Ashley Hanson is a Minnesota artist, producer/director for PlaceBase Productions, and an Obama Foundation Fellow. More recently, she has been spearheading the YES! House in Granite Falls (a community space for local residents to “gather, create and connect with their neighbors”). She highlighted her experiences working with the area during a recent speech given at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago earlier this month.

Hanson used her speech to address the process of community building through art in rural spaces. She opened by challenging the use of simplistic narratives as a way of understanding people and culture, and instead offered an alternative vision emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and communities in rural places. “Rural America is not one place,” she declared, “it is made up of extremely diverse communities, each addressing their own set of unique challenges.”

She also pointed out that “rural communities are stereotyped for their resistance to change and inability to imagine an alternative future and enact the change needed to work towards that future.” According to Hanson, this perceived resistance to change really stems from “economies based on extraction, damaging narratives, and [a] lack of resources.”

Instead of dwelling on the negative, Hanson instead focused her speech on finding solutions. For Hanson, this process begins when communities strengthen their “creativity muscles” and work together to identify and overcome shared challenges.

She describes her work as being both “relational and locational,” meaning that she bases her community work on the relationships forged by falling in love “with people and places.” With evident pride, Hanson highlighted the process of writing, casting, and producing a community play alongside local residents from the Granite Falls area.

“We watched as the community creativity muscles start to stretch,” Hanson recalled. “After months of listening, we start to write our original musical and we hold open auditions. Since we have done the work of making friends, folks show up - lots of folks.” This intentional engagement helped sow the seeds of energized participation and neighborly togetherness across the community (not to mention a memorable musical for the estimated 200 audience members who attended the opening)!

Hanson also shared more recent developments, such as the ongoing refitting of the YES! House on Main Street into a community space and the initiation (with city council support) of an artist residency program in Granite Falls. These successes underscore the sustained yields that Hanson’s style of relationship building and creative engagement have brought – an approach that other communities across the country have independently undertaken on their own.

“This movement is happening and being led by artists in small towns everywhere,” Hanson said towards the end of her address. She urged small town leaders to invite local artists into the process of community building, and to “pay them for their work’ (a line that elicited a round of applause from the crowd). Hanson believes that by doing so, communities will succeed in revitalizing their ‘creativity muscles.’

At the end of the day though, Hanson argued that this was about “more than just coming together. It’s about knowing that when the curtain rises we are ready to link arms, walk boldly into the light, and create magic together.”

Readers interested in learning more about Hanson's work as an Obama Foundation Fellow are encouraged to attend a 'Shareback' event hosted by Pioneer Public Television at their Granite Falls studio on Monday, December 3 from 7 to 8:30 pm. Additional information can be found at