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Seeking Connection: The 2021 Rural Summit

“One thing we always look forward to is our annual convening,” says NC Rural Center Senior Events Manager Jenny Grant. “It gives us the chance to catch up with our community partners, form new connections, and collaborate with thought leaders and experts in rural economic development.” Like many other events over the last two years, the Center’s annual convening was held virtually due to COVID-19, but the digital event still lent itself to creating space and opportunity for connections and thoughtful collaboration among hundreds of rural North Carolinians.

The three-day, 2021 Rural Summit covered a wide range of issues relevant to our state’s rural communities, with a special focus on policy advocacy, education, and action. Center staff hosted virtual meetings between state legislators and their constituents, facilitating a meaningful dialogue about what our rural communities need to thrive, be it more resources for small business development and broadband expansion, innovative solutions to aid our health care delivery systems, or proposals to address affordable housing and water and wastewater infrastructure.

“It was important to us that we provide opportunities for rural North Carolinians to not just hear from legislators and experts, but to directly engage and have impactful conversations—not just with legislators, but with each other, too,” says Grant.

Among the highest-attended sessions was the policymaker panel covering COVID-19 in North Carolina, which included NC DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, NC Pandemic Recovery Office Executive Director Stephanie McGarrah, and NC Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders, among others. “Creating that space where rural North Carolina’s grasstops and grassroots leaders could hear directly from policymakers about the pandemic’s specific toll on rural communities was mission critical for the Rural Center,” says Grant.

Another highly attended panel was the pre-session workshop on regional collaboration. “Maximizing Your Impact: Best Practices for Regional Collaboration” focused on the value, challenges, and opportunities of cross-sector and cross-geography collaboration, and trained attendees on how to build, develop, and implement regional partnerships. Misty Herget, Rural Center vice president of programs and strategic partnerships, hosted the workshop, and was joined by representatives from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Rural Forward at the Foundation for Health Leadership and Innovation, and the West Marion Community Forum.

Other Rural Summit sessions covered a variety of topics, including but not limited to equity within organizations, healing community trauma, North Carolina’s changing demography, entrepreneurship and small-business development, broadband accessibility, and disparities in health and health care access.

“It is important for us to include a robust and diverse program agenda for the Rural Summit each year,” says Grant. “We raise up vital issues that rural North Carolinians care about and are affected by, and it is our job to connect attendees to the people, organizations, and information that will help their communities thrive for years to come.”

Be sure to save the date for the 2022 Rural Summit!