EDITOR’S NOTE: You may recall reading Jerry Kenney’s first-person report of living through the arctic freeze in Texas in 2021. The natural disaster and a botched response from the government led him to reflect on how to get beyond partisan rancor and bureaucratic stumbles to find solutions that work.
Today he has another piece of writing from East Texas, this time looking at how a foundation that he’s a part of is working to bring the federal community development money to their neck of the woods.
“But we’re still here.” That’s how Dr. Carnelius Gilder, the superintendent of West Sabine Independent School District, ended his comments during an event designed to connect local leaders to community development resources.
Dr. Gilder runs the schools in Pineland, Texas, a community that had a population near 1,000 at the turn of the millennium. Today, Pineland is 800-plus and trying to figure out their future in a 21st-century post-boom timber town.
The way he said it, “But we’re still here,” captured that mixture of grit and resilience that is often used to describe rural people in modern America, or, perhaps inevitably, describe any people who persist in a place that is perceived to be on a downward slope or past its peak.
Defining rural people in this way is clichéd, but when you ask what makes Pineland or any other part of East Texas special, everyone says the same thing. I’ve heard it many times: “There’s something about the people.” Heads nod knowingly, and it’s this sense of whatever we know that Dr. Gilder tapped into.
Grit is a given in rural East Texas. I know many other rural regions will say the same. Yet, whether measured by access to healthcare, educational attainment, job growth, incomes, or another indicator pulled from a grab bag of social determinants, grit hasn’t been enough to make our communities thrive. Rural people aren’t allergic to hard work, but too often we’ve been working with the wrong tools, or without tools altogether. As a result, hard work hasn’t been enough for rural places to keep up with the dizzying pace of change.
But we’re still here, and there’s a reason for hope in that. Because if you can match the grit with more resources, greater capacity, and better ideas, then you’ve got a pretty powerful brew.
The Right Tools
The start of the year is the right time to share what T.L.L. Temple Foundation has been brewing in East Texas for the past 12 months and how we put the ingredients together.
Back in December 30, 2020, we were in peak pandemic. Hospitals were full and small businesses, particularly in rural areas, were struggling to stay afloat.
This map prompted me to send my colleagues the following email:
“We need a recognized CDFI [community development financial institution] in our region. The most recent stimulus is investing up to $12 billion through CDFIs and we don’t have one located in our entire service area.”
While we have pockets of poverty, we are devoid of a single CDFI location in rural East Texas, from top to bottom.
CDFIs have been referred to as Swiss army knives for community development. This metaphor describes both a CDFI’s range of function as well as the conditions under which the CDFI would be the most appropriate tool.
You probably wouldn’t choose a Swiss army knife if you had an abundance of other tools available. For example, in a mechanic’s shop, you would more likely choose a highly specialized tool that performs a narrow function beyond the scope of your existing equipment.
In contrast, you would choose a Swiss army knife in an environment of scarcity, in which your toolbox is bare, your capacity to use specialized instruments is limited, and, amid uncertainty, your highest value is adaptability. Not to take the metaphor too far, but one of these scenarios much more closely reflects the conditions facing small, isolated rural communities than the other.
During the pandemic, CDFI services have been essential for reaching marginalized communities and small businesses, including special access to initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, which was part of federal pandemic relief legislation. At the beginning of 2021, as rural communities across East Texas were navigating the unprecedented pressures caused by the pandemic and small businesses were searching for lifelines, not even a Swiss army knife was within reach.
Some CDFIs offered services via websites, but large percentages of our populations don’t have or don’t use broadband. Not to mention that trust and personal relationships drive rural transactions, narrowing the viability of online-only financial service delivery options. CDFIs were being funded at historic levels, and it became clear: East Texans must have direct access to this effective, multi-purpose tool.
For the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, place-based family philanthropy that serves the rural East Texas Piney Woods, the question became, how do we bring CDFIs to our service area, and quickly. Rather than take years to try and build our own CDFI, we decided to invite the best of the best from across the rural south to set up a location in the Texas Piney Woods.
We solicited proposals under one condition: that certified CDFIs would establish staff and services in physical office locations in East Texas. This is a simple, but an essential condition. Complex, wicked rural development challenges, the type that are rightly situated within generational trends rather than annual program cycles, can only be addressed by the people that work, eat, sleep, pray, and play in those places.
Regardless of how hard we tried, we were never going to build our economic and civic infrastructure via technical specialists flying, driving, or Zooming in. We needed to root the CDFIs into East Texas, for them to become a part of our community fabric so that our problems and successes became their problems and successes.
We coupled this condition with a multi-year grant period to allow time for the CDFIs to assess rural East Texas, hire the right talent, pick the right locations, and build the right local partnership for long-term success.
The process throughout 2021 has been rapid. In 12 months, we’ve gone from identifying major financial services and capacity gap to designing a proposal process, vetting potential partners, and selecting two CDFI partners, Communities Unlimited and PeopleFund, who are now establishing new operational hubs in Deep East Texas.
In the coming years, these partners will be investing millions into new rural entrepreneurs and helping existing small businesses grow, in addition to developing community leadership teams and launching accelerators aimed at the marginalized populations who have been left out for too long.
This brings us back to Pineland, Texas, in December 2021. We were introducing the selected CDFIs to our rural East Texas communities and connecting our local leaders to the new tools available to them to spur community development. We asked Dr. Gilder to tell us the recent history of Pineland. As we all listened, Dr. Gilder wrapped up his comments: “But we’re still here.” It’s a statement of perseverance, but also the turning point, the transition to the beginning of a new story, in a new year, with new tools, new possibilities, and a new future.
Jerry Kenney is a program officer for education and economic opportunity at the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, based in Lufkin, Texas.