Thomas M. Watson, Executive Director

Thomas is a social entrepreneur with 20+ years of experience in nonprofit and business management, community economic development, network building, and philanthropy. He is the Owner and Executive Director of Rural Support Partners (RSP) – a social enterprise working to advance the economic transition of Central Appalachia, grow new business models, and innovate the field of rural development.

Prior to founding RSP, Thomas served as the director of the Grassroots Support Project at the Southern Rural Development Initiative (SRDI) where he worked to deepen the impact and scale of grassroots economic development organizations in the Deep South and Central Appalachia. Thomas came to SRDI after working as a Senior Program Consultant / National Program Officer focused on grassroots leadership and social enterprise development within The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connection Initiative – a 10-year $500million initiative to create better outcomes for kids living in 22 low income cities across the United States. As the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Participatory Change, he worked hand-in-hand with grassroots groups across Western North Carolina to create economic opportunities and increase equity for rural and marginalized people. Thomas’ first community organizing job was in Minneapolis, MN where he organized public housing tenants, churches, and homeless individuals toward a city-wide effort to increase affordable housing, reduce homelessness, and limit gentrification.

During his tenure at RSP, Thomas has served on the Ford Foundations Rural Wealth Creation Management Team and participated as a strategy team member for the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation’s Healthy Place NC Initiative – a 10-year $100million initiative to improve the health and overall quality of life for people in rural NC. He currently sits on the Community Investment Council of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank. Thomas is also responsible for managing RSP’s overall body of work, which includes serving as the backbone support organization for the Appalachia Funders Network and the Central Appalachia Network. RSP has also played a significant role in the development of the Appalachian Transition Fellowship Program, operated by the Highlander Center, and Impact Appalachia – a blended capital platform to increase investments to support economic transition in Central Appalachia.

After growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwestern Virginia, Thomas’ early career included being a factory worker, alternative school teacher, hotel manager, and banker. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he completed internships with Grassroots Leadership and the Highlander Center. He’s also a graduate of both Guilford College in Greensboro, NC and Wytheville Community College in Wytheville, VA, where he studied business management and finance.

Lindsey Wilson, Vice President

Lindsey Wilson joined the RSP team in 2018 with a focus on network development and coordination for the Appalachia Funders Network. She brings more than 13 years of leadership across political, social justice, philanthropic, and non-profit work. Her areas of expertise include senior management, talent development, organizational culture, in person and virtual event design, facilitation, non-profit and small business finance and compliance, public policy, and fundraising. She brings a deep analysis of equity and intersectionality to all of her work and helps her clients do the same.

Prior to her work with RSP she worked for the Campaign for Southern Equality, a LGBTQ Civil Rights non-profit. There, she spearheaded organizing work for marriage equality, managed daily non-profit operations, and led donor engagement efforts. She previously served as Chair of Sustainability and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the YWCA of Asheville and as Chair of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee for the City of Asheville.

Lindsey’s personal experiences with poverty helped shape her passion to work for opportunity, equality, and justice. She grew up across the small-town South and moved to Western North Carolina in 2001. Outside of work and volunteering her passions are playing with her daughter, Carolina Panthers football, Southern food, Dolly Parton, and Christmas. She lives on a mountain outside of Asheville with her wife, daughter, and very old cat.


Kathryn Coulter Rhodes, Senior Project Manager

Kathryn has been with RSP since June 2013, focusing primarily on strategic planning and evaluation projects with community economic development partners from around Central Appalachia. Other projects include coordinating the Arts & Culture and Health Groups of the Appalachia Funders Network and managing rapid response grants to many of the region’s community finance lenders in partnership with Appalachian Community Capital. Kathryn currently serves on the board of Meals on Wheels of Asheville and Buncombe County.

Kathryn grew up outside of Chicago and was driven to understand a more rural perspective after a semester abroad in Mali, West Africa. After earning a B.A. in both International Studies and French, she was drawn to Appalachia during a year working with a watershed restoration organization in the coal mining region of Pennsylvania through AmeriCorps VISTA. She then earned her M.A. in Geography from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where her thesis explored the factors helping and hurting the ability of small-scale farmers in Burkina Faso to produce organic and Fair Trade cotton. She used her knowledge of community-based rural development domestically leading a team of VISTA members to promote local community development and environmental stewardship across Appalachia. Rural Support Partners has become the place where she combines her graduate research in West African rural livelihoods and the cotton value chain with her experience working closely with rural communities in Central Appalachia.

Alena Klimas, Project Associate

Alena Klimas is a Project Consultant of Rural Support Partners through the Appalachian Apprenticeship for Diverse Leaders program. Her work with RSP is to provide support and coordination for the Appalachia Funders Network and other regional partners. While she’s at RSP, she is developing skills in project management, coordinating events and regular communication with funders, and learning about economic development in Central Appalachia.

Alena hails from West Virginia where she grew up with a deep appreciation for the wild and wonderful parks and trails across the state. She earned bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Global Studies from Ohio University. She was a coordinator for the Institute for International Journalism and a media consultant for LGBTQ activist groups in the Mid Ohio Valley. Then, she completed Peace Corps service as a Youth Development Specialist in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Now, she hopes to incorporate this international perspective into rural development work in Central Appalachia. In her free time, Alena enjoys trail running, trivia, and writing. Alena is also a writer and cofounder of expatalachians, an online journalism project focused on providing unique perspectives to regional issues. She enjoys writing about the culture(s), activism, and economy in Appalachia.