The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation funds organizations in the South working to move people and places out of poverty. The foundation recently launched a "Southern Voices" oral history project to capture the stories of Southern leaders working for social and economic justice. The latest installment features stories about how the lack of public and private support for impoverished communities in the rural South does disproportionate harm to African-American women and girls, and it looks at organizing underway to address the problem. For more stories from the project, click here. (Disclosure: The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is a funder of the Institute for Southern Studies.)
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The ongoing paucity of public and private investment in the rural South has caused outsized harm to African-American women and girls. In a study published this week titled "Unequal Lives: The State of Black Women and Families in the Rural South," the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative (SRBWI) found "on nearly every social indicator of well-being — from income and earnings to obesity and food security — Black women, girls and children in the rural South rank low or last." According to the survey, the unemployment rate for African-American women is four times that of white women in the same counties, and the poverty rate for African Americans and Latinos is more than double that of whites.
SRBWI was formed by nonprofit leaders from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to pursue solutions to poverty and injustice in some of America's poorest counties. One of its founders says the Initiative helps women leverage their existing skills and resources. "We work with farmers and try to get women to produce food that's marketed to the school system and to farmers markets and other outlets in the area," said Shirley Sherrod, who is also executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project. "Many of them are widows who own land and need to derive an income from that land. … We looked at the fact that women worked in factories — factories that closed — and those skills were still out there, and that's what gave us the idea of starting a worker-owned sewing coop. … We have a community foods project that's in 22 counties. We've done lots of work on nutrition and gardens."
Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama Executive Director Sophia Bracy Harris, who also helped launch SRBWI, says it's about much more than marketable skills. "It's leadership development of the young women so that we're able to move these women to a place of self-sufficiency around their choice of careers, but with an understanding of the history of the region, understanding of the larger picture of what they're working against so they have the tools to be able to address those issues as well," Harris said.
SRBWI is one of many organizations devising innovative ways to achieve success in the uniquely challenging environment of the rural South. One of the biggest hurdles is simply connecting people to each other. Establishing and maintaining networks of resources are two of the ways the West Virginia Community Development Hub fosters community development efforts. "One of the big challenges you face in a rural state is just that people who are really active in their communities, they're so busy being active, they don't have any idea what's going on five counties away from them," said Director of Community Engagement and Policy Stephanie Tyree. "A lot of what we do is create those connections, share information and let people know, ‘Okay, you want to start a bikeability program? You want to create bike lanes in your town? Well, here's a town that is a similar size to you that is also working on creating bike lanes, so you guys should talk and figure out how to do it together.'"
Tyree says another part of that strategy is collaboration on seemingly disparate issues. "There's a statewide campaign that is being organized that is really looking at, how does poverty and the safety and quality of life of children serve as a thread that runs through everything?" she said. "The Hub is a major partner in that campaign, even though we don't really work on children's health issues normally, but we think that you can't have community development if you can't have a place where children can't grow up happy, healthy and safe, and you can't have community development if you're not addressing poverty. … We end up working in a lot of different areas that you wouldn't necessarily think fit together, but they fit into a larger vision of building a prosperous state, creating a transition and working for social justice."
Organizations have found coalition building to be an effective path to success all over the rural South. Harris says FOCAL began with three core focus areas — advocacy, training and technical assistance — but found that it needed to broaden its base to achieve its goals. "The organization evolved and became aware even in trying to carry out those things, that we could not do that in isolation, that we needed to broaden our base to address other issues. We went from there then to build an alliance for childcare, reaching again across lines of whites and African Americans to try to work collectively together."
In Arkansas last year, two strong nonprofit organizations — one focused on entrepreneurship and one on clean water infrastructure — merged to form a new entity with vast economic development expertise and a broad reach into remote areas. "It's pretty amazing what we can do together," said Communities Unlimited CEO Ines Polonius. "Our hope is that as we continue the community's work, but look at it more comprehensively, we can bring in other partners who can help us address health issues, who can help us address education issues. We don't have to be the expert in all these fields, but what we've built is an infrastructure that allowed us to deliver our services so that we can move a whole community that has been in persistent poverty onto a trajectory toward prosperity."
The most important key to success in the rural South is patience, says former Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund Executive Director Ralph Paige. "The thing that's most challenging is people to see that it doesn't happen overnight," said Paige. "Change comes in increments, and people grow. Farmers grow to be better farmers. Farm leaders grow to become community leaders. They grow and become board members of the church. They become members of the city council. … You can build a building; a tornado can blow it down. You can build a person and he keeps growing, his children, his community — and I've seen that happen."
Watch more: Shirley Sherrod talks about the founding of the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative.