Exploring Rural Life

Kenyon’s Office for Community Partnerships aims to connect students with Knox County through the Rural Life Initiative.

By David Hoyt ’14

As a Knox County native whose family’s local roots go back to the days of Kenyon’s founding, Chrissie Laymon is well aware of the “Kenyon bubble.” But as a 2001 Kenyon graduate who designed her own synoptic major in American rural studies, Laymon is uniquely equipped to move freely in and out of this bubble — and maybe one day to pop it entirely. 

That’s the goal of the College’s Rural Life Initiative (RLI), whose goal of “promoting education, scholarship and public projects about Knox County” Laymon oversees as a program coordinator within the Office of Community Partnerships. The RLI re-imagines the legacy of the Rural Life Center, an effort developed by Professor Emeritus of Sociology Howard Sacks (one of Laymon’s undergraduate advisors) beginning in 1998.

“Kenyon is a liberal arts college — we have lots of areas you can study. And all of those areas can, in some way, focus on this rural place that we live in,” Laymon said. “It’s less about telling people about rural life, and more about ‘How can we build on this place where we live and the relationships we have with the people who live here? How can we work together? How can we look at the issues that are affecting this place, and use the skills that we have as researchers and academics to examine them?’”

Senior Advisor for Community Relations Jan Thomas, who directs the Office for Community Partnerships, pointed out that “rural life” is not a static concept. “Knox County is expected to grow considerably in the next decades, especially with Intel building a new plant within commuting distance. We want Kenyon to be a partner in the conversations about how Knox County capitalizes on this growth and yet preserves its rural character,” she said.

“Chrissie is uniquely situated for this work,” Thomas added. “She is very knowledgeable and engaged in the issues and challenges that impact the agricultural community. Her connections and her knowledge of rural Knox County have opened many doors because she was already a trusted member of the community.”

While Laymon is still working to develop RLI’s programming, a key pillar is the close involvement of Kenyon faculty, such as Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Iris Levin. Levin is partway through her term as the College’s inaugural rural life fellow, and has thus far incorporated RLI into her research studying local populations of barn swallows, as well as developed a nature-based science curriculum for a local homeschooling collective. “Iris is a natural in her ability to make people comfortable and communicate science,” Laymon said. “I would love for any faculty who are interested in developing programming or doing community-engaged learning, or if they have a student who’s really interested in rural issues to contact me, because I would love to see multiple projects going on at one time.”

In addition to partnering with faculty, Laymon, who completed master’s work in rural sociology, is interested in helping Kenyon’s geographically diverse student body appreciate the surrounding people and culture — and not just the aesthetic splendor of unspoiled countryside — during their four years in Gambier. “I think it’s really important that we also work to preserve the rural heritage of this place — it’s about the culture, the people, and our shared time in this space,” Laymon said. “When you live somewhere, to fully know it, you have to know the people, and the geography, and the animals, and all of it.” 

Laymon’s newest partner in this goal is Ben Garst ’25, whom she recently hired as RLI’s student intern in order to help with existing projects and develop new proposals — such as increasing awareness of local food sources and creating connections with the farmers who help supply Peirce Dining Hall. Garst, who is from the Toledo area, quickly developed a passion for exploring Knox County once he arrived at Kenyon. 

“I was drawn by the land, and then I stayed for the people,” Garst said. He believes that paying more attention to Kenyon’s surroundings might also help combat the political polarization that drives a narrative of a divided America.

“There are myriad reasons why Knox County thinks and votes and is different than Westchester County, New York, or Orange County in California. I’m hopeful that, on an individual level, we can make change and we can connect people. … We can at least find enough common ground to be respectful to each other,” Garst said. “But at the same time, I know it’s going to require probably a national discussion about exactly what it means to be a United States.”

Garst has found an ally in Laymon and has enjoyed working with her so far. “We’re both trying to work towards the common goal, which is getting rid of the stereotypes and trying to connect people to places, and people who live in those places who might be different from them,” he said. “I love meeting new people who I otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to meet, and she’s like the bridge.”

Even as a Kenyon student two decades ago, Laymon spent “a lot of time interpreting back and forth” between the College and the surrounding community where she grew up. “It’s hard to distinguish between the people and the place when you’ve lived somewhere that long, and a good part of that has to do with the rural nature of it. Rural people are tied very closely to the land due to just the nature of the way we live and our occupations,” she said. “This is just a part of who I am, and it always has been.”

Now, Laymon gets to turn that passion into work that has a real impact on fostering community connections. “My goal is this idea of humanizing situations and place,” she said. “We tend to look and see a cornfield and maybe don’t necessarily understand the social and cultural implications of that field, of the timing of the seasons, of being from a place for so many generations. In rural areas, people and place are intrinsically intertwined, and that relationship between the people and the place influences their culture, their professions and their relationships. It is difficult to separate the land from the people, and the people from the land.”