Voices for Rural Resilience: An Interview with Anna Claussen (MLA ’07)

February 20, 2020

After almost a decade of practice in urban design, Anna Claussen (MLA ’07) broke out of traditional practice to explore how sociopolitical issues relate to surrounding landscapes.

Her passion and industry experience motivated her to found Voices for Rural Resilience, an advocacy group dedicated to seeking climate solutions for underserved rural communities. Claussen discusses how her landscape architecture training has aided her and why she founded Voices for Rural Resilience in the following interview.

Why did you start Voices for Rural Resilience?

I originally trained as a landscape architect and practiced in the field of urban design for nearly a decade. Driven by my desire to address the social and political realities of our landscape and to deliberately bridge a life deeply rooted on my family’s active Minnesota farm, I joined the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) as a rural organizer and, later, as IATP’s director of rural strategies.

In both of these roles, I worked locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm, and trade systems. I became keenly aware of the dire need to invest in rebuilding our humanity and I founded Voices for Rural Resilience (VfRR) to facilitate the social change necessary to protect and heal our natural world.

How has your education in landscape architecture helped you in your work or influenced the way you think about sustainable and renewable energy?

My work in landscape architecture gave me the social and ethical tools as well as the practical chops to get things done in agricultural policy. Today they still serve as the foundation for the principles I use to advance the social change necessary to implement the sustainable landscapes we design and desire.

What I began to realize coming out of traditional practice is how sensitive we (landscape architects) are to people’s values. An ability to see values and how they align allows us on a grassroots level to understand how to bring about change. Specifically in the rural landscape, which is a very privatized landscape. In my work, I am increasingly shown how unique that asset is.

What preconceptions about rural communities do you hope to change?

Rural places are rich in unrecognized diversity and riddled with misunderstood labels. It’s a surprise to many that rural America is more politically diverse, more educated, and more economically optimistic than stereotypes would have us believe. Unfortunately, a number of trends work against rural and urban peoples’ ability to really see each other. This includes structural bias towards cities through funding mechanisms, a perceived dearth of organizational capacity and supporting infrastructure, and of course, the geographical and relational distance that comes from the physical distance between these communities. What we see as a result are harmful images of ‘the other side’ which contribute to the increasing polarization that we have today.

What are some of the specific impacts of climate change on rural communities?

Rural communities are particularly susceptible to climate change impacts on many levels, including a more direct impact on jobs, energy, and transportation costs. They are more likely to have natural resource-based economies than urban communities, which will become less stable in the face of more frequent extreme weather events; temperature changes; droughts and floods; wildfires; and an increase in weeds, diseases, and pests that thrive in warmer weather.

In addition, rural residents spend a larger percentage of their income on energy costs as rural households have lower incomes and older housing stock compared to urban households. Therefore, rural residents will be disproportionately impacted by energy costs as heating and cooling needs increase in the face of more extreme temperatures.

What do you hope to achieve by facilitating conversations about climate change in rural communities? 

At VfRR we invest in people, in their identity, their agency, and their community. We address the root of our ideological division on climate change and the pervasive desire to feel heard, valued, supported and challenged. We lead with humility and heart and curate an environment that society is craving. One that believes in people, celebrates differences, and engages deliberately so that we can be in a positive relationship with one another again.

By deploying a portfolio of empathy-building tools to create a new reality where rural people are heard, feel moved, and take the lead in our collective fight against climate change, VfRR hopes to move us to greater collective action on climate change and heal our humanity.

Find out more about Anna’s work and Voices for Rural Resilience on its website. You can also watch Anna talk about her work at our 2016 Design in 7.

It was while flipping through a magazine in the old Rapson Library that David Krummel (B.Arch ’84) stumbled across the field of set design for the first time. Although he no longer remembers the magazine, the article on production design for the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil stuck with him, sparking an interest he’s never lost.

As a child, Brianne Fast (Landscape Architecture) was captivated by stories of polar expeditions. It’s a fascination she’s incorporated into her studies and, in part, one that led her to spend a semester abroad in Norway at the Oslo School of Architecture (AHO) investigating the United Nation’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) program in the Lofoten Islands.

Published in October 2018, Seattleness: A Cultural Atlas explores the nature of place through the lens of Seattle, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Co-authored by three people, the writers include landscape architecture alumna Natalie Ross (MLA ’11)