currents

Collaboration and celebration

Callicoon-based Rural America Chamber of Commerce helps connect businesses on a professional and social-justice level

By JANE ANDERSON
Posted 3/10/21

CALLICOON, NY — The newly launched Rural America Chamber of Commerce, founded by Callicoon resident Sherri Powell, aims to boost rural economies nationwide while also advocating for …

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currents

Collaboration and celebration

Callicoon-based Rural America Chamber of Commerce helps connect businesses on a professional and social-justice level

Posted

CALLICOON, NY — The newly launched Rural America Chamber of Commerce, founded by Callicoon resident Sherri Powell, aims to boost rural economies nationwide while also advocating for necessary change.

Powell said the agency’s mission grew from Yours Rurally, a side hustle she began about a year ago. Powell has been a full-time resident of Callicoon for about three years and has long recognized the value of rurally made products. Yours Rurally provided curated gift boxes—perfect for weddings and farm dinners—filled with super-premium products made by rural producers across the country. When the pandemic hit, about a dozen weddings and farm dinners canceled, so Powell shifted her focus to corporate gifting.

“After seven months of doing that, I realized there was something here,” Powell said. “I started having conversations about the power of our spending. And there were people here who identified with the need to be impactful with their support, financial or otherwise. I knew I had to give the chamber a try.”

A catalyst was meeting the makers themselves and discovering their needs.

“Rural farmers, makers and entrepreneurs are a bit more isolated and can’t as easily share information,” Powell continued. “Even though farmers in Iowa could be facing the same challenges as those here in Sullivan County, NY, there was no easy way for them to share information. They needed a network that was [on] more of a national scope.”

It’s paid off already. A member in Missouri operates a product-based business. The products were packaged in branded boxes made in China. Through the Rural Chamber, the member was able to connect with a
provider of boxes made in rural Tennessee.

The Rural Chamber hopes to redefine entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur can be in Appalachia making brooms, or up in Vermont making soaps; it’s not just a tech geek creating a new app.

The chamber’s website (www.ruralchamber.com) describes nine memberships from which to choose, from “solopreneurs” to medium/large businesses, as well as nonprofits and trade associations, focused on rural strategies. Each member gains access to everything the chamber has to offer, regardless of membership. “We can’t talk about equity if we are not an equitable organization.”

Social justice

Powell’s background in government, regulatory affairs and public policy (she served as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, among other jobs) helped coalesce her collaborative skills with her desire for social justice. As a result, the Rural Chamber is more than just a clearinghouse for the best seed-planting practices—although there is a need for that as well, Powell said: “We want to empower rural entrepreneurs to become advocates for their economies and their communities. We’re not a traditional chamber of commerce. We’re not afraid to dig into the real issues. We’re going to talk about things like racism in America.”

Alamo, GA (population 3,370) is in Wheeler County—the third-poorest county in the U.S. Of the people who fall within the 33 percent poverty rate, roughly 58 percent are Black. Alamo is also where Powell was raised and where many of her family members still reside.

“As a Black woman who has deep rural roots, I felt like I can’t keep sitting back and being disappointed when I see stories that are filled with stereotypes and untruths,” she said. “I can’t keep sitting back and shaking my head when I see yet another business close on Main Street. And I can’t sit back and just shake my head when a group of kids in rural America has lost access to education because they don’t have access to the internet.”

The events of the past four years solidified her drive: “The narrative of ‘rural’ has been hijacked,” Powell observed. “Not all residents of rural areas are white, Republican and/or racist. One of the catalysts in starting this chamber was watching how that narrative was abused over the past four years. There were smart, thoughtful people, who were not alarmists, who thought that we were on the brink of a civil war. It was a scary time, and it still is. So, as a chamber, we’re going to dig into those issues and try to bring people together, because that’s the only way forward.”

The Rural Chamber has already set some wheels in motion: “A Panel Discussion: Racial Reconciliation Throughout Rural America and Beyond,” held on March 9, was an open-to-the-public virtual event to “address the way forward in racial healing and reconciliation throughout rural America and beyond.” More public forums are planned for the future.

Powell invites engagement from everyone, not just business owners. “We invite anyone who believes in making a positive change in America to just show up,” she encouraged. “It takes all of us to get this work done.”

The Catskills and empowerment

Powell is happy she can pursue her ideals while following her dream of living in a beautiful area with her husband and their three-year-old daughter.

“I’m personally grateful I can call this beautiful place my home,” she enthused. “We’re walking outside, and she’s learning something. There’s no better place to homeschool your kid than the Catskill mountains.”

She hopes to promote and celebrate the true identity of rural America. “Rural America is not homogenous; it’s diverse,” Powell concluded. “This is definitely bold and big, and the work is going to be hard. We’re women, that’s what we do: We see a problem and figure out a way to do something about it.

Jane Anderson enjoys her home in the woods of southern Sullivan County with her family. An editor and writer for the past 30+ years, her experience includes daily newspapers, magazines and public relations. When not procrastinating in front of her computer, she loves gardening and hiking.

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