On April 11-13, I attended the PolicyLink Equity Summit in Chicago with a sell-out crowd of about 4,200 people. In the name of advancing equity and justice, we heard from national activist leaders on a wide range of topics that included housing, economic opportunity, climate change, educational opportunity, transportation, health, community safety and just-lending practices.
The great majority of the attendees worked for nonprofits and charitable foundations that ostensibly invest a great deal to increase opportunity for all and narrow the vast gaps in outcomes for low-income people, people of color, the undocumented, and others shut out of the American dream.
The content and the energy were compelling, but something was missing — the recognition that these same issues of equity are profoundly affecting many of the 60 million Americans in rural communities.
As someone who has spent most of his career working in the foundation field, the lack of discussion about philanthropic funding for rural equity was particularly notable. We heard from a dozen or so funders during the conference with barely a mention of rural equity and opportunity.
The funder representatives were clearly passionate about their personal and professional engagement in their work around equity but I had the sense, with an exception or two, that it had been quite a while (if ever) since they had thought about their work in the context of rural communities.
And then there was the language. We heard throughout the conference that “intersectionality” — which I understand as working across sectors, issue areas and with people different than yourself – is absolutely critical for effective philanthropy. That is the very picture of what good rural philanthropy looks like: engaging people of disparate beliefs, people with and without power, who are all joined by the shared connection to where they live and the desire for an opportunity to do better.
And we heard about “colonization,” which was the conference term meant to emphasize that much of America’s wealth – including the assets of many foundations – were built upon illegally secured land and the backs of poor peoples’ labors. This is true, and it’s important to add that a large share of those assets have been wrested from rural places.
Maybe philanthropy’s ignoring of rural communities is based on a misunderstanding among funders who concentrate specifically on race equity and assume that rural America is all white. Perhaps they don’t realize that 13 million rural residents are people of color and 2 million are immigrants, or that 54% of Native American and Alaska Native peoples live in rural communities.
I have heard too many funders talk about not being able to work in rural places because of “lack of scale” or “poor return on investment” or even more boldly about “throwing money into a dying way of life.” I sometimes wonder: Do foundation leaders hide behind those excuses for strategic reasons? Or is it because they wouldn’t know Allen County, Kansas, from an allen wrench, or the Pine Ridge Reservation from their similarly named country club? America has enough forces trying to deny the value of supporting rural communities without philanthropy piling on.
There were, however, some shining lights at the conference. A morning session about some deep and compelling foundation-funded racial and economic equity work taking place in rural parts of North Carolina, California, Massachusetts, and Appalachia drew an overflow crowd. The audience wouldn’t let the speakers leave. And a late afternoon session about the ways in which water quality issues are dramatically affecting rural people of color in the Deep South and along the Gulf Coast offered a resonant counterpoint to urban-focused discussions.
Although they may not have been present at this particular conference, there are some great examples of important local rural philanthropy going on right now in every state. Some take the form of national/local partnerships like the Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation’s Community Heart and Soul project. Others are the work of large, thoughtful and deeply committed state-based funders like The Colorado Trust, The Ford Family Foundation in Oregon, and Episcopal Healthcare Foundation in Texas. At the local level, there’s the Danville Regional Foundation in Virginia and North Carolina, Rapides Foundation in Louisiana, and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Iowa.
Michael McAfee, the incoming president of PolicyLink and a frequent presenter to gatherings of philanthropists, made a strong point to affirm that the work of PolicyLink and its partners would focus squarely on the 100 million people living at or below 200% of poverty in the United States. Using data is a smart approach, but that data must include — and foundations must invest in — the 25 million people who live below 200% of poverty in rural communities.
It’s a critical time for rural America. Being from a rural place is something you can’t easily leave behind as an individual, and it’s not something we should we do as a nation. We are long overdue for a philanthropic movement for and with the rural communities that are such an integral part of America’s past, present and future.
Allen Smart spent more than two decades in leadership roles with rural funders in the Southeastern U.S. before launching RuralwoRx, a national consultancy aimed at increasing and improving rural philanthropy across the country.