Rural-Urban Exchange Spotlight: Jenny Williams

“A Seat at The Table,” Downtown Hazard, KY. October, 2015.

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 Instituteand 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: 

jenny-williamsJenny Williams is a 2014-2017 RUX participant and has been featured as the Chef-in-Residence for the 2014 Whitesburg weekend exchange, as well as a member of the RUX Kentucky Community and Technical College team. Her strong commitment to community, education, and food systems has added much value and impact on the RUX network. Jenny is the Chair of Pathfinders of Perry County, a non-profit citizens’ action group that promotes community well-being, engagement, outdoor recreation and education. Jenny grew up in Hazard, KY and is deeply rooted in the community and region of Eastern Kentucky. She has been teaching writing and reading at Hazard Community and Technical College since 1992.

She co-hosted “What’s Cookin’ Now: The World’s Only LIVE Radio Cooking Show” for six years and is passionate about food and trying to change policies and behaviors so that individuals, regardless of income, age, or geography have access to fresh, healthy, local food and know what to do with it. In the fall of 2015, Jenny co-organized “A Seat at the Table” which is an ongoing series of community dinners and conversations around various challenges, issues, and policies in the commonwealth state.

How do you tell your story of Kentucky?

I tend to approach my story of Kentucky and the work I do from a really selfish place. I think a lot of people do that. When I think of my story of Kentucky….it’s because it’s mine – it’s my story to tell. I was born here, and I have a really strong rooted sense of place. My family hasn’t been here for generations or anything, my parents are from Tennessee actually. But I feel really rooted here. When I was young I thought I would go off and live some place else and not live in a small town – not come back to Hazard. But, as it turned out, I did come back and I’m glad I did.

When it comes to criticism about Kentucky, it’s like how you would feel about someone in your family, right? I get upset when people try to criticize it. We can criticize it ourselves, but when people without deep roots here start stereotyping, I have a tough time with that. When I think about what I want Kentucky to be like, I think about what I want it to be like for me and my family. I want there to be more engaging places to eat, more art to see, more justice in the world, more economic prosperity, I want people to have enough to eat, and I want people to care about the things I care about. I believe people would believe in these things if they were given the chance to do so, you know? I want people to care about clean water and air, beautiful places to hike, good food to eat and fulfilling work to do.

img_2142Jenny collaborating on a community meal with her RUX match Reed Johnson in Whitesburg, 2014.
Photo credit Rachel R. Hagan.

I know food is a big part of your inspiration…

Food is the biggest passion that I have. Food in eastern Kentucky is one most healing issues that we can work on here. It doesn’t matter if you have a Friends of Coal license place, or a Friends of Mountains and Miners sticker and a KFTC bumper sticker on your car. Everybody thinks people deserve fresh, healthy local food. It’s been a real healing way to work across divides and get people at the table (literally and figuratively) who might not have shared that space before. Food crosses every single sector. Food is everywhere, at the intersection of the economy, the environment, education, and health – every single area.

That’s what I most passionate about working on now and how I came into RUX. I always joke around with Savannah that she just asked me to participate because she just wanted someone to cook brunch. She talked Reed and me into cooking – we missed almost all the meetings that weekend and just spent the whole time cooking and having a really good time. But having those connections like I’ve made with Reed, and looking at what people are doing with food systems across the state has been really important. And I’m about to start drawing on some of those people. I’m really looking forward to working with RUX folks in Paducah and Lexington. I’m interested in the connections between the way we are treating food insecurity in urban spaces and how we translate those strategies to rural places because a lot of it is the same and I’m really grateful to have these folks as a resource.

con_0239-aron-conaways-conflicted-copy-2015-11-09Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange group photo at Wiltshire on Market in Louisville, 2015.
Photo Credit Aron Conaway.

What are your sources of inspiration outside of food?

I would say hiking. Being outdoors in natural spaces where I can’t see manmade structures around me is really necessary to me. It’s necessary that I do that on a somewhat regular basis. I don’t do it as often as I want to. When I do, I realize how much it recharges my batteries and how important it is to me – Being able to go on hikes and visiting new places, seeing places I haven’t seen before. I love going to Lily Cornett Woods here and placing my hands on some of those super old trees – it gives me the same feeling of being up on a mountain. To be made to feel really small and temporary is not a bad thing. It’s quite a comforting thing for me; this mountain is really big and old, and I’m really small and a blip on the radar. It may make some people feel insignificant or like nothing matters…But for me, it makes me feel connected and a part of something in the world – not pressured is the best way to describe it. I don’t think I can truly verbalize the feeling, but that’s the only way I can explain it. The mountain is big and I am small.

IMG_2067 Exchange match Jenny Williams leads the group on a hike up Pine Mountain near Whitesburg, KY.
Photo Credit Rachel R. Hagan.

How has participating in RUX affected your practice?

First of all, it’s just really inspiring to be around people who are passionate about what they do. When I was talking earlier about Kentucky, that’s what I want for Kentucky. All these people are doing work, and are really passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re doing it because they believe that it is going to make the world a better place. That in and of itself, just being surrounded by those people, is so inspiring to me and gives me so much energy.  Then, actually hearing what they’re doing and learning from the things that they have done. It helps me get to ideas from their projects and it’s always inspiring to see how different people work through things.

I feel like I’ve gotten a really strong network to call upon. For example, we are getting ready to put in some gardens on the River Arts Greenway (Down in Hazard).  We want to make traditional medicinal beds, but we don’t really have that expertise. So knowing that I can give Myron Hardesty (RUX Participant) a phone call, shoot him a message, or even visit him, knowing that those resources are available to me and that other people have done that is incredible and inspiring. RUX has created a really good network, period. I don’t know how it’s affected my work yet, but being able to reach out to those people is going to affect my work and give me really valuable resources.

arts-and-culture-strategy-by-ameliaJenny working with her fellow Kentucky Community and Technical College professors on the RUX Arts and Culture Strategy. Photo credit Amelia Martens.

What are the potential outcomes for RUX?

It’s so easy to be siloed—in our communities, in our work, in our disciplines. It’s really easy to only interact with a small group of like-minded people, or to only think about your personal projects and work. But RUX has the potential to bring us out of our silos so that we can see what people in other parts of the state, in other disciplines and areas of interest, and in other traditions are doing. For a long time, I think we’ve all been trained to grab our piece of the pie before someone else gets it, whether we’re talking about funding for arts projects or recognition for achievements or creating policy changes. I don’t get that sense of pie-grabbing with the RUX. Instead, it seems like we’re all lashing our rafts together so we can lifted by this glorious tide we believe is coming, and that all of us will be raised up and made stronger by working together. That’s the overall outcome I see—that we’ll all be lifted together.

This interview was transcribed in Spring, 2015. Since then, Jenny was accepted into the 2016-2017 Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange cohorts, in which she was matched with three other professors at Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges around the state. Along with team members Amelia Martens of Paducah, Brett Eugene Ralph of Hopkinsville, and Robert Gipe of Harlan, Jenny is working to connect KCTCS students across the state, to combine the RUX team’s resources and reach, and to encourage meaningful writing practices that promote inclusion across the KCTCS system.

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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