Rural-Urban Exchange Spotlight: Gerry Seavo James

Gerry Seavo James exploring an island on the Ohio River.

More than 130 Kentuckians from 24 counties have been collaborating for Kentucky’s future. Since 2014, the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX) has brought people together to integrate the arts, agriculture, health and small business in partnership strategies to build new models, share resources, and improve quality of life for Kentuckians. 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 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 so far, 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: 

Gerry Seavo James is the Director of The Explore Kentucky Initiative and a member of the RUX Steering Committee. Since the founding of EKI, Gerry has helped to further the field of adventure tourism and community and cultural exploration across Kentucky. Through this work and his participation in the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, Gerry has embedded himself in many rural Kentucky communities and counties. Gerry is an avid paddler who is certified by the American Canoe Association in the Stand-Up Paddleboard and Canoe disciplines. Gerry is a storyteller who uses photography, cinematography, public relations, journalism, and mixed media to tell stories about the landscapes and people he encounters in his travels across the Commonwealth and beyond.

The Explore Kentucky Initiative (EKI) is an organization created to inspire individuals to engage in an active lifestyle fueled by adventure in Kentucky’s outdoors. Explore Kentucky evolved from a viral social media campaign with the intent to entice Kentuckians and tourists to explore the great outdoors. Now in 2016 with 30,000 followers on Instagram, EKI partners with Kentucky State Parks, Adventure Tourism and others to offer rock climbing clinics, combined hiking & photography workshops, and guided tours. Gerry is also the founder of Ascend, a design firm created to serve outdoor oriented nonprofits and business and rural clientele.

03_12_16_-blantonhike_36-1EKI- Kentucky Natural Lands Trust guided hike weekend at Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in Harlan County, KY. Photo credit Matt Herp.

Where are you from?

This is always a tough question for me. As a military brat, I usually tell people I am from everywhere! Before I came to Kentucky to finish up college I had never lived in one place for more than three years. I have lived in Germany, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kansas, etc. I feel super connected to everywhere I have lived though.

How do you define your practice?

I exist in so many realms if that makes sense. I consider myself a storyteller. I use photography, cinematography, public relations, journalism, and mixed media to tell stories about the landscapes and people I encounter in my travels around the Commonwealth and beyond. I’m also a community leader, organizer, and connector. Throughout all of this, I subtly try to break down racial barriers by existing in circles where I seemingly do not belong. Isn’t that also one of the mission values of RUX?


Riverthon paddlesports at work on Louisville’s stretch of the Ohio River.
Gerry serves as their Director of PR and Communications for River City Paddlesports, the organization that puts on the race.

How do you tell your story of Kentucky? What are some of its needs? What amazing things can it offer that it is not offering now, or perhaps is not known for offering?

I tell my story of Kentucky through my travels, photo, videos, talks, events to help promote a progressive, adventurous, and modern view of Kentucky. I feel like Kentucky as a whole needs to unite and think beyond county borders. I think we all need to stop licking our wounds from various wrongs that we have perceived have been done to us and think about how we can move forward into the future. Kentucky could be a mecca for outdoor adventure enthusiasts, agri-tourism, and film-making if it wanted to be.

I honestly felt as an outsider looking in that Kentucky needed a platform that was apolitical, positive, and uplifting where Kentuckians and visitors to the commonwealth could showcase their adventures. I wanted to forge a new community of explorers that worked together on solutions to protect our natural and cultural resources.

How has participating in the RUX affected your work? What are you working on now?

RUX has helped me collaborate with so many amazing people across Kentucky with great energy that are breaking down traditional barriers. My partner Kerri Bonner has been such a blessing to me; I don’t think EKI would be what it is today without her. I am working on refining EKI into a robust organization that is a major player in helping adventure tourism in Kentucky transition from a bunch of dreams into a reality.


Left: The Kentucky Penpal Project is a media collaboration that resulted from Kerri and Gerry’s RUX partnership. Right: Gerry and Alison with RUX match Kerri Bonner.

What are the potential outcomes for RUX?

I hope to see continued collaborations, impactful projects that make a difference for the state, and for other organizations in Kentucky to look to RUX for an example of how to use art, community, and friendship to forge a new tomorrow for Kentucky.

The interview was conducted  by Sean Starowitz. Sean is a Socially-Engaged Artist currently working as the assistant director of economic development for the arts for the City of Bloomington, Indiana. Sean was a 2015 AmeriCorp VISTA with the Rural Policy Research Institute and fellow RUX participant.

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