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Planting Seeds and Creating Space: What Conversations with GSP/GSA Taught the Community Engagement Team

Last month, KHS took our Kentucky @ 225 Listening Tour to the Governor’s Scholars Program (GSP) and the Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA). As I wrote in July, these talks were especially powerful for me. Follow-up conversations with GSP and GSA staff confirmed that the students also were moved by the conversations. One even led the Murray State University GSP students to spend more time thinking about possible solutions to the challenges that face Kentucky at its 225th anniversary of statehood.

The 750 or so young Kentuckians we spoke with know their versions of Kentucky. Like the more than 2,000 adults we’ve talked with over the calendar year, students identified Kentucky’s landscapes, signature industries, local festivals and food traditions as things that make them proud to be Kentuckians. They also name-checked younger celebrities, such as Bryson Tiller (a Louisville rap artist) and Kevin Olusola (an Owensboro native and member of the a cappella group Pentatonix).

The students were proud of innovations, like the western Kentucky lab that produced an antidote for Ebola, and Morehead State’s astronomy labs that make nanosatellites. And, they were quite proud of GSA and GSP, and were particularly complimentary of the state resources devoted to maintaining the programs. By and large, the students were blunt in their responses about the challenges Kentuckians need to address in the 21st century. Like the other groups we’ve spoken with, they listed environmental challenges, job insecurity, health issues and rural/urban divides among them.

These students are teenagers, so some of their challenges revolved around generational gaps and a concern that they were not taken seriously by adults in their lives. It would be easy to dismiss this as “all teenagers feel slighted and jaded,” but what struck me during these conversations were their genuine desires to find solutions to Kentucky’s challenges. Even amid their angst and uncertainty about Kentucky, they felt that their home state could be improved and could, eventually, be a place for them to succeed.

Still, many of these scholars and artists did not see an immediate future for themselves in Kentucky. They felt they had to leave the state to gain knowledge, to grow and to find out who they truly were. What does that mean for us, then? Often, in times of great discord or when the future seems especially uncertain, there is a tendency to think that the younger generation will save us; that things will get better when new voices are at the table or when younger folks take up the mantle of public service, business leadership and academic administrations.

Yet, if young Kentuckians think their future is outside the state, will they even think of Kentucky as a place to chart those new paths? If our best and brightest are leaving and don’t feel welcome here, the solutions to our challenges could be left unmet or will happen outside our state borders. The brain drain is not new and younger folks’ concerns about their futures in the Commonwealth didn’t magically appear with Generation Z teens.

Programs like GSP and GSA have worked for decades to address it. Still, these conversations reminded me that community engagement and historical thinking have roles in stemming the flow out of Kentucky as well.

By providing evidence of Kentuckians’ successes, by facilitating conversations between and among groups of differently minded individuals, by meeting students where they are and asking thought-provoking questions, we’re inviting these young men and women into the process. We’re modeling good listening behavior and taking their concerns and suggestions seriously. We, and our host institutions, provided space to disagree without being disagreeable, to challenge stereotypes and flesh out plans and to remind each other that we are all part of the process of creating 21st century Kentucky.

And hopefully, we’ve planted a few seeds that will grow roots right here at home.


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