The American South is home to more people than any other region in the country, and it’s still growing. Immigrant communities are on the rise, African Americans whose forebears fled Southern violence are returning, and many others are relocating to the South, attracted by jobs, mild weather and enticing culture. The South is barreling toward a future of prosperity and diversity.
But the South’s challenges – some old and some new – are real. Few of them are unique to the region, but they color Southern community life in specific ways. Income inequality, police violence and poor health outcomes still hit Black and poor Southerners particularly hard. Extractive industry continues to pollute one of the South’s greatest assets: its natural resources. And the disastrous impacts of climate change are hurting the South in ways the rest of the country won’t experience for a generation or more.
Grantmakers for Southern Progress and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) are proud to present our series, As the South Grows. The goal of the project is to increase the amount and sustainability of funding from local and regional Southern funders, as well as from national funders, that improve the quality of life and increase the power of marginalized communities in the South and are accountable to and informed by these communities. We hope these stories will provoke more thought around this and other questions among the philanthropic sector.
Despite growing challenges to civil rights, inclusion and economic justice across the country, and especially in the South, the philanthropic sector has not recognized the potential in local organizations and the legacy civil rights infrastructure of the Alabama Black Belt, the Mississippi Delta and places like them across the South. These two regions benefitted from just $41 in foundation funding per person between 2010 and 2014, compared to the national funding rate of $451 per person and the New York state rate of $995 per person. Just 16 percent of the $55 million given by foundations to benefit these two regions in that five-year timeframe was for power-building strategies like policy reform or community organizing.
Southern communities are rich with natural leaders and existing organizations – whether incorporated as a 510(c)3 or not – but often funders don’t recognize them. Sometimes, foundations and donors disregard Southern leaders because these individuals seem to lack the educational credentials or formal capacity that grantmakers expect from experienced nonprofit executives. Sometimes, foundations and donors defer to existing power structures by working only with established political, business or social sector leaders.
The South’s economic history is dominated by extractive industry, artificially cheap labor, unbridled economic development, and exploitation of the region’s human and natural resources. As different as the region’s mountain hollers and sea islands may seem demographically, politically and economically, they share this history. The fate of Appalachian coal miners and Lowcountry farmers is linked.
And as nonprofit and community leaders in the Lowcountry and in Appalachia understand, dramatic economic transition for many Southern communities is underway. Community-led economic development organizations are breaking down barriers to access to wealth-building tools for historically excluded Southern communities. They are changing the narrative about the region’s economic past and future. They are capitalizing on the South’s rich assets: its people, its land and its culture.
Although Eastern North Carolina and Southern Louisiana are in very different parts of the South, they share many of the same challenges that stem from their locations in coastal lowlands threatened by climate change. Both regions have land- and water-dependent economies such as agriculture and commercial fishing. Small farmers and commercial fishers have seen the impacts of development on the vitality on the natural resources they depend on.
Both regions are home to large, diverse communities of color with significant Black and Native communities as well as growing Hispanic communities.
The political landscape in their respective states is different, and Southern Louisiana includes large urban areas – New Orleans and Baton Rouge – while Eastern North Carolina does not. But the similarities in each region’s experience with environmental challenges brought on by climate change and extractive industries make them a useful lens through which to explore those issues in the South.
It seems that all roads in the South lead to Atlanta. Constructed as a railroad hub connecting the Midwest to the Southeast, Atlanta was destined to become an economic powerhouse of the region. Railroads brought industry. Businesses and universities concentrated in Atlanta, laying the foundation for the city to become an economic and political force.
Today, the busiest airport in the world is in Metro Atlanta, and the region has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country. However, Metro Atlanta’s growth and its forward-looking political climate have left many communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, behind.
The Atlanta metro area is a region of transition and growth. But it is also a region of contradictions. Business and civic leaders have thrived, taking advantage of Atlanta’s welcoming and progressive reputation and self-branding as the “city too busy to hate.” Meanwhile, communities experiencing generations of disinvestment and disenfranchisement have not been able to partake in the fruit of that prosperity.
Between 2011 and 2015, foundations nationwide invested 56 cents per person in the South for every dollar per person they invested nationally. And they provided 11 cents per person for structural change work in the South for every dollar per person nationally.
It is hard for Southern leaders, especially those at the vanguard of social change work in their communities, to reconcile the reality of a region full of innovative and effective social change networks with the long-standing dearth of resources to support their work.
The soil for growing exciting solutions to national problems is deep and fertile in the South; the seeds are present, and foundation staff haven’t turned on the water. It’s time to open the spigot.