We often hear about the divide between rural and metropolitan areas but today we’re going to explore what that really means, the challenges that we face, and why, to really reach systems transformation, we need to face them together.
This episode features Tony Pipa, a Senior Fellow of Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, and Dream Gentry, the executive director of Partners for Education at Berea College.
Hi, I’m Christian Motley, from StriveTogether, your host of Together for Change. Here we share expert perspective on what’s possible in communities, and how we can work together to build to last. When you think about the word “community,” what comes to mind? For some it’s a specific location, maybe a neighborhood, a local school yard or a church, but others, it might be bigger than that. Long roads, open fields and farms. But no matter what most people associated with the place, the place where they feel a connection. Today we’ll discuss how we can address the needs of rural America, and how these challenges can be addressed through policy change. Joining me today is Tony Pipa, a Senior Fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution. And Dreama Gentry, the executive director of Partners for Education at Berea College. Dreama and Tony, how’s it going?
Good to be here. Thanks for having me, Christian.
It’s always good to talk with you, Christian.
Glad to have you both. Before we get into the core of today’s discussion, I want to take a moment and just have you tell our listeners what brings you to this work. You both have done work, Dreama, I know you’ve been focused in Appalachian Kentucky for some time. Tony, you’re bringing perspective from some work that I think is looking at economies on the international scale even. What brings you to this moment and this work in rural communities.
So I’ll go first. You know, I grew up in rural America. I was the first of my family to attend college first to receive a college degree. And it was really people in community that believed in me, believed in the power of education that really was transformative for me. After practicing law for a few years, I realized that I wanted to do something to give back and came to Partners for Education and really started working to ensure access secondary for kids, right. And what I realized when I started doing that is that there needed to be a focus on rural America, rural communities and rural young people. And it just became my passion. So I guess I say I got here because it’s where I’m from. It’s what I do. It’s what I believe in.
Yeah, like Dreama, I also grew up in rural America. I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, part of the Anthracite Coal Region that we know now, some because of President Biden. I grew up a little south of that. And a good part of my career, especially in the early stages, was in philanthropy. And doing that work, I was working both in North, first in North Carolina, and then I did a significant amount of work after Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi. And so I found myself working in rural communities in those different places. Now, that’s the southeast, that’s a little different than where I grew up in the northeast. But Christian, as you said, that I went off, and I was actually doing some work on international development, and was actually part of the Obama administration. On the international side, where I was primarily at the US Agency for International Development, USAID, which is the agency by which our government makes assistance available to address issues of poverty and humanitarian causes overseas. I also spent some time with the State Department. And I have to say, one of the things that brought me back home, so to speak, was the election in 2016, where I felt as though the community that I grew up in and the communities that I was used to working in in the United States, which had really strong values and a really strong sense of identity and resilience. I felt like it was also that identity, at least in some of those communities, was being lost. And there was also a sense of those communities being under pressure, and that was playing out politically, in the US. They were feeling under pressure economically, culturally, dealing with a lot of change a lot of pressures from outside of their community. And I felt like when I was in the government, we had gone through a lot of change, a lot of modernization, actually, and how we felt like a government such as ours could be more successful in its investments. In trying to help communities be better off and thrive. And, I wondered what we might learn for that haven’t had some of my own experience in working in rural communities in the southeast and the north, northeast. I wondered what we might learn from that experience and could update the way in which our government makes investments in those communities across the United States and what we might learn and if we could improve.
I know that, you know, you, you both sort of describe coming at this work from different perspectives. And I do think it’s important in this conversation to kind of level set and ask the question of what is rural? Like, who’s in it? What does it look like, but also know that it’s sometimes hard to be explicit about because there’s different definitions, some folks are using different measures. But I wonder just from each of your perspectives, you know, what is rural? dreama?
See, you may not like my answer, but I think rural is if people think they live in a rural place, they live in a rural place, with my definition. I’m sick and tired of having to define myself and my place, about what it’s not. And the majority of the definitions around rural are, it’s not urban, it’s not Metro, it’s not this. Now I have been challenged to come up with a better definition, like, what is it? I still haven’t gotten there yet. But in the work that we do here in Appalachia, and now nationally, working with rural communities, what we say is, if you believe and you think your community is rural, and you want to participate, and you want to engage with us, the door is open. And so what we find when people enter, it’s some folks are very, very rural. My folks in Alaska, say, you know, they have to take an airplane to get to their schools, right, that are working in post secondary success. We have some folks who live on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas that are geo, feel geographically isolated, and they think that they are rural too. What comes up is common is that there’s a sense of community, a sense of understanding and deep connection to place, and that schools are still, and young people are still, the heart of the community. So I’m still working on that good definition of what is rural, but for, until I get it, it’s sort of like if you think you live in rural America, welcome and come work with us.
