I think, therefore I LISTEN
Meet Humanities (’08) Alumna Savannah Barrett
Savannah Barrett (’08, Humanities) is an urban resident with a rural heart. Moving to Louisville from Grayson Springs, Kentucky to attend UofL, she left behind her home but kept a commitment to rural places and people alive in her work and life. Savannah parlayed a B.A. in Humanities and an M.S. in arts administration to become Director of Programs for Art of the Rural. A national organization with a field office in Kentucky, Art of the Rural collaborates with a diverse range of partners to help build the field of the rural arts, create new narratives on rural culture and community, and contribute to the emerging rural arts and culture movement.
In this Q&A, we learn about the people and places that inspire Savannah, and where to find the best swimming holes in the state.
Degree(s) & Graduation Year(s):
- 2008 B.A. Humanities with concentration in Cultural Studies, Magna Cum Laude (University of Louisville)
- 2013 M.S. Arts Administration with a concentration in Community Arts (University of Oregon)
How does your education in Arts & Sciences inform your work as a professional and in your community?
The most valuable result of my education in the College of Arts & Sciences UofL of was an enhanced understanding of our interconnectedness. Many courses and experiences contributed to this understanding of holism – social justice movements, modern humanities, cultural anthropology and progressive era policy transformed my perceptions of my community and myself, and generated a wide angle perspective on modern culture.
My experiences with the Muhammad Ali Scholars Program and the teachings of Anne Braden, and later the Social Justice Research Institute named for her, helped me to gain an experiential understanding of race, equity, and social justice.
I was fortunate to be supported in several international travel experiences, which broadened my world view and helped me to more deeply understand my own social and economic privilege. Through the University Honors Program and the Truman Scholar for Public Policy competition, I learned invaluable lessons about presentation and the art of tailoring your message to an audience.
These understandings became the foundation of my current work as the Director of Programs for Art of the Rural, where we design projects and programs that build relationships across geographies, demographics, and sectors to strengthen whole communities.
Moreover, as a first generation college student from an under-resourced rural Kentucky family, my education gave me social mobility and access to new experiences. The University’s flexibility and consistent faith in me helped me to bring an exhibition to Louisville, a University lecture by James Nachtwey to raise money for Darfur, and allowed me to house my thesis exhibit within the Fine Arts Department despite the fact that I was a Humanities major.
In sum, these undergraduate experiences in Arts and Sciences, within and outside the classroom, offered me room to grow while encouraging me along a course.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.
There are many signposts along the path to reaching your full potential, and I recognize many individuals and mentors that are in part responsible for my success and happiness. The three people that most contributed to shaping who I’ve become planted those seeds at an early age.
My Memaw was the lead organizer of her local UAW union and my mother was a community organizer for a fraternal lodge in Clarkson, Kentucky. These two women are smart, adaptable, well-loved in the community, and respected in their work. Watching them offered me an early education on the value of bringing people together to work towards a common cause, and the considerable task of earning and keeping trust as a leader. My Papaw gave me the gift of wanderlust, a sense of discovery, and supported my decisions to travel and pursue a life outside of my home community.
My high school creative writing teacher Stacey believed in me fiercely and urged me to apply for the Governor’s School for the Arts and Governor’s Scholars Program, which earned me a full college scholarship. My high school friend Matt exposed me to a wide range of art, writing, and music and by so doing transformed my experiences with creative work. My friends Joe and Christy have taught me about the rewards of revolutionary love and about abundance.
More recently, my collaborators at Art of the Rural and in the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange have challenged me to work in a way that contributes, is accountable, and allows me to sustain my whole person while I learn and grow.
I have so many teachers.
What is the most thrilling or adventurous thing you've ever done?
Well, I’ve jumped into bodies of water from cliffs, trestles, and waterfalls. I’ve hopped trains. I’ve traveled domestically and internationally alone, and often.
Still, the most thrilling adventure of my life is the course I’m currently on. My work and the development of an artistic practice challenges my fears and doubts on a daily basis and forces me to grow through deep relationships with those I work with. Though I’ve been wild at heart through many adventures, the challenge of sustained learning and practice is my greatest adventure yet.
