Carol Kuhre is sitting on the couch at her home in New Marshfield amid stacks of books, recalling the “vivid” dreams she had last night. The details are vague, but her role is clear.
“I was facilitating something, a group, a fight, a discussion, something, all night long,” she says as her dog Rosey barks from the kitchen, leery of the stranger in the house talking to Carol.
The dreams reflect the role she has played in Rural Action, an organization she co-founded 30 years ago.
“I am more like an orchestra director than someone playing the first solo,” she says. “All the rest of you can shine, but we have to get along together.”
Carol has been reading Paul Hawken’s latest book, “Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation.” From the books beside her, she pulls out “Drawdown,” another work by Hawken on the climate crisis. The book, like many she’s paging through on this October morning, is punctuated by underlined passages and margin notes. It’s clear she refers to them often, a North Star for the social justice work she’s done throughout her life.
Rural Action’s early work was heavily influenced by writers like Hawken, Dr. Helen Lewis, Thomas Berry, Dr. Hazel Henderson, Herman Daly, Fran Korten, John Cobb, Jr., Wendell Berry … big ideas that helped inform the organization.
“In my directing at night, I am somehow always bringing the people, staff, committees, community back to the fact that we cannot be lazy,” Carol says. “We have to keep grounding ourselves or we will enter into that metaworld of (Facebook CEO Mark) Zuckerberg’s. We need to be grounded in the anti-metaworld — the real world.”
For Rural Action, that has meant being rooted in the community. In a foreword to Hawken’s “Regeneration,” Jane Goodall discusses the environmental destruction that was occurring in Africa during her work with chimpanzees.
“That’s when I realized that if we can’t help these communities find ways of making a living without destroying their environment, we could not protect the chimps,” Goodall writes. “You cannot save an animal species unless you protect its environment, which is not possible without the participation of local communities, and that will not happen if they are living in poverty.”
Rural Action realized the same was true while striving to clean up the legacy of historic coal mining in Appalachian Ohio. They needed to reach deep into the affected communities, to enfranchise them, to listen to them, to help educate them on the importance of the environment, to create economic opportunities that didn’t rely on extractive industries.
“Organizations that survive pay attention to the ABCs,” Carol says. “Stay in touch with your community, deepen relationships, keep reading, visit elsewhere to learn about new approaches, new theories that are emerging.”
During those early years building Rural Action’s membership, Carol and her team kept things informal, holding meetings in each other’s homes and backyards. “I’d keep the membership list with me at all times, in a notebook – before computer days,” she says. “I could ID people in a crowd who might be a Rural Action member.”
Gatherings like swimming parties and volleyball matches were “where the ideas flowed. It was never just volleyball,” she says. “It was a continual flow of ideas. We were always reading together.”
One of the ways the organization made inroads into local communities was through the arts. “We’d begin every staff meeting with music. Someone’s original poetry or reading would be interspersed in every meeting. It wasn’t just frosting. We added it to the theme of the day.”
“Every single solitary day of those first 15 years, I would jump out of bed alive with ideas,” Carol says. “I could go anywhere and someone would come up with an idea.“
Carol’s faith has been a critical component of her life’s work. As a child, she and a friend founded their own religion, a mash-up of Catholicism and Lutheranism that was detailed in Liz Pahl’s wonderful documentary Legacy: Women of Southeast Ohio. Carol and her husband, Bruce, met while doing campus ministry work together at Penn State. And after they moved to Athens in 1966, it wasn’t long before Carol was serving as co-director of United Campus Ministry.
“I read theology every day, especially feminist and ecological theology,” Carol says. “It feeds my soul, feeds my life, and provides me with a great deal of hope. I can’t imagine not having that kind of grounding.
“All the work I did in the ministry was rooted in the justice movement,” she says. “It’s the only thing that makes sense to me in the whole world. My work at Rural Action is just an extension of that.”
Carol is quick to note that many people contributed to Rural Action’s inception and success. That list includes her husband, Bruce, Associate Professor Emeritus at OU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department. They met at Penn State while doing campus ministry work together, and she laughingly refers to him as the Bruce Kuhre Foundation for his willingness to support them with his OU paychecks during the lean years and his ability to do electrical, plumbing, and carpentry work that helped with multiple projects, including Rural Action’s office at a former church in Trimble.
She and Jon Sowash worked together at Appalachian Ohio Public Interest Campaign (AOPIC), an organization from which Rural Action descended. Jon recommended she read Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” before they started working on the Rural Action strategy. “It changed my life,” she says, noting she and Jon have exchanged ideas “probably every week of our lives in casual and intentional conversations.”
There is also the Flournoy family, especially Mary Anne, who played a key role in Rural Action’s formation and continuance. “She was not only my best friend that I went to for sharing ideas, she was a partner in building the community of members that were so important in shaping the organization,” Carol says.
Carol pulls a thick binder titled “Partners in Leadership Development” from the stack of books, noting Candi Witham put it together and that it was invaluable in teaching community organizing.
She lists many, many more names, making it clear that it took a community to make Rural Action what it is today.
“We all grew up together,” she says.
Since her retirement, Carol has remained active in philanthropy, working with the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in New York City, the Athens County Foundation and the Sugar Bush Foundation, where she “plays an active role in keeping money rolling out to groups like Rural Action and Community Food Initiatives.”
When former Rural Action CEO Michelle Decker visited recently, she asked Carol what’s next, which prompted her to start talking about the weavers she’s reading. “The Polish weavers are the best in the world,” she says. “They do amazing work.”
That conversation — and the excitement it elicited from Carol — prompted Michelle to advise her to return to her studio to “see what emerges.”
“What I’m doing right now, this afternoon, will be to go back down to my weaving studio,” she says.
(This is part of a series of stories we are doing to commemorate Rural Action’s 30th anniversary. They have been collected on our webpage. If you would like to be interviewed or to provide an essay on your Rural Action experiences, please contact us.)