I have to agree with Dreama. You know it when you see it. You know it when you feel it. I mean, from a policy perspective, the federal government has over, you know, 10, as somewhere upwards of 13,14 different definitions of rural, because different programs within the federal government will define rural in different ways. And even the Office of Management and Budget, which you know, has our chief statistician, they will define rural in one way, and the Census Bureau will define it a little differently. The US Department of Agriculture, where a lot of our rural policy sits, they will define it a little differently. Some are, from policy perspective, it’s actually quite confusing, because there are many different ways in which you can slice it. And some communities will be eligible for some rural programs, and they won’t be eligible for other rural programs. But I really agree with Dreama, that I think it’s as much a self identification as powerful as anything. And there’s a set of values and a set of norms that are in rural communities that people know and they can almost touch and feel those. I also think in, Christian you ask, you know, who lives in rural, I think one of the things that’s really important to emphasize, you know, there might be a perception that people think about what does rural look like, when they hear that word in America. And rural America is actually quite diverse. I mean, over 21% people of color throughout rural America. Very diverse economically. People tend to always sort of place it within agriculture, or maybe agriculture and a couple of other, manufacturing, or maybe agriculture and mining and things like that. It’s actually much more predominantly service economy nowadays. Health, education, retail, outdoor recreation and tourism, making up a larger and larger part of some communities. I will say one of the things that we tend to associate with rural is sort of natural assets. And the preservation of natural assets, I do think is something that is an issue, especially as we continue to grow as a country, and particularly the way in which we use natural assets, for our energy and for other uses. Yeah, I think it’s important for us to be thinking about how diverse rural is, and it spans lots of different kinds of communities across the United States. And that actually is a challenge for federal policymakers. Because what that speaks to is there’s not really a one size fits all kind of policy intervention, right? You’re going to have to be sensitive to the cultural historical dynamics, the different kinds of capital whether it be human capital, natural capital, financial capital that are in particular kinds of communities
And Christian I can add there. And I think, you know, Tony, thank you for reminding us that rural is diverse. I often enter into these conversations and say that rural is not code for white, because I do think often, that in policy and especially with our media, rural gets pigeonholed. and it’s, it’s almost like it’s code for white. And it’s not. One in five young people in rural America is a person of color. And there’s incredible diversity among rural places, diversity of thought, diversity of just, just diversity. So I think that’s an important piece. I think rural also gets pigeonholed as being underperforming, but we have some overperforming and very thriving rural places in this nation. And so there’s some stereotypes and some generalizations that get packaged into rural. And I think, especially after the 2016 election, one of the things that, that our young people in Appalachia face all the time is this, the stereotype that because they’re from rural Appalachia, they’re close minded. But we find our young people are as open minded, and they are engaging and welcoming as others. And so that’s another piece of the rural moniker that I think we have to think about and address.
It’s a really important point about how some rural communities are thriving and are just as, you know, we often also think even think of innovation, we tend to think of innovation as happening in cities, right, or innovation is a thing that comes out of like a university context. They come up with something new, and then it gets commercialized and becomes this. And there’s a lot of innovation actually happening in rural communities as well. And in fact, even coming out of COVID-19, some rural communities are faced with challenges of almost too much. Like those that are based on outdoor recreation or some tourism, they were actually trying to manage how well they were doing. I mean, you know, housing prices started to go up, they actually have too much pressure on their natural assets, it’s kind of hard to manage what was actually happening. And they’re, they’re having to be forced with issues like around affordability of workforce housing, and how to handle all the influx of people coming into their areas. To Dreama’s point, it’s hard to take yourself out of the stereotypes of thinking what rural, quote unquote, is when you hear the word, but there’s an incredible array of diversity and difference. And, and I think we do a disservice actually, to just sort of think of it as a monolith. And all white, all, you know, agriculture, whatever, whatever the all is. All white, all agriculture or all, all closed minded, whatever. And at the same time, it, in some respects, sort of powers and feeds and protects our country at rates that are higher than lots of other geographies, because that’s where a lot of that activity is taking place.