Why is a liberal arts education valuable in the 21st century?
I value liberal arts education because it helped me to become a more compassionate soul and a more interesting person. One significant benefit of a broad education is the ability to talk with anyone, and to feel comfortable in any environment.
As a young person from a working class family, a liberal arts education emboldened me to pursue opportunities that I had previously perceived to be out of reach. A liberal arts education offered an expansive, interdisciplinary understanding of modern humanities, which has helped me to develop an approach to artistic practice that is more inclusive and intentional. These experiences also stoked my love of learning, and offered me the tools to competently seek out new sources of information.
Current event students should know more about and why?
For Kentuckians in particular, I think it’s important to consider the absence of a shared commitment to philanthropy across the state. This problem is evident particularly for rural communities, and for arts and culture across the state. We don’t have a single statewide foundation with a mission to support artists and cultural work. Moreover, although rural communities, labor, and expertise remain vital to health of our nation, reports of philanthropic investment in small communities average between 1-5%.
As Rick Cohen referenced in the Non Profit Quarterly earlier this year, “Many rural nonprofits have probably given up on seeing philanthropy double its rural grant making in five years, as per the challenge issued by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) to the Council on Foundations seven years ago, because of the historic underfunding of rural communities by foundations.”
Rural and urban communities are vitally interdependent, and especially in rural states like Kentucky, the public health of rural communities affects their ability to be thoughtful stewards of the resources, food, and energy that urban communities depend on. Strong rural regions benefit their urban neighbors, and well supported cultural institutions can improve quality of life across regions. I believe that the development of a Kentucky Culture and Heritage Foundation, and priority treatment for proposals that invest in rural projects and collaborations across regions in existing grant making across the state, could make a lasting impact on Kentucky communities and their ability to retain and attract our state’s best and brightest.
Advice for current students?
Universities are social laboratories, and one of their greatest gifts to students can be the opportunity to explore potential paths, to make mistakes, and to try new approaches with a safety net in place.
Pursue all of the resources available to you, especially those that will offer an opportunity to travel or to engage with communities that you aren’t familiar with. By so doing, you’ll come to understand yourself and your passions at a deeper level. One of my greatest advantages has been discovering my passion at an early age and continuously exploring the field of arts and culture. I’ve worked in various capacities and am not saying that I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got started, but staying on a consistent path has enabled me to earn 15 years of experience ahead of my thirtieth birthday, and helped to position me to work at the national level. If you think of your life and work as an emergent and evolutionary process, then you create a space to see beyond your current reality and to accept new opportunities as they arise.
Finish this sentence: I think, therefore I listen.
What's the one thing about you few people know?
I grew up on seventh generation land in Grayson Springs. As a girl, I most often found my communion with that land (and my legacy as a part of it) down in the middle of Lizard Creek, a wide limestone creek that serves as the central artery of my family home place. There’s a natural amphitheater down in the rocks, and I had a favorite rock in the middle of the water where I’d sit as a teenager and write small poems on Sycamore bark I’d gather from my favorite tree in the old strawberry field. I’d write those little poems, something like a prayer, and float them down the creek. It made me feel connected to my ancestors as a young girl, connected to a legacy of water diviners and the spirits that lived and died above those creek banks.
I moved away at seventeen and live in a city now, and though I return often, my summer tradition of “religious swimming” makes me feel most connected to that place. Every week in the summer I try to find and swim in a different natural body of water. I joke that it’s my spiritual practice, but it does feel connected, knowing that the same water that sailed my poems could’ve ended up at Pool Point on the Big Sandy or Big Rock on the Red River. I guess in some way it is the most enduring aspect of my rural roots — that I seek and find water somewhere in the world, and I feel transported back to Grayson Springs, to my people and to my truest self.
In a nutshell, that communion with a place, with land, with your people and those who’ve gone on, that’s the story I most want to tell about rural Americans.