Irene Godinez, left, speaks with community members at an event in Wilson, North Carolina. Godinez is director of Poder, a 501(c)4 nonprofit that does leadership development with Latinos. (Photo submitted)

The 2020 census, and the evolving story it tells as to who we are as Americans will profoundly shape philanthropic thinking, strategy, and funding moving forward.  Among the most interesting and important lessons of the census relate to the tectonic shifts we are seeing in rural America.

While the white population continued to decline in rural counties, for example, the rural Hispanic population increased by nearly 20% since 2010. One-third of rural counties are at least 25% non-white, and one in 10 are majority non-white.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. To really understand these shifts, we need more than data. We need the help — the story — of leaders like Irene Godínez, a life-long North Carolinian.

When Irene graduated high school in 2000, she and her sister comprised two-thirds of her school’s entire Latino population. Now, Irene runs Poder, North Carolina’s first organization dedicated to engaging and mobilizing the state’s rapidly growing and increasingly powerful Latino community. 

Advocacy came naturally to Irene. Beginning with the “first wave” of immigrants in North Carolina until now, she has been a respected leader. One of the first to be bilingual, she often found herself, out of necessity, representing her community. After college she was the first Latina to work for North Carolina Governor Mike Easley (in office 2011-09), and then she shifted to community organizing, eventually founding Poder.

Irene’s parents, both migrant farmworkers, met while picking oranges on the same farm in Florida in 1980. They were in North Carolina to harvest tobacco near Reidsville in 1982 when Irene was born. Drawn to the combination of mountains, plains, and beaches reminiscent of their ancestral home in Michoacan, Mexico, the family decided to stay.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, North Carolina’s Latino community remained relatively small. According to the 1990 census, there were only 75,000 Latinos in the entire state. But in the early 2000s, while Irene was in college, the Latino population grew rapidly. According to the most recent census, there are now more than 1,026,000 Latino residents — nearly 10% of the state’s population. 

The level of migration has varied significantly across North Carolina and has been most dramatic in rural communities like Wilson, a town of just under 50,000 located outside the eastern edge of the Raleigh metropolitan area. By the census count, Wilson’s population is 10% Hispanic, at just over 5,000. According to Irene, that number could actually be more than 10,000 — 20% of the community. And it’s in towns like Wilson where she most clearly sees the possibilities for Poder’s work. 

Driven by a series of economic trends, including the loss of manufacturing jobs and most recently the Great Recession, a majority of non-metro counties in the country, including North Carolina, have experienced population decline, particularly between 2010 and 2015. That resulted in a downward spiral of businesses failing, young people leaving, and smaller tax bases for those who remain to invest in infrastructure and services. 

But some communities, like Wilson, avoided that fate. In their 2018 report, Revival and Opportunity, the Center for American Progress describes in detail how immigrants are playing an increasingly important role in revitalizing rural communities like Wilson.

Student leaders who are working with Poder in Wilson, North Carolina, pose for a photograph in front of a Poder art display. (Photo submitted)

However, such demographic changes also bring challenges, particularly for immigrant residents. And that’s why groups like Poder and leaders like Irene are so important. When an immigrant family is targeted by hate, Poder can help rally the community and allied leaders in a show of solidarity. Poder also works to strengthen cultural connections and build multi-racial coalitions. And Poder helps build leadership within the community to advocate for needed changes, like multilingual education in the local schools.

Irene can see this work paying off. It’s in North Carolina’s rural areas where Latino leaders seem to be emerging. Leaders like Ricky Hurtado, the first Latino Democrat to serve in North Carolina’s General Assembly. The son of immigrants from El Salvador, Ricky could have taken a very different path after receiving his master’s in public policy from Princeton. But he chose to return to North Carolina, eventually running for the North Carolina House of Representatives in District 63, a largely rural district between Durham and Greensboro. 

Irene says that Ricky represents an important trend: young Latinos choosing to live in rural communities and to engage in public service. This gives her hope that the Latino community will become full and active participants in state government and civic culture, which will ensure that North Carolina’s halls of power represent the state in its entirety. 

The Rural Democracy Initiative, home to the 501(c)(3) Heartland Fund and 501(c)(4) Rural Victory Fund, shares Irene’s vision for North Carolina and the potential she sees in towns like Wilson — in North Carolina and across the country. We are proud to support Poder and a host of similar organizations working to rebuild the civic infrastructure in rural communities. This is both a moral and practical imperative. 

A moral imperative because inequity, in all the ways it exists, debilitates communities and cannot be allowed to persist. Many towns and small cities have seen escalating inequities and been left behind by disinvestment, resulting in shuttered Main Streets. These communities need diverse local infrastructure to advocate effectively such that policymakers (and philanthropy) see and hear them, and help address their challenges:  access to basic healthcare and internet connectivity, as well as infrastructure investment in water systems, roads, and bridges. 

It’s also a moral imperative to work alongside marginalized populations in communities like Wilson to counter hate and disinformation, advocate for the needs of the overall community, and help train and support new leaders to assume positions of civic leadership. 

Investing in rural communities is a practical imperative because rural America has outsized power and influence in both state and national leadership, particularly the U.S. Senate. Right now, just 16% of the population, living in 25 largely rural states, control half of the Senate. With current migration trends, by 2040 just over 30% of the population, living in the 34 least populated states, will control 68 Senate seats — a super majority. Decades of philanthropic and civil society disinvestment have left rural communities devoid of any progressive organization and communications presence, resulting in large gaps in capacity to educate and engage communities around critical issues and policies, such as those in the Build Back Better plan.

Simply put, there is no path to advancing a progressive, public interest agenda in the future that doesn’t run through rural America.

Rural Democracy Initiative is not the only effort to invest in critical civic capacity in rural communities, but it’s not a very crowded room. It’s time for an urgent conversation in philanthropy to support these leaders, organizations, and communities to address their challenges. Will you join us? 

Sarah Jaynes is executive director of the Rural Democracy Initiative.

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