Well, I want to first say thank you. I appreciate that, that sort of inclusive definition of what rural is. I like to think of myself as coming from rural Alabama, and nine year old Christian would probably describe rural as, you know, that place where everybody’s yard belongs to everybody. I knew where the good plums were, so I knew where to go.
I knew were the blackberries were.
But you know, but also like this idea that, you know, me and my friends, we all went to the same elementary school, the same middle school, and the same high school. And we talked about that, that connectivity, it feels just really important to me. And also just the importance of place. I don’t think, Dreama, you know, full disclosure, Dreama Gentry works at Partners for Education at Berea College. We’re both alumni of Berea College. And I don’t think I really considered the place where I was from, until I went there, or until I saw that map. They show on campus that it shows how you know, how far north and how far south that Appalachian region reaches. I think it was just really important for me, because it’s first time I thought of place. And the idea of place seems so important in this work. And I want to go back to something. I think both of you have talked about successful examples or innovations that have happened. But before we get there, I’m wondering if there are so given, you know, we’ve set the level on kind of what rule is for discussion. Are there distinctions that exist for rural communities that present you know, specific challenges for for these kinds of places? And then I want to get into sort of what what we have seen work or what we need to scale up, but what are the distinctions in rural communities that we really need to focus on for this conversation?
So I have one and I love it that I’m here with Tony because he is such the data person and the definition person that can really give flavor to the story piece. I think one of the things that we see is when we look at rural places, you’re looking at places of persistent poverty. So if you look at, I think there’s a definition of places that for 30 years, a percentage of the population has been in poverty, almost predominantly rural, especially if you look at that extreme poverty, right? And so one of the things that we look at when we look at rural places that are not thriving, is that there is generational poverty within those places. And when you work with young people, and you do interventions, and you work with families, you need to know if these are families from generational poverty, or are they families that are in situational poverty? They’re in poverty because of something that just happened, right? And so in rural places, we do see that deep persistent poverty, which will take different interventions, and supports to actually turn the places around. So that’s one of the unique pieces of doing work in rural places is that you will end up in those places of persistent poverty.
Yes, as Dreama mentions, over 84% of persistent poverty counties are rural counties. And there are other vulnerabilities that rural communities are facing today. You know, the kind of connectivity and infrastructure that our economy depends upon, is harder to come by more and more in rural. You still have more than 1/3 of rural America lacking access to reliable high speed broadband, which was a huge issue, obviously, during COVID-19. Schools look for other ways in which to deliver their services. And you would, you have a more and more pressure under what I would call, I know at StriveTogether, we’d like to talk about civic infrastructure and even community infrastructure. 40% of rural counties lost bank branches between 2012 and 2017, right? So just access, it’s not like their access to financial capital’s being closed off, because you have financial technology that’s providing that. But it is sort of relationship based, and ensuring that the kind of capital that’s being made available is right sized for the types of business and other economic activity that’s happening in rural, because it is different than urban areas, healthcare as well, rural hospitals, there’s just been a continuing drumbeat of closures of rural hospitals, over a period since 2005, really, with almost 180 rural hospitals having closed. And so again, that causes challenges for healthcare. Now, we have some telemedicine, which means a particular deliver, but if you don’t have broadband, right, that can be challenging. But also to get the specialized services that you might need for your health requires distance and requires travel and requires that kind of outreach. So it gives you a flavor of, and, frankly, with the kinds of pressures in today’s economy, and things like you know, even pressures around climate change, and the way in which we experience immigration in this country right now, you know, rural communities are changing, and yet they don’t always have the infrastructure to be able to sustain themselves and thrive as those changes are occurring both in the society and the economy at large.
And I’ll build on that. I think it’s that support network that so many people take for granted. It really hit me one day when I was driving through Owsley County, and I was in the car with somebody who lives in Alameda County. And she’s like, you know, this is where you don’t want to get in a car accident, right? Because if you get in a car accident in Owsley County and you’re harmed, it’s going to take you a couple of hours in an ambulance to get to a medical center. And I was like, whoa, I never thought about that, right? Because I always think, well, if I get in a car accident, there’ll be an ambulance that will take me to the hospital, and I’ll get quality care. You start to think about the geographic isolation, right? And then we were doing some work around opioid recovery. And you know, the trying to reunify parents and children together and one of the courts requirements was the parent had to attend an AA or an NA type meeting where there was none in the county. You know, so you would have to travel to another county. But what do they do if you if you’re in the court? They’ve taken your driver’s license away. There’s no public transportation, right? So there are these supports that in urban areas, you just assume, well, you’ll walk down to the library to go to an NA meeting, or there’s a hospital around the corner that can take care of you if you’re in a violent accident. So it’s really reframing, what are the supports that are immediately available.
