“What’s Next, Kentucky?” aims to connect through conversation

Kelly Benzenhoefer

AmeriCorps VISTA member serving with Kentucky Campus Compact Lauren Gabbard partnered with Human Environmental Sciences Professor Tracy Lu and her Hospitality Management class to host the third event of their “What’s Next, Kentucky?” discussion series on Wednesday.

With economy as the focus of the discussion, campus and community members gathered in the E.S. Good Barn to analyze Kentucky’s current economy, discuss areas where it can improve and strategize steps to move forward.

The class had been planning this event step by step since the beginning of the semester, according to UK senior Yifan Gao.

Lu and her students worked alongside Gabbard to plan every aspect of the series, the first of its kind in the state of Kentucky. From setting the agenda to developing the program, the students improved upon their hospitality management skills all while reaching their community.

With the class involving more internal work in the past, Lu was excited to give her students a new opportunity to reach a larger platform and shed light on issues within the community.

“We want to get the word out about what’s going on in Kentucky,” junior Natalie Fortner said.

The event began with an analysis of what Kentucky’s economy currently looks like, broken down by demographics, employment distribution and poverty levels. Discussion groups were then formed to reflect on these findings and plan for change through action.

“The economy is broad so you never know where conversation will go. My hope is that people can voice experiences,” Gabbard said.

Diverse perspectives and ideas were offered, with taxes, healthcare, education and the coal industry brought into conversation.

Associate professor of dentistry Dr. Richard Mitchell said that Kentucky must begin to invest in itself to raise the money to make a difference in the lives of its citizens. The state has poverty levels like few others, so Kentuckians must start thinking like the world to compete in it, Mitchell said.

Morehead State University Center for Regional Engagement Executive Director J. Marshall said that Kentucky spends a lot of money reacting to health care issues rather than being proactive. He encouraged those around him to take action, as there are a lot of things bubbling just under the surface that can help the state.

The goal of the series was to bring people into the conversation and get them in contact with someone who can make their visions happen, Gabbard said. She encouraged people to foster new relationships and take ownership of their community.

Gabbard plans to conduct two webinars which will occur on April 25 and May 11. The first will discuss how to bring the “What’s Next, Kentucky?” project to local communities, with the second focusing on how to moderate conversations.

“We have a pretty wide network of partners ready to jump into this,” Gabbard said. “Don’t forget that talking and sharing your experiences is an action step in itself.”