By Abby Neff | AmeriCorps VISTA

Rural Action has grown significantly over the past year, with a staff of 60 and 70 AmeriCorps members. As the organization continues to expand, Debbie Phillips, the CEO of Rural Action, wants to remain focused on Rural Action’s mission: helping small communities do big things.

Prior to rejoining Rural Action, Phillips previously served as the area’s State Representative in the Ohio House from 2009-2016. While in office, she served as a member of House leadership, and on numerous committees.

As CEO, one of Phillips’ main responsibilities is developing partnerships and telling the story of Rural Action’s work regionally, statewide, nationally and even internationally. She views this as an important part of helping people to remain hopeful.

“A lot of times when people are doing their day to day work, it can feel small in the face of the global challenges that we’re facing,” Phillips said. “When you meet people who are doing similar things somewhere else in the community, somewhere else in the state, somewhere else in the region, somewhere else in the world, you start to feel connected to a greater sense of possibility.”

Appalachian Ohio region’s economic history, with a heavy reliance on natural resource extraction, has contributed to the region’s economic challenges. Phillips said Rural Action works to diversify the economy and develop opportunities in the sectors that hold promise for longer-term stability for the region. .

“A lot of what we do is try to work with people in local communities to develop whatever kind of connections and capacity that will help them do the thing that they are trying to do,” she said. “It may not look the same in the different communities where we work because we just try to engage with people where they are and think about how we help build the connections.” This approach, asset-based community development is a proven model, and a core to the way Rural Action works.

One example of Rural Action facilitation of resources is the Chesterhill Produce Auction in southern Morgan County. Farmers in the area did not have access to larger markets to sell their product, so residents started their own produce auction. As the auction grew, Rural Action was asked to take on the responsibility of running the auction.

“On its face, it’s a place you can go twice a week to buy local produce and once a month, there’s livestock and wood products,” Phillips said. “It’s a really cool event, a sense of community, a place for people to hang out.

“But, the team has also worked really hard to make [it] be an aggregation point and to help build market infrastructure.”

Developing strong partnerships and connections in the community is just as important as creating it within the organization, Phillips said. As Rural Action’s staff and AmeriCorps members grow, one thing stays the same: people work hard to listen to each other and work together collaboratively.

“Some of the high school interns and some of the youth who hang around our programs have said with some amazement to staff members, ‘You’re all so nice to each other,’” she said.

Maintaining that sense of camaraderie during a period of rapid growth is challenging, and Rural Action staff have been working to ensure that we continue to build toward a common vision, from a shared base of values as Rural Action grows

This might be one of several reasons why people decide to serve Rural Action through AmeriCorps. The program’s strong reputation can be attributed to the thoughtfulness and dedication of the AmeriCorps leadership team, Phillips said.

From improving 74 miles of streams to diverting waste at music festivals, AmeriCorps members and alumni have been crucial to the cultural and environmental restoration of Appalachian Ohio that Rural Action has worked on for more than three decades. But one of the strongest impacts has been through our work to nurture emerging leaders in the region.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people have served as VISTA AmeriCorps or State/National AmeriCorps members here,” Phillips said. “And one after another people talked about how they started their careers here. They developed the beginnings of their professional network. They figured out what they wanted to do in their lives professionally. They met the person who became their spouse.” This leadership development work continues to ripple throughout the community.

As the year draws to a close, Phillips is looking ahead to future partnerships and plans for Rural Action next year. Some projects and collaborative proposals include the Appalachian Regional Food Business Center, the development of the Zero Waste campus and the general support of other organizations to have access to resources that will help create capacity to sustain their own projects.

“When I talk about the things that we are doing, it’s a really big ‘we’. It is a lot of people working together in a collaborative way to get things done,” Phillips said. “There’s no way that any one organization could take credit for the growth of all these things.”

“It’s not just us. It’s a lot of people working together.”