What’s interesting is what often happens in rural communities is the workaround for those kinds of issues rely on people and neighbors and communities figuring that out on their own. So there are some brightspot to that, in some respects, because it relies on community different way. But it also often just puts rural communities and the people that are living with them at a disadvantage, that doesn’t need to be like, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have access to high speed broadband, right? Like, in this day and age, it’s more a utility than it is a consumer product, because you just need it, right? It’s like electricity. It’s like the water that we have. It is the kind of connectivity that a lot of what we do, as a society, depends upon. And so we’re really, we’re disadvantaging places and the people in them, if we’re not having some of that basic infrastructure being made available.
Dreama, I appreciate the point that you made, and thank you, Tony. I mean, you all are, you’re catching I’m taking notes as we’re talking. Because I’m just really grateful for the these responses. Dreama, you mentioned something about this distinction between generational poverty and situational. And I think what we have seen, particularly in this last year, is one being exacerbated by the other. Where I think it’s been the discussion, again, for since last year, about the idea that the, particularly this health pandemic, and our response and how, you know, the economy had to be shut down. And, you know, how did public sector leaders respond? And how we, you know, figure investments to both respond to the health needs, but also stimulate the economy? Is the idea that there are inequities that they’ve existed for, you know, for decades, that were simply, I wouldn’t say even revealed. I would say highlighted. I think we are sort of better understanding about the impact. And what I wonder is, from your work, Dreama, you know, the work in, I’m thinking in rural America, particularly in southeastern Kentucky, to sort of build up the civic infrastructure, I think something that I can say that we’ve seen at StriveTogether, is communities who have done this work to build civic infrastructure were, in many ways, really well prepared to take on the moment. First in sort of being able to stabilize communities, but also in sort of the the aftermath figuring out okay, what efforts need to be sustained? What challenges do we need to meet to sort of recover folks have talked about learning loss and that kind of thing? I wonder in the intermediary work that you’ve done in Appalachian Kentucky, have you seen similar examples of the civic infrastructure really preparing the communities that you’re working with?
Yeah, I think first and foremost of feeding young people and hunger. And I think because of the geographic nature of Appalachian Kentucky and the fact that anytime there is a snowfall, schools close. About 10 years ago, our communities, the school, led by the schools, had really started developing a plan for how do we feed young people? Because we know that the school lunch and school breakfast is often the two meals a day. How do we feed them when schools close in the winter? So we already had this infrastructure in Appalachian Kentucky to ensure that kids remained, had access to those meals. So what we saw with COVID, when the schools shut down, immediately was people started thinking about the food, and how do we get the food to the kids. And because of the experience of working collectively, almost every district we work with immediately was getting food out within a few days. And then that infrastructure that had been developed around feeding kids while the schools were closed down, started then to be opened up to how do we get them the homework packets? How do we do this, recognizing that in our communities in our schools, a lot of kids don’t have broadband, they don’t have internet access. But it also was interesting that a few years ago, the Kentucky Department of Education had approved so many days a year where school could be open virtually, because of the fact that in Eastern Kentucky we had to close so much because of snow. So we already had this policy, this loophole. So the schools started immediately doing the classes. So I think because they had already done the workarounds, I think Tony’s description was great. Rural people know how to work around. We know how to get things done. We did see immediately, kids getting the services and families getting the services. I’ve often say that in rural places, people are hard wired to work collectively. The collective impact becomes natural, because the communities are so small and people wear so many different hats, that you have to always think about the whole child and so yeah, I think that’s the, the feeding piece was just amazing and how quickly people were activated and young people were fed after COVID hit.
And I think both of you could probably give some answer to this. Tony, I’ll go to you first. Because in response to the pandemic, I mentioned before, there were efforts, significant efforts made at the federal level to provide investments, funding and flexibility to be able to, again, address the health pandemic, stimulate the economy. You know, we think about PPP loans and some of those kinds of things. To the tune of, I saw a figure that was like 5.2 trillion in the last year? Tony, fact check me if I’m off. But I wonder, do you think that met the need? And for both of you, there’s this conversation about, okay, stabilization and sustain. So we have to stabilize over the last year. I’m wondering, given the funding and flexibilities, what do you think we need to sustain as we build for the future? But Tony, if you can answer that first question?
