The South’s population is booming, increasing its influence on the rest of the country. The region holds a third of the Electoral College votes needed to take the White House, and it’s expected to gain five more after the 2020 Census. Thanks to immigration and reversal of the Great Migration, the region is becoming ever more diverse and its urban centers are growing. This evolution of the landscape has cultivated a robust civic engagement framework, presenting opportunities for collaborative, multi-strategy investment to shape a more inclusive American South. The need is great: Southerners have lower household incomes, greater income inequality, lower high school graduation rates, higher teen pregnancy rates and lower life expectancy. Data from the Foundation Center show philanthropy isn’t stepping in to address those disparities. Funding in the region falls far short of national averages.
In its 2013 report As the South Goes, Grantmakers for Southern Progress explored the ways local, regional and national funders think about social justice in the South and the reasons they choose to support or not support it. GSP wrote, “There are great opportunities, as well as persistent and severe challenges facing the South. Philanthropy can play a pivotal role in expanding the reach and benefit of these opportunities by making strategic investments toward dismantling the structural barriers to opportunity and fostering wellbeing by reducing persistent social and economic inequities. Consequently, the question becomes not why should we fund social justice work in the South, but why aren’t we funding social justice in the South?”
People who work in this environment of scarcity can recite and refute those reasons in the same breath. “I have heard often the story that the South is just a deep hole, throwing good resources behind bad,” said One Voice Louisiana Director Ashley Shelton, “but I want to offer the challenge that where goes the South goes the country. You think about every kind of debilitating policy that has plagued our country over the last ten years, all of them were seeded here. I would challenge that idea that it’s just this money pit in the sense that we’ve seen real change in the last ten years. We’ve seen real opportunity. … I’m excited about where we’re headed, but I also feel that pressure and that fear about what would happen if people turn away from the South when we know that so much of, historically, where this country has gone and where we’re going gets seeded right here in the Deep South. And if we don’t pay attention to those things and really create different voices, then our bad policies will be packaged and on their way to a state near you.”
FOCAL Founder and Executive Director Sophia Bracy Harris offers a similarly dire warning: “If you all want to write off the South, let me just tell you something. Look at the makeup of Congress. Look at the makeup of our court system. If you put a rotten apple in a basket of very good apples and you go and leave it there for a week or two, come back and see how many other good apples you've got left in that basket. So if you turn your head and decide that we’re too ignorant, too out-of-step with the world to see it as an investment for the creation of the world we want, I've got news for you: We’re gonna have a rude awakening, because what we are fighting and pushing back will soon consume all of us, and that includes you.”
Others argue failed support as a justification for underinvestment can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. “One of the things that drives me crazy in our work is we’ve heard from national and not just funders but allies, partners, that the South’s irrelevant to national politics. ... We’re not relevant to the national conversation, that we’re too small to matter,” says Arkansas Public Policy Panel Executive Director Bill Kopsky. “They also look at the South as the South. Arkansas and Mississippi and Alabama are totally different. … If you really want to be effective, you have to allow the local people in those communities who understand those opportunities and challenges to figure out how to maneuver in that climate. … I’m optimistic about what can be done in the South instead of pessimistic, but I do think it has to be done in a way of doing the work with southern organizations and southern leaders and not dreaming up a grand, master plan in your New York office and trying to impose it on the South. That hasn’t worked very well and I think that’s what made a lot of funders gun-shy. … Those initiatives have truly gone terribly, so some of their gun-shyness is justified by their track record. But they might look at their own methodology instead of the region.”
To Southern Echo Founder and President Hollis Watkins, the ongoing imbalance of support sends a painful message to Southerners: “When you say, ‘Folks in Mississippi ain’t ready,’ then you are saying, ‘People in Mississippi are not ready to come out of slavery. People in Mississippi are not ready to be a part of a fair and equitable system for this country.’ And I don’t believe that. I think we all are ready for that.”