On Fertile Soil
From her desk at the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation, Executive Director Ainka Jackson can see the Edmund Pettus Bridge stretched across the Alabama River. The bridge carries Highway 80 from Selma upstream to Montgomery across farms so fertile that King Cotton and stolen labor once made Selma the wealthiest city in Alabama. Now, it is among the poorest. In 1965, the bridge was the site of widely broadcasted and morally electrifying moments in the Civil Rights Movement, making it a lasting symbol of the power of nonviolent resistance to oppression. Now Selma suffers from one of the highest crime rates in the country for a city its size.
The Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation is going to change that. Its leaders are heirs of the legacy Civil Rights Movement leaders left in Selma. The center trains community organizers, develops young leaders and hosts community conversations about Selma’s path toward what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.”
How can Selma build economic prosperity that is shared by all and not by just a few? How can the rural Black Belt build enough collective power to pursue its own destiny, instead of being dictated to by corporations and political machines hundreds of miles away? These are the questions Jackson, the Center and leaders across the South are trying to answer together.
But Jackson and her counterparts in Southern communities have been overlooked by philanthropy. In small towns across the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta, movements to establish community control over schools, economic development and political institutions pit grassroots networks against centralized power, which still rests in mostly white, wealthy, male hands. In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, national foundation interest in the rural South has waxed and waned, and Southern foundations have focused on funding direct service work instead of systemic change strategies with the most potential for long-term progress.
Beginning in 2016, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress (GSP) began documenting the challenges, opportunities and assets of Southern communities like Selma. We interviewed more than 90 community, nonprofit and foundation leaders and co-hosted four focus groups to gather as much information as possible from the people who know best.
We hope that, by elevating the stories of Southerners doing the hard work of making their communities more just, equitable, prosperous and sustainable, we can jumpstart a conversation in the philanthropic sector about investing in long-term change in Southern communities. In this report, we explore some of the many opportunities for philanthropic investment in building collective power in the South, with the Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi – herein referred to more generally as the Deep South – as our backdrop.
The South is fertile ground for philanthropic investment. The skills and infrastructure necessary to build power among marginalized people in the South already exists. Foundations and other donors can support that work and help move Southern communities toward a future of shared prosperity if they build deep, trusting relationships with local networks and give them the resources they need to realize their vision for their communities.
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 Selma, the Mississippi Delta and places like them across the South. The two regions in focus here – the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta – benefited 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.
“It’s very surprising that Alabama had three of the biggest, most effective movements during the Civil Rights era; yet philanthropic support in Alabama is so small. I strongly feel that Selma will change the world again, so investing in Selma is investing in the South and is investing in the country.
“If a shift happens here, it will be modeled and done elsewhere. Collectively, we have more resources than we acknowledge, but we don’t come together to use them.
“Part of what we need is for people on the ground to do an asset assessment in each community. What are its resources? When something happens, who is the person that people go to and who spreads the word? Who tries to solve the problem? You have to have some resources to be able to do that kind of organizing.”
— Ainka Jackson, Executive Director, Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation
Photo by Wendy Ettinger, 2016. Used with permission.
Advisory Committee and Black Belt + Delta Interview and Focus Group ParticipantsREAD MORE
Section 2: Voices from the Deep SouthKEEP READING