Yeah, so let me say, so there was quite a mix of different kinds of relief that’s been made available, both first through the Cares Act. And through the American Rescue Plan, the Cares Act that happened last year and the American Rescue Plan since the Biden administration has come in. Now, a lot of that relief has gone directly to individuals and so there’s no distinction between whether they’re rural or urban. It’s going to families or to households, trying to make those people whole. And I will say that the, some of the federal assistance that’s been more targeted to place or institutions, initially through the Cares Act, for example, the PPP loans that we’re coming through, you know, how we’re more challenged to get to needy, small businesses in rural places, for example, I think the second round did a better job of that.
Tony, PPP included in that second round, did that include both, I though there were some adjustments made that included both those rural communities or banks and rural communities, but also those like black owned?
Exactly, there was, exactly. And I think what’s interesting about the American Rescue Plan, and the funding coming through that, is that, look, just to take a step back, one of the things that’s really challenging for rural communities, and I’m sure Dreama can speak to this, you know, directly, but federal programs, first off, there’s no real coherent federal policy around rural. It’s just a bunch of programs. Like, we did a chart at Brookings that tried to find where the money for community economic and, sort of, social development is within the federal, federal constellation. And what’s available for rural communities. I mean, we found over 400 programs, coming from 13 different departments and 50 offices and sub agencies. And so if you’re like in a community, and trying to, you know, navigate all that for what it is that your community might need, or the resources your community might be able to take advantage of, that’s a really fragmented, incoherent, sort of, I had one, one person call, hot mess, right? And as Dreama said, many people in rural communities are doing different things. I mean, it’s, you might have one person doing two or three different kinds of jobs. And so that makes it even more challenging because you have to be this very sophisticated user on a very part time basis, trying to navigate all that. One of the things that’s been really helpful through the American Rescue Plan is for that money to come to communities into local governments in a very flexible way. And so it’s not cut up into those 400 different slices. It’s a block of money that says, here’s some broad parameters, use this money as you see fit. But the trick is, without having some of that civic infrastructure you talked about, and folks having gotten organized, even pre COVID, because they were working together on different issues. It’s harder to do that strategically, just when the money comes, right? So if you’ve got conversations, relationships, built, objectives laid out that you want to be able to, as you said, Christian, maintain, and sort of build for the future. That’s harder to do just at a moment’s notice. That takes work. That takes making sure the right people are at the table. Making sure that voices are really represented. Making sure that you’ve come with a common vision. And I think communities that have built some civic infrastructure through intermediaries like the one that Dreama leads, are going to be better prepared. to actually take best advantage of that flexible money coming down through the funds that are going to local governments or through some of the other programs, because even, there’s some other programs where it’s fairly flexible money. So for example, the economic adjustment assistance grants that are coming through the economic development administration, which is a part of the Department of Commerce, they got a significant amount of money, both in the Cares Act, and then even double that in American Rescue Plan, that could be really useful, but you sort of need to be organized to be able to take advantage of it. So again, I think that’s going to be a challenge for federal policymakers, for those running those federal programs to say, how do we make sure this money gets to communities who could really leverage it and make good use of it? Because sometimes those communities aren’t really part of our general program, they’re not generally getting that kind of money? And how do we help them have the capacity? And how do we invest in their capacity to be able to use this well? And I’m sure Dreama can put, you know, specifics to all those things that I talked about in sort of more of a conceptual or general sense.
And I think the first thing that occurs to me is, you know, that the funding that comes into the schools, and if your, if your schools’ in places of persistent poverty, your schools have already been underfunded for years and years. And so what we’re seeing in our school districts with the funding that’s coming in there, it goes to deferred maintenance, right? It goes to ensuring that the school has clean water for the kids to drink, right, and the communities are thinking of it for those type of things. And I think that there’s this train of thought that that money coming into the schools can be immediately sent and is for the kids that are existing now to make up learning laws. But the schools are seeing it as a one time opportunity to actually catch up and build their infrastructure up. And so to me, that’s not a bad thing, because we need quite good water at Martin County High School, and we need to have, you know, the school buses that are safe, that can transport the kids. So I do think there’s that piece too. If you’ve underfunded for generations, places, this money will be used for that, which then means that there may not be the funding for the catch up programs and those things. The other thing that our schools are really struggling with, as they’re thinking about how to absorb this, these dollars coming to them, is that these are dollars that have to be spent in a really short term. And we all know that the best thing you can do for kids is to hire more caring adults to work with kids. But if you’re running a school, you can’t bring on staff for a year or even two years, knowing then that you’re gonna have to let them go and take that liability. So I just think there’s some there’s some things around the influx of dollars that we’ve got to figure out how to help schools do the workarounds, and to ensure that the kids get the services they need.
