Sowing the Seeds of Next Generation Rural Innovation
Two Rural Colleges in the Small Towns of WA, Have Big Ideas for the Future
Toppenish and Walla Walla, WA June 22, 2018 – The digital revolution is not just for the hipsters and startup cities of Seattle and San Francisco. Across the country, young people are buzzing with creativity, developing diverse digital solutions and beta-testing the next big thing. The Rural American Digital Lab (RADLab) has launched as a pilot project right here in rural Washington, and it has high hopes for inspiring innovation, and bridging divides between urban and rural America. What’s more, RADLab is not only an effort to serve as a platform for digital innovation, it is also an experiment in community building across geographic distance.
“There’s not much talk about rural innovation in the country,” says Noah Leavitt who is part of the RADLab project team and Director of Student Engagement at Whitman College. “Part of the challenge for bridging the urban-rural divide, is that there is limited digital access and opportunity in a majority of rural America. Just as tech labs are popping up in urban based higher educational institutions, RADLab can serve as a model of how to sow the seeds of next generation rural innovation.”
This month, RADLab launched as a collaborative learning venture between 22 students from Whitman College and Heritage University, and PopUpJustice, a social justice startup focused on community building and social innovation. RADLab set out to understand how a diverse set of people can learn, invent, and form a sense of community in a virtual world. Together, two very different groups of students learned across campuses two hours away, formed a learning community, and started sowing the seeds of innovation. They share a mission of disrupting the public narrative about people in rural America. Students learned through a combination of in-person trainings on design thinking and digital tools, and a series of 10 virtual lectures about various issues impacting rural communities. Given limited funds, the first series of projects during its pilot phase is focused on digital storytelling, using multimedia tools of film, photography, and podcasts. On June 28th at
Whitman College 4pm – 6pm, the public is invited to the RADLab production of the untold stories of rural America. Already, the stories are inspiring ideas for innovation, including development of mobile apps for American Indian language preservation and promotion, multilingual health and safety notifications, and community digital archiving solutions.
Although the big vision of RADLab is to become an active and interdisciplinary learning lab for STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, math — the most efficient and affordable kickoff to the lab led the design team to start with digital storytelling, taking on the challenge of a different angle on the underestimation of rural America in mainstream media. Tackling a number of themes, students are diving into hard issues such as suicide on the Yakama Nation Reservation, to a day in the lives of farm workers and rural Latinx identity, to issues of incarceration and reentry given the local prison, to gaps in rural healthcare for women and homelessness in Walla Walla. “RADLab is opening my mind to different possibilities,” says Heritage student Chris Villegas. The issues students chose are deep, complex, and many of them the students relate to or have lived, but in doing so represent the grit and grace of nextgen rural innovation. “I wanted the chance to use digital tools as a way to amplify different stories of communities in rural America, like the small town I grew up in,” says Whitman student Kylin Brown. The digital stories of the inaugural cohort of RADLab students will be archived into a growing digital quilt, and featured at the 2018 Social Justice Film Festival’s “Hope & Democracy” reception in Seattle October 5-14 (which attracts submissions from around the world).
Kimberly Bellamy-Thompson, who is also part of the RADLab team and Chair of Social Sciences at Heritage University, sees the lab as offering “much needed opportunities for learning, potential problem solving of uniquely local issues, and in the process more diversified job prospects for my students, many of whom are from under-represented communities, first-generation and nontraditional college students.”