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Ashley Hanson

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Fellow Ashley Hanson from 2018 Obama Foundation Fellows.

The 2016 election highlighted major rifts in our country between rural and urban areas: We’re not talking, we don’t understand each other, and we make paralyzing assumptions on both sides. Cultural translators like artists can play a key role in changing that—but although rural artists are doing the work to ask, listen, and share in a way that might help to bridge the gap, rural work is often disregarded in the national conversation. Instead, pervasive negative narratives divert funding and attention away from rural areas and the issues that these communities want to solve.

Hanson’s theater company, PlaceBase Productions (Opens in a new tab), works with rural communities to tell their stories in original, community-driven, site-specific musicals, harnessing the power of storytelling as an engine for economic growth, community connection, and civic pride in small towns. They partner with local nonprofits to host story circles and interviews; and then write and stage place-based productions, performing them in significant public spaces as audiences walk, canoe, or bike from scene to scene. Throughout, Hanson focuses on building these communities’ long-term capacity to make change on the issues that matter to them. Hanson personally travels from town to town—including on a six-week, 20-state road trip last year, documenting how 127 rural artists, cultural leaders, and arts organizations are navigating the Trump era in a project called The Department of Public Transformation (Opens in a new tab). She’s now scaling her work by connecting rural artists to each other and creating the first artist-in-residence in small town city governments.

Whitney Kimball Coe & Laura Zabel

At the second Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago on November 18-19, Ashley reflected on her work to reweave the fabric of civic life in rural communities through art: