections to rural places, land, nature and art.

 Black and white headshot of Mai'a Williams.
John Swanson
Mai'a Williams is an author, writer, journalist, midwife and abortion doula from Winona, Minnesota.

Featured fellows were:

  • Mai’a Williams of Winona is a writer and journalist who spent her 20s and part of her 30s living mainly in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. She moved back to the United States when she had her daughter and describes herself as a writer, multimedia artist, midwife, abortion doula and nonprofit worker. Williams is the author of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines and two chapbooks of poetry.   
  • Wicanhpi Iyotan Win Autumn Cavender-Wilson lives in Granite Falls. She said she is fiercely dedicated to decolonization, land rights and birth justice. Cavender-Wilson describes herself as an artist, midwife and activist who currently resides in her home territories.  
Autumn Cavender stands in front of a red wall.
Native Arts and Cultures Foundation
Autumn Cavender-Wilson lives in Granite Falls, Minnesota, and is an artist, midwife and activist.

  • Rufus Jupiter lives in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and is an artist, dancer, farmer, educator and activist. Through creative collaboration and community building, they said they have faith that rural queer culture can transcend its longstanding story of isolation and otherness, “blooming a new queer narrative.” 
  • Awanigiizhik Bruce is from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. They are a diverse media artist, poet, storyteller, traditional knowledge/language teacher, community leader/organizer and more. They believe in making ancient art forms relevant today as well as in designing what Indigenous futurisms will be. 

Many questions were asked of the participants, including, “What in nature makes you feel connected, or like you are home?”

The Rural Regenerator Fellows’ answers were wide-ranging and included the yellow lady-slipper orchid, described by Awanigiizhik Bruce as strong and resilient.

Rufus Jupiter headshot outside. Jupiter is holding a bouquet and a natural green environment is the backdrop.
Rufus Jupiter
Rufus Jupiter is a Midwest rural multidisciplinary artist.

“It takes years to grow but then it’s a very powerful medicine, one of the most powerful used,” they said. To them, there is a symbiotic relationship with the fungus in the soil that signifies the interwoven network of dirt and plants and people.

Jupiter described the stinging nettle plant as a friend in their environment.

“I enjoy it, the self-protective-like properties that it has,” they said. “And it is also this very powerful medicine.”

They said stinging nettle and its antidote plant, jewelweed, resembled a partnership of growing.

Williams answered the question of connection to nature and land by describing where she grew up and the Mississippi River. Now living near the Mississippi in Minnesota, she describes the river as grounding.

Awanigiizhik Bruce dresses a mannequin in clothing with traditional design from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
Awanigiizhik Bruce
Indigenous artist and fashion designer and artist Awanigiizhik Bruce is a Two-Spirit diverse-media artist based on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota.

“I’m not a fan of lakes or ponds,” she said. “I don’t really like still water. I don’t trust it.”

Williams said her distrust comes from not knowing where lakes came from or are going, causing her to wonder why they haven’t moved.

“As long as it’s running water, as long as it’s going south, it’ll be okay,” she said.

When Cavender-Williams answered the question of connection to nature and land, she talked about the oral tradition of where she is from, a place where the prairie rose is the first flower.

“I think this idea of, like, land connection is also really always interesting when you talk to Native folks versus settler culture,” she said. “Being connected to place means something fundamentally different.”

She described the context of 26,000 years of humans buried in the same soil is “something very deep on the molecular biological level.”

"I think this idea of, like, land connection is also really always interesting when you talk to Native folks versus settler culture. Being connected to place means something fundamentally different."
Autumn Cavender-Wilson, Rural Regenerator Fellow

Nancy Zia’oRong Valentine gave the keynote speech to kick off the event. She’s executive director of Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls. Valentine, who is Chinese-American, views her artistry as a channel to deepen her cultural connections between her Chinese heritage and Midwestern roots.

She writes that her creative process begins and ends with intention, resulting in conceptually complex visual stories woven with nuance and symbolism. Valentine's brushwork is inspired by Chinese calligraphy and meant to evoke empathy.

Nancy X. Valentine, keynote speaker at Rural Futures Summit
 Chinese American artist from Ottertail County, Nancy X. Valentine by a window.

Eliza Blue is a rural musician who is also a Rural Regenerator Fellow. She performed and spoke at the Rural Futures Summit.

Michele Anderson, Rural Director of Springboard For the Arts, in conversation with the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, explained rural artists are doing important work in their communities by bringing people together, and creating meaning and joy in the lives of those around them.

Musician Eliza Blue and Michele Anderson, rural director of Springboard For the Arts, open the summit
 Musician Eliza Blue in a prairie field.

She acknowledged being a rural artist is often lonely and isolating, and through events like the Rural Futures Summit, artists become encouraged and inspired by each other. They shared ideas on everything from running a creative business, mentoring young artists, and defending the environment through creative processes.

Springboard for the Arts offers many resources for rural artists. Listen to the Between You & Me episode featuring the panel discussion above.

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