And I think Dreama’s point about the timeframe in which this money has to be spent, is a real challenge because, and when you look at it from the federal perspective, the policymakers, both your congressional members, as well as the administration, they’re going to want to be able to point to the money having addressed particular issues, and they’re going to want to point to results. But these things don’t happen overnight. And so what happens is, then it becomes the easiest, like, how do I fill the holes that I have? To Dreama’s point, that’s actually step one. That’s the most important thing that needs to get done. But then, Christian, to your question is, how do we maintain or even build for the future? That’s act two. And that still, that’s why we’re still in conversation around, you know, continued resources and continued policy to be able to take that forward?
There’s a question that I’m curious about, let’s say prior to 2020. In many ways, there was a lot more conversation about and you can honestly get, correct me if I’m wrong here as well, but my sense is that there is a lot more conversation around the role of philanthropy, and investing in innovative strategies. Now, we’re in a place where there’s significant public sector funds in the space and I just wonder what impact you think that has on conversations about the work in places, particularly rural places.
Before 2020 philanthropy had forgotten about rural America. Philanthropy is not investing in rural America. And now past 2020, philanthropy still has forgotten about rural America and it’s still not investing in rural America. And so that’s just an issue that has to be addressed, right? It’s that and I think philanthropy they want a lot of times to really focus in their backyard or the place that’s sexy in the moment, and that’s not rural America. It’s interesting, you know, after the 2016 election, had a lot of people call because people suddenly got interested in rural America. And I was like, hey, people are going to be interested, we’re going to get investment. People wanted to call, they wanted to figure out what we’re doing. They wanted to talk about why are you doing things or why are you thinking certain ways? But we received no investments from any of those folks. And Tony can share with you that, the data, right? But it’s really sad, the lack of investment in rural America that we see in philanthropy.
I would agree wholeheartedly. And I would say, you know, Christian, you asked about how do I come into this conversation? One of the things that I presumed having had worked in the philanthropic community for a long time having run a foundation in North Carolina, and I helped incubate one after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. I hoped that the philanthropic response would be pretty immediate after 2016. And I saw exactly what Dreama described. Lots of people learning, lots of learning going on. But investments, not so much. And in fact, I think this is a place where the federal government is now outstripping the philanthropic community in leadership, because not only is their public resources in that, in those public resources are in part because of the economic recovery and the hope for transformation coming out of COVID-19, but it’s also because of commitment from the President. I mean, he said flat out that he does not, that he feels as if rural areas have been, rural places have been left behind. And that as we work to rebuild the middle class, that can’t happen. To have a functioning country, one that shares its values and is healthy and thriving, you can’t just leave a set of geographies behind as well. And so we need to get smarter about and there are policy decisions being made. This is not just, it’s not just happening by happenstance. There are policy decisions that get made that either include or exclude certain types of places in certain types of communities. And they’ve made it a priority not to exclude those places. And for the first time you have someone in charge of rural affairs at the Domestic Policy Council. I mean, you have Ambassador Susan Rice, who heads up the Domestic Policy Council making remarks at the rural assembly everywhere. I mean, that’s just not something that was common for any administration coming for that. But you don’t see that same commitment or desire on the part of philanthropy, whether it be national philanthropy, or, you know, the new philanthropy. You do see it from regional and place based foundations. And that’s who really has the philanthropic lead for what we would consider rural America. But again, you know, overall, I mean, it depends on how you categorize the money, I mean, but most analyses have found anywhere from like 2%, less than 2% to less than 7% of philanthropic money going to rural places. And even some of that money, if you’re taking the high end of that a lot of that money is just going to large institutions, like nonprofit hospitals, that might be providing services in a particular place, or it might be going to universities or community colleges or things like that.
