Keynote & Featured Plenary Speakers


Opening Plenary Session: Wednesday, December 11, 8:45-10:00am

Deb Brown


Deb Brown is a small-town enthusiast, empty buildings filler and expert for small towns. Her practical approach for getting communities into action right away has been shared at national conferences to the local Rotary groups and everything in between.

A wealth of experience includes foreign casualty insurance underwriting, bartending, managing internet stores and luggage stores, selling knives, leading a chamber and working with small towns. Deb has lived in tiny towns, small towns, small cities and a major metro city. Yet, she’s come home to a small town and travels to many others to help. She collaborates with Becky McCray at and has her own business

Deb has the ability to listen, find the truths in what is working and what isn’t, and share ideas for the future along with many small town examples. Deb is a relentless optimist and knows how to build possibility in your small town. Better yet, she inspires you to take small steps towards a brighter future for your community.

Deb has keynoted at Western Area Chamber Executives, Colorado Hospital Association Rural Health and Hospitals Conference, Women’s Business Conference in Kearney, NE, Building Communities Tourism Conference in Clear Lake, Iowa, Reviving Rural Downtowns in Adams County, Washington, Rural X Summit in Aberdeen, SD, R2R in Portland, OR, and Rural Economic Development Conference. Deb has lead workshops at Michigan Association of Planners, National Association of Development Organizations, Nebraska Catalyst Program, and International Economic Development Conference. She did a TEDx presentation about empty buildings in Brookings, SD. She has traveled the United States embedding herself in small towns for a week for Embedded Community Experiences in places like Roscommon County, Michigan, Columbiana, Ohio, and Bennettsville, South Carolina, just to name a few.


USEPA photo by Eric Vance

Peter Wright


Peter Wright is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. Prior to this position, he served as Special Counsel to the Administrator when he joined the agency in July 2018.

Prior to EPA, Peter worked for Dow Chemical Company as managing counsel for environmental, health and safety matters, including responsibility for Superfund sites, other federal and state-led remediation matters, and a broad array of other environmental regulatory matters. He also provided legal counsel on merger and acquisition and significant real estate transactions.

Prior to joining Dow, Peter worked for Bryan Cave LLP and Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri.  He started his career as an environmental law associate with Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis, Indiana.Peter has been a leader of the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resources, the premier forum for environmental, energy and resource lawyers.

He earned his J.D. from Indiana University and his A.B. from Wabash College.



Mayor’s Roundtable: Thursday, December 12, 8:30-10:00am

Dr. Manuel Pastor


Dr. Manuel Pastor is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC) where he currently directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) and the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII). He is the Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change at USC, and holds an economics Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was also the founding director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Pastor’s research focuses on the economic, environmental, and social conditions facing low-income urban communities – and the social movements seeking to change those realities.

Pastor’s latest book, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Means for America’s Future (New Press 2018), examines the last several decades of economic, social, and environmental transformations in California – and what they can tell us about the road ahead for the U.S. His other recent books are Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration, co-edited with John Mollenkopf (Cornell University Press 2016); and Equity, Growth, and Community: What the Nation Can Learn from America’s Metro Areas, co-authored with Chris Benner (UC Press 2015).

He has previously served as Public Member of the Strategic Growth Council in California, as a member of the Commission on Regions appointed by California’s Speaker of the State Assembly, and as a member of the Regional Targets Advisory Committee for the California Air Resources Board.

Pastor’s other previous volumes include: Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions (Routledge 2012; co-authored with Chris Benner), Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (W.W. Norton 2010; co-authored with Angela Glover Blackwell and Stewart Kwoh) and This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Transforming Metropolitan America (Cornell University Press 2009; co-authored with Chris Benner and Martha Matsuoka).



Keynote Presentation: Friday, December 13, 8:30-9:30am

Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Vijay Gupta


Vijay Gupta is a violinist and educator whose efforts to merge music with mental health are changing the world, note by note. Named a 2018 MacArthur Fellow for “providing musical enrichment and valuable human connection to the homeless, incarcerated, and other under-resourced communities in Los Angeles,” Gupta is the founder of Street Symphony—a musical advocacy program that empowers citizen-musicians by engaging with communities experiencing extreme poverty, incarceration, and homelessness. The results have been extraordinary.

Called “a riveting speaker” by The New Yorker, “at once jovial and intense,” Vijay Gupta is a violinist and passionate advocate for artistic voices at the center of social justice. Gupta joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 at age 19, after having completed an undergraduate degree in biology from Marist College and a Master’s degree in violin performance from the Yale School of Music. As a TED Senior Fellow, Gupta founded and began directing Street Symphony, a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging underserved communities experiencing homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles through musical performance and dialogue. Gupta has also been named one of six national Citizen Artist Fellows by the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Alex Ross of The New Yorker named him “one of the most radical thinkers in the unradical world of American classical music,” and “a visionary violinist.”

Gupta made his solo debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta at age 11, and has performed as a recitalist, soloist and chamber musician on an international scale since the age of 8. He has also performed as a guest concertmaster with the Los Angeles Opera and the UK’s acclaimed Philharmonia Orchestra.

Gupta serves on the faculty of the Longy School of Music of Bard College Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, which prepares musicians to become agents of change through the study of performance, music pedagogy and social justice. He also serves on the board of directors of the DC-based national arts advocacy organization Americans for the Arts as well as Los Angeles’s beloved 24th Street Theatre, which serves to engage a diverse community with excellent theatre and arts education.

Gupta was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by the University of La Verne and at age 29, was awarded the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society from the Longy School of Music of Bard College.

Sign Up For Updates