Savannah Barrett '08, Co-Founder of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, Featured in NYTimes and Recognized by Former President

Savannah Barrett '08, Co-Founder of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, Featured in NYTimes and Recognized by Former President

University of Louisville College of Arts & Sciences Humanities alumna Savannah Barrett ’08 envisions a unified future beyond the rural-urban divide. Barrett is a co-founder of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX), which aims to connect people from all over the state, fostering collaboration and understanding. Recently featured in The New York Timeand praised by former U.S. president, Barack ObamaRUX is inspiring change in and beyond Kentucky.

By Natalie Tracy

June 26, 2024 | Originally published in spring 2024 issue of UofL Magazine

“When we look for common ground, we find it,” asserts Savannah Barrett ’08. She would know. Her roots in Grayson County, Kentucky, span generations, and though Barrett now resides in Louisville, she remains steadfast in her commitment to rural communities.

For over a decade, she has been a driving force in national policy change efforts, serving as director of programs for Art of the Rural. A national organization with a Kentucky field office, 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.

Barrett also co-founded the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX), an initiative of Art of the Rural and Appalshop, which aims to connect people from all over the state to drive conversations and new connections. From experience, she and co-founder Josh May saw an opportunity to translate value across regions and transform the story of who belongs as a Kentuckian.

“RUX began from a simple belief – that if Kentuckians from different regions and backgrounds could just meet each other and share a meaningful experience, they’d find more in common than in contrast,” Barrett said.

RUX isn't merely an exchange program; it's a platform for fostering understanding and addressing some of the state's most pressing challenges. The participant experience encourages conversations around complex issues, sparking a deeper understanding of the nuances that contribute to Kentucky’s diverse tapestry. “It’s hard to rely on stereotypes about people when you’ve spent time with them,” Barrett said.

The RUX leadership program adopts an inclusive approach, beginning with an open application process reviewed by RUX alumni. Once selected, a cohort of 50-75 Kentuckians travels to three separate exchange conferences across the state each year for two years. During RUX “community intensives,” participants explore Kentucky, engage in significant conversations and build productive relationships bridging cultures, sectors and geographies. Since its inception in 2014, RUX has hosted eight cohorts, including 275 Kentuckians representing 60 (half of the state’s) counties.

Barrett credits her UofL education for developing her lifelong practices of curiosity, debate and deep listening. Looking ahead, Barrett aspires to create more platforms like RUX, enabling individuals to share stories and forge connections across party lines and differences. “I’ve learned that the place and people I come from are my greatest strengths. Working to honor them is my greatest opportunity,” Barrett said.