So I think that that number is really interesting, because, you know, I think we’re an outlier partners for education is a real outlier in the StriveTogether community. And that 95% of our funding is from public dollars. So that’s really interesting around at 5% is private money. And that’s, that’s really because of a couple of funders that have really come on board the last two years, but the rest of our funding is republic dollars and discretionary grants. And it’s interesting to do the work as an intermediary, you call this intermediary. I think the other important thing is that as a StriveTogether member, we’re also doing a lot of direct services. So I think in rural America, you don’t have the luxury of doing one thing. So what we’re doing is we’re doing a backbone function, and we’re doing that traditional StriveTogether function that you would see in some places, but we’re also providing cradle to career programs and services for Appalachian Kentucky serving more than 50,000 young people. And so again, I think when you think of what it looks like to do this work in rural places, you have to wear multiple hats. But it just occurred to me when Tony was talking that that 5% philanthropic dollars and not even, that matches our budget exactly.
And Tony, I appreciate your point you mentioned, you know, this idea that we cannot leave whole groups, whole communities behind. Dreama, correct me, I feel like it was you who I first heard use the term, the terminology around racial barriers and spatial barriers. But it makes me just think of it. Tony, you also mentioned the President’s commitment. I think something that we’ve learned, I guess more about many, many folks have known but we’ve learned more about the understanding sort of differentiated impact over the last year or so. And again, there there has been sort of inequity highlighted or revealed for some around racial barriers, and inequities revealed about for those with spatial barriers.
So I think it’s interesting to think about that, the spatial barriers and the racial barriers. One of the things that I think is really important to focus on is even in Appalachian Kentucky, which, when we look at that that part of Kentucky, 1% of our population, school age population, is African American. 1%. But when we look at every indicator, from K readiness to grade level reading, to safe, healthy and supportive and college access, and college success, there’s a gap. So our African American students in Appalachia are doing worse than other students. And I think that one of the things I bring that up is because often folks, I think, discount the importance of doing racial equity work in places that are predominantly white. And as a result, those students don’t get the services and have the focus. And that’s a battle that we face even internally, because if you’re looking at your Kentucky Department of Education mandates, you can meet every goal and still write off that 1%, right? So I do think that racial equity is something that is, has to be addressed in every place of this country. And we shouldn’t be given a pass just because we have such a few percentage of students that are students of color. Now, that’s sort of a random piece, but I always think it’s important, right? And I also think that our funders who are funding racial equity philanthropy has really stepped forward on that. But they’ve also stepped forward in that in the places that they’re deeming as having a majority of African Americans or, or a high level or high population, right? And I’m like, okay, what about the African American kids that are in Appalachian Kentucky? How can we also address them, but I also think they’re getting doubly left behind, right? And so one of the things that we’re focusing on is, how do we continue to do the work in a place that’s rural, but also bring a racial equity focus to that work?
I would even add on to what Dreama just said around those funders that have racial equity focus, and you know, are really leading the charge on that, because, Christian, to your point, a racial equity agenda also has to be a spatial equity agenda. And that means rural. I mean, this is where rural is. Where race and spatial, racial and spatial inequality actually intersect. I mean, 50% of rural African American residents and 45% of rural Native American residents live in an economically distressed county, compared to 18% of rural white residents, right? And so there’s historic marginalization and legacy. And even the federal government being involved in that sometimes that continues to play itself out today. And so if you’re serious about a racial equity agenda, you also have to start looking in rural areas as well. And most funders still aren’t there. I mean, they find it challenging, they find the distance challenging. They feel like they don’t understand the communities. You know, I was part of ,when I was laying the foundation in North Carolina in the early 2000s. I was part of a National Rural Funders Collaborative, where we pooled money together from some local foundations as well as some national foundations. It was undercapitalized by far to the extent to which we could have been making investments. But I don’t even see, you know, like it’s the conversations just beginning to start in the philanthropic community around those kinds of things, again, where I think there’s a big role for philanthropy to be playing even with all these public dollars because that money is flexible. It can focus on building the capacity of institutions, institutions like the one that Dreama leads and other StriveTogether partners. It can pay for things like staffing and even just connecting, and building relationships and doing quarter meetings and convenings, that’s really hard for public money to do, because public money tends to be more restricted and the reporting requirements around public money is, are a lot higher. So there’s a still a really big role, I think, for philanthropy, but they’re not sort of at the table playing that leadership role yet, even though I think to Dreama’s point, it’s, you know, incumbent, if you’re going to be serious about that agenda to be working everywhere, and to be thinking about those communities everywhere and where and where inequity is.
