Reflections on the South: Complexity, Challenges and Opportunity

Justin Maxson

I spent much of my youth trying to figure out how to get out of Kentucky. I mostly saw the problems: too many ineffective or even corrupt local officials, too few interesting and accessible jobs, not enough diversity, and environmental challenges from coal mining and suburbanization. I was even apathetic about Kentucky basketball, mostly because everybody else loved it. 

The older I got, the more I came to value much more of what the state offers. The natural beauty, compelling community leaders doing important work, a storytelling tradition based in self-deprecation and the fierce pride people have for their places are some of my favorites. I even made peace with Kentucky basketball and have developed a real taste for bourbon.

In truth, Kentucky is complex, with its share of deep challenges, incredible assets and transformational opportunities. It takes effort to understand that complexity.

Joining the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation this year has deepened my appreciation for the complexities, challenges and opportunities that define the South. It is both a real privilege and serious responsibility to join this 60-year-old organization. Its commitment to moving people and places out of poverty is profound.

And what a time in the South. This year, several events have brightened the spotlight on persistent structural and individual racism across the country—most acutely, the June hate crime inside a Charleston church. The tragedy sparked conversations about the central drivers of inequality in the South: concentrated political control, a weak, exclusive economy that benefits too few and an enduring history of racism and discrimination. It is difficult to overstate the harmful legacy of slavery in particular.

In developing solutions, it is critical to recognize the historic and mutually reinforcing nature of these challenges. They limit economic mobility, constrain employment options, create obstacles to voter participation and result in ineffective economic development. 

The South is important to the health of the nation for multiple, often conflicting reasons. Though it is the birthplace of the civil rights movement, it’s also been a laboratory for regressive policies that have been exported to other places. More forward-looking policy that advances here has great potential for national resonance. Rural areas hold important natural, cultural and economic resources and some of the nation's highest poverty rates. The South is home to many of America’s fastest-growing economies as well as some of the highest rates of economic immobility. 

Trends in the South show a shifting context that underscores real opportunity. The population is booming and rapidly diversifying, and urban centers are expanding. With the right investment, a new civic engagement landscape could create powerful partnerships in urban and rural places and shift the public sector to work better for low-wealth people and communities. 

And there is creative and important work going on that seeks to build on these opportunities. From Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, we’ve seen multi-strategy work harness this potential to make tangible strides. Community development practitioners are working with organizers to create new economic models; community development financial institution capacity is growing in new places; private-public partnerships are building new workforce development pathways. While the progress is sometimes hard to see, initiatives like these are creating better policy, greater economic opportunity, more assets for people in need and real hope.

Across the Foundation's experience, one overriding lesson holds true: Focusing on good projects, short-term support or single strategies will not sustain this momentum. Effective social change in the South demands context-conscious, multi-strategy and long-term approaches that reach across race, class, politics, sectors and economics.

Achieving real impact requires significant support to help people better connect to public life, including at the voting booth, and effect policy change that benefits many. It needs economic opportunities that value equity, prioritize mobility and engage new communities. It calls for stronger integration and connection between rural and urban areas to the clear benefit of both. New and unusual partnerships will be critical.

Over the last year, I’ve had many conversations with grantee partners, staff and board members about the complexities of the South and our work. Understanding these nuances is a journey, not a destination. In my experience, having a public conversation about complicated issues is one way to get a little further down the road. 

It is in this spirit that over the next few weeks, this blog will explore many of the themes raised above in more detail: changes in the context of the South, the Foundation's learning about supporting social change work and reflections on what it will take to continue making a difference.

Thanks for joining us on this journey.


Justin Maxson


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