On Fertile Soil
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.
Despite these trends, the South is also home to some of the most vibrant and promising systematic change efforts at work in the country. Our new national reality of unified, reactionary, anti-democratic government has been a reality for Southerners off and on for more than a generation. Therefore, national and non-Southern organizations have much to learn from their Southern counterparts.
Southern nonprofits are dynamic, innovative and resilient. By necessity, they work at the intersections of identity and issue, building on the South’s tradition of mutual aid, relationship-building and radical hospitality to change their communities for the better – often without much in the way of philanthropic resources.
Investing in work for justice and inclusion in the South can be daunting for philanthropists. Structural inequities along race and class lines and stubbornly conservative state politics obscure the progress and exciting potential of systems change efforts at the local and regional levels across the South.
Many philanthropists choose not to invest in Southern communities or choose short-term opportunities that undermine the long-term capacity of Southern nonprofits. Other funders invest in what they think is “safer” direct service work. While aid to those in need is undoubtedly critical, only investments in systemic change can achieve widespread, deep impact in the region.
Grantmakers for Southern Progress and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) are proud to present the first report in 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.
Narrative is powerful, especially in the South. If funders – national and Southern – continue to see the South framed by deficit, isolation and lost causes, philanthropic investment will continue to bypass the region. In this series of reports, we will lift up stories of potential, of impact and of concrete capacity that we hope will get foundation staff and donors excited about funding in the South again.
Without sustained partnership between national and Southern philanthropy, progress in the South will be short-lived and precarious. Southern funders have a crucial role to play in the Southern philanthropic landscape, and we hope to be able to inspire them with these stories, too.
Investing in places and organizations that have historically been excluded from traditional philanthropic support will always appear risky to foundations. The best antidote to that risk is trusting, honest relationships with Southern nonprofit leaders. And in the South, those relationships will be based in listening, mutual aid and physical presence. We wish we could take every funder interested in investing in the South on a road trip to meet some of the fierce advocates we met in the course of this research. Because we can’t, we hope to bring their voices to you in the reports to follow.
The time to invest in Southern equity work is now. With the right investments in sustainable social justice infrastructure, progressive candidates will be able to leverage the demographic changes in the South for long-term, region-wide change. Just as the South birthed a nationwide movement for civil and human rights in the 20th century, Southerners’ potential for transforming their communities and our country in this century is immense. This project will help funders better understand that potential and provide tools for advancing work that will lead to lasting, just change.
In this first installment, we elevate the stories and perspectives of four nonprofit leaders in the Deep South – Alabama and Mississippi specifically. Esther Calhoun, Kenneth Glasgow, Ivye Allen and Carol Burnett are working hard for racial, social and economic justice against strong opposition and, in a few cases, with little philanthropic investment. They, and their colleagues, face well-organized and well-resourced opposition to self-determination for communities of color, poor communities, immigrant communities, women and others.
So how can Southern leaders like those we highlight here build enough power among marginalized communities to realize what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community”?
We hope these stories will provoke more thought around this and other questions among the philanthropic sector. We encourage those who are interested in learning more to start a conversation with Southerners themselves about how to be part of their exciting work.
Project Director, Grantmakers for Southern Progress
President & CEO, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy
Advisory Committee and Black Belt + Delta Interview and Focus Group ParticipantsREAD MORE
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