The University of West Alabama
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You may wonder why we chose to call our conference “DIRT”. The term "Black Belt" refers to the exceptionally fertile black soil that supported our agrarian past, but Alabama's Black Belt is still beneficial. Beyond the poverty and insufficiencies, the people who live here are resilient, and rich in both talent and potential. And while none of us are perfect, we choose not to let the negative memories of the past shape our futures, but to take the lessons learned from living here to create a more vibrant home. For us at UWA, DIRT represents RICH minds and the capacity to GROW the Black Belt into something that makes a difference.
Jimmy Wayne is a former foster kid turned award-winning country music artist whose songs and story highlight his mission to raise awareness for children in foster care. Jimmy’s hits include “Stay Gone,” “Paper Angels,” “I Love You This Much” and “Do You Believe Me Now,” which earned BMI’s prestigious Million-Air Award for receiving one million radio spins in America. He lives in Nashville and continues to work tirelessly on behalf of at-risk foster youth by performing, writing books, and keynote speaking. Jimmy's ultimate goal is to build transitional homes for youth who age out of foster care without a place to live.
Liz Huntley is an experienced litigation attorney who practices in the areas of banking & financial services, consumer law, business litigation, and products liability. She is a committed child advocate and provides legal and consultation services to governmental and non-profit agencies that serve children and families. Her childhood tainted by poverty and other difficult challenges, Huntley has become a well-known child advocate in Alabama. She recently published her personal memoir More Than A Bird, which recounts her childhood journey from unimaginable darkness to radiance.
Dr. Cathy Grace currently serves as the Co-Director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi. She has served as the early childhood policy director at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington DC and worked extensively across the South on issues involving young children, especially those living in poverty. Her work includes directing the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University where she retired as full professor and was named professor emerita. Her work specifically addressing the challenges facing rural children and families has included research on Native American and African American children and families. She was the first early childhood coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Education and led the implementation of kindergarten in the state. Her work on projects to restore child care on the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, resulted in the raising of over 19 million dollars for the recovery effort. Dr. Grace has worked as a consultant to various Head Start grantees in Mississippi, served as Executive Director of the Southern Early Childhood Association and lead one of the first state pre-kindergarten programs in the state. She and co-author Elizabeth Shores have written books on portfolio assessment and the impact natural disasters can have on child care and the children, families and communities they serve. Dr. Grace has made numerous national presentations and authored peer reviewed articles for various publications.
Gary Funk is an ex-officio member of the Rural Schools Collaborative board of directors and currently serves as the organization's director. Gary is the former President of the Missouri-based Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Funk began working with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks in 1999, and during his tenure the Foundation experienced wonderful growth in total assets and annual grant making. Gary attributes this success to generous donors, committed board members, and a group of hard-working colleagues, who were second to none! Prior to his work with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Funk spent two decades in public and higher education as a teacher, professor, and administrator. While at Missouri State University, he co-founded the Southwestern Bell Literacy Center, the Storefront School for at-risk children, and the Center for Outstanding Schools. He has authored and co-authored several books and articles on educational issues.
Teton Science Schools
Teton Science Schools inspires curiosity, engagement and leadership through transformative place-based education. TSS is deeply rooted in the outdoors as place anchors and enriches our understanding of the world. Our organization has educated, trained and inspired thousands of children, youth and adults, bringing them together through the study of nature and place-based education.
Dr. Jan Miller, Dean of the College of Education
College of Education
Center for Rural Education
Rural Schools Summit
Where to Stay
The Black Belt