Joanie Willett, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter and co-director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, is motivated by the desire to revitalize rural places and connect people to opportunities they have right in their hometowns. She recently received a Fulbright Award to conduct research on main streets with the Center for Economic and Community Engagement.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission works to promote peace and cultural understanding through educational exchange and provides scholarships to academics and professionals to lecture or conduct research at any U.S. accredited university.

Joanie first connected with CECE five years ago when she was doing ethnographic fieldwork in her hometown of Cornwall and wanted to include a case study outside of her home country. She had been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s books and was fascinated by Appalachia.

In 2019, Joanie visited Bristol and became interested in the vibrant main street program. The equivalent of main streets in Britain are town centers, and in the wake of increased out of town and online shopping, these centers are in need of better support.

“John Provo was one of the first people I contacted to talk more about my research. When I applied for the Fulbright Scholarship, I knew it would be a great opportunity to conduct my work at CECE,” she said.

During her time with CECE, Joanie will visit main streets to find out how different localities run their main street programs, looking at what works and what doesn’t.

Cornwall, with a population of 568,210, is a historic county in South West England. It is also a Celtic nation, with its own language, culture, and identity. Cornwall is largely rural and has many similarities to Southwest Virginia. The perception of rural areas can be negative, and people may think rural regions don’t have a lot to offer.

“But there is a lot of dynamism in rural communities and we might miss it when we see it. Rural innovation has a lot to offer humanity and it’s important to encourage rural creativity so people can have that flexibility to address global problems,” Joanie said.

For example, divers in Cornwall noticed that ‘ghost gear,’ such as discarded fishing nets, were harming the environment and they worked to collect them and have them shipped to a company that processed the nylon and turned it into swimwear.

“This environmental problem affects the world, but if you weren’t part of that community, you wouldn’t even know that was a problem, so it’s important to have that rural perspective,” Joanie said.

Joanie is looking forward to exploring the region and said two places she is eager to visit include Wytheville and Big Stone Gap.

Cornwall, England (Photo Credit: Joanie Willett)