Rural-Urban Exchange Spotlight: Ashley C. Smith

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ashley smith headshotA native of Lexington, KY, Ashley C. Smith graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology. Pairing her strong communication skills and work ethic she achieved a combined 10 years of experience in the healthcare, non-profit, and hospitality industries. As the first Development Coordinator at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, Smith brings her track record for producing success. Under her leadership, The Lyric has secured partnerships with leading companies such as Forcht Bank, EHI Consultants, Toyota Manufacturing, PNC Bank, LG&E/KU Foundation, Keeneland Foundation, PNC, and the University of Kentucky. She is tasked to produce fundraising efforts through grant writing, program development, and strategic partnerships. Smith refines her development skills as a member of the Bluegrass chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, where she currently serves as the Scholarship Chair. She also participates in Not The Only One in the Room, a women of color empowerment group. She has served on a Management Team Member and Vendor Services Manager for crave food + music festival, a 2 day event visited by over 100,000 annually.

I know you’re born and raised in Lexington, but that you also have a deep relationship to Western Kentucky. What was it like growing up between those two places? How has it shaped your experience with place and community?

My entire life has been shaped by rural-urban exchange, as my family spent summers and breaks visiting with family in Trigg, Christian, Hopkins and Jefferson Counties. From the smell of my grandmother’s house in Madisonville to skipping rocks at Lake Barkley with my Dad, these memories of places shaped my understanding of self and others. Over time, these visits created a deep gratitude for my relationships to land and people, and helped me to understand the power of these relationships in navigating daily life.

Western Kentucky was my safe haven, Heaven on Earth, the place that nurtured me. My experiences in Western Kentucky had a big impact on who I am and what I value, as my extended family instilled strong values of resilience, creativity, and appreciation of home place. Meanwhile, my hometown of Lexington challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and taught me about accountability to community. Growing up across these geographies inspired a deep sense of ownership in my family’s heritage as Kentuckians.  Our rural and urban communities mirror each other in vibrancy, culture, and persistence. Improving the quality of life across this rural-urban divide is becoming my charge in life.

You joined RUX as a member of last year’s cohort, then came on as a Steering Committee member for 2017 and have now become the coordinator for our regional host partner, the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington. You’ve clearly become very invested in this work. How has your participation impacted your personal and professional growth? What have you gained that has motivated you to become so deeply involved so quickly?

Often as professionals, we walk into conferences and institutes with our game face on and miss the opportunity for authentic connection. RUX challenged this status quo by inviting us to bring our whole selves, and as a result, I walked away with meaningful relationships both personally and professionally. Secondly, these traditional networking models tend to focus more on retaining information than inspiring collaboration. The lack of focus on converting that information into action dilutes effectiveness. RUX stands out in this regard as cohorts are coached to contribute their individual assets and skills to shared work that strengthens the state.

I work as the Development Coordinator at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, which is Lexington’s only art and cultural center informed by the African American experience. African American cultural heritage and narratives are often underrepresented, yet are so important to understanding the full story of Kentucky. RUX has helped us to access a larger platform across the state, and to educate our Lexington visitors  about our broader impact as a statewide arts and culture agent. I admire RUX for aiming to tell an inclusive story of the Bluegrass state by celebrating assets significant to communities of color in their civic engagement.

As an individual artist, I was excited to represent both RUX and the Lyric last October at the Next Generation: Rural Creative Placemaking Summit in Iowa, and will have the opportunity to present the RUX program as a Steering Committee member this summer at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit in Minnesota. It has been enriching to gain access to these opportunities to share my narrative nationally.

Old Lyric - Count BasieHistorical photo of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Photo courtesy of the Lexington Herald Leader.

You’ve talked with me about and how communities of color in rural areas celebrate resilience with the arts, and how your RUX experiences in those communities have been very important to you. Tell us about what those experiences have meant to you. How can RUX make people of color feel more at home in the state of Kentucky?

Last year, the RUX cohort visited the Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah, the Eastern Kentucky Social Club in Lynch, and the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center in Lexington. These spaces were founded by their communities during an era of institutional racism that was reinforced by legislation that aimed to demoralize and oppress African Americans. One of the strategies of that system was to repress African American cultural expressions of vigor and fortitude. As RUX gathered in these spaces, I felt the halls of each place echo with the triumph of expressing oneself in a time of second-class citizenship. Rebellion against racist subjugation rose out of these gathering spaces, and those stories of triumph and community are Kentucky stories.

Front porch of HM by SavannahRUX members get to know one another at the Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah’s historic Uppertown neighborhood.

I was impressed with the approach of RUX in telling the whole story in relation to our state’s racial history. RUX is not a silver bullet for long-standing racism, bigotry, and discrimination, but it can begin to expand participants’ worldview, and be a conduit for empathy as we work together to create solutions to systemic issues.

14089136_745078812261689_6639284730913976562_nOutside the Lynch, Kentucky chapter of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, housed in the former Lynch Colored Public School.
Photo credit Ashley C. Smith.

What have you gained from your RUX experience that you have taken back to your community?

First and foremost, establishing new connections with great people! Exploring new communities, square dancing with laughter, connecting with nature, and uncovering hidden histories has made me love Kentucky in a brand new way. The connectivity that energized our cohort over 3 weekends in 3 very different regions is quite uncanny. The opportunity to network with peers from diverse industries and sectors has inspired collaboration outside of our RUX weekends. These collaborations focused on inclusion and innovation, and put the the RUX mission into practice substantiating the exchange program’s purpose. I hold the rich network of peers generated through my participation in RUX in high regard, and feel that our sense of interdependence is the heartbeat of RUX.

RUX arrives at the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan County. Photo by Izzy Broomfield.Ashley arrives at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan County, Kentucky with members of her 2016 RUX cohort. Photo credit Izzy Broomfield.

What are you looking forward to for the 2017 Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange?

Meeting new cohort members and discovering the Bowling Green community. The shared experience of the cohort across 3 communities creates deeper relationships and lasting bonds, and I’m excited to see new collaborations emerge. RUX leads the country in engaging people across the rural-urban divide, and I’m really excited about serving as a Steering Committee member and a Regional Host Partner to invest in a new Kentucky.

static1.squarespace.comMembers of the 2017 Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange Steering Committee. Not pictured: Tanya Torp, Cheyenne Mize, and Landee Bryant-Greene.

The Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX) is a statewide program that assembles a diverse cohort to explore commonalities, deepen connections to people and places, and collaborate towards place-based innovation. Each summer, the RUX is hosted in three regions of the state and is designed to help participants understand and value the culture, landscape, context, and people of each place. The mission of the Kentucky RUX is to grow relationships across divides to build a more collaborative and connected Commonwealth, and has included more than 130 Kentuckians from 24 counties.

The RUX is a partnership of The Art Of The Rural & Appalshop, supported by the Rural Policy Research Institute and has partnered with 52 organizations around the Commonwealth. RUX has been hosted in Whitesburg, Louisville, Paducah, Harlan, and Lexington, bringing dozens of people to these regions for the first time. From an Eastern Kentucky hotel development to integrated learning across our community college system, a dozen collaborations have developed. To learn more, visit:  

This interview was conducted by Savannah Barrett, co-founder and facilitator of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange and Director of Programs for Art of the Rural.

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