And, Tony, I want to hear from funders as well. We want to do scale.
Oh, yes. Oh, let’s. Yeah, that’s a whole other conversation.
Whole other conversation, right? And so when we’re looking at like, you know, Appalachian Kentucky, you can only reach 50,000 young people for the whole region, right, whereas they could go someplace else and, and reach that. And I think until funders can get past the idea of scale, and think of scale differently. And so one of the things that we’re able to do in our rural place, we’re serving 90% of all kids in that place, that saturation level that actually can transform places, you can achieve that true transformation. I think in rural places, whereas in an urban environment, it would be hard to reach 90% of all the kids, right? And then what we’re also doing is recognizing that we need to make it easier for funders. And so we’re creating a national network around the college access and success piece around libraries, where we’re trying to connect the Appalachia with the Delta with the Colonias and tried to actually create opportunities for funders to come in and fund across multiple regions, the same strategies, because I do think we have to make it easier for them. They’re just not seeing it. They just, we can’t do it at scale, right? We need to invest big. So we can’t do that in one little place.
Dreama, you mentioned something about, y ou know, we have this conversation about equity. And you mentioned, kind of looking at outcomes and seeing these gaps and disparities between students. And I think it highlights for me even more, you know, how our challenges around equity and the need for us to be really committed to an equitable recovery is not sort of a nice to have, it’s a need to have, it’s essential. And I wonder, in this conversation about philanthropy, and also in, you know, the way we shift public funds, is there an opportunity to make a case with evidence with data sort of in this moment, to ensure that, you know, philanthropy does not go back to the way it was not investing in rural communities? Perhaps is as well, or effectively as they could the same for public funds? What is the case that we can make using data and evidence? And, frankly, the voices of community folks?
Yeah, and I think my thought goes, you know, one of the reasons that we joined the StriveTogether network was because of the data driven piece of where we have to be able to show that the interventions, the services are actually moving population level outcomes for young people. And so I think it’s, it’s the same thing during this time of COVID, Christian, is that we have to continue to track those outcomes at the population level of all the students that we’re serving and show that we’re actually holding firm or moving the dial. Now, of course, it gets a lot more complicated because testing didn’t happen last year, right? And that pie piece, and so what we’re trying to do is to embed measurements into the activities and services we’re doing. So that we’re still collecting that data and showing that we’re moving forward, or at least when our kids are not falling too far behind. So I think it’s those muscles, we need to continue as a field, building those muscles during this and telling that story, based on that population level data.
And this is a place where it’s really interesting, you know, coming from the international side, where that’s where I served in government. There is such a focus when we make investments overseas, on trying to track and evaluate the outcomes that we’re having with those investments. That, frankly, especially with the public dollars, we have at the federal level, we do not invest the same way in domestically. Part of that, I think, is just part of the political economy. You know, the constituency, the way you think of your constituency as a congressional member or otherwise a policymaker domestically is, did my district get its fair share of funding? Once you get the funding, then you go on to the next thing, where we don’t always ask the question, well, what did that funding do? Like how well did it actually help us achieve those community level outcomes and population outcomes that Dreama was talking about? And we often don’t, the public funds actually often don’t provide much investment in the data itself. We aren’t actually collecting as much data as we could be around what is working, what isn’t working, what should we be leaving behind? And it’s a very sensitive conversation to have actually, with rural practitioners and community leaders in rural areas, because of that scale question. Because, you know, when they hear about, sort of, evidence, it’s been used against them to say, well, it’s only 100 people, or it’s only 1000 people, it’s not 100,000 people or a million people. So we have to both reframe the conversation and get both public and private investors thinking in terms of relative both delivery as well as improvements to Dreama’s point, she’s serving 90% of the kids there, which is a huge number, as well as investing in the type of data that can really be helpful to understand what kind of, how do we connect the intervention to the outcome itself. And it’s been challenging for, I think, organizations and local governments to sort of build that capacity, because that type of investments not always available in rural and less densely populated places.
And I think often in public dollars, and I’m thinking about Department of Education, as we focus more on evidence and what works, money is often tied to practices that have been proven and researched. But there’s a big gap in the research in rural places. And that creates almost an unintentional bias against rural places, in that if you’re applying for discretionary grant, and you have to be focused and integrate in evidence based practices in order to get the points needed to get the grant. But none of those practices or very few of them have actually been tested in rural places. You’re automatically not going to get the points, right? And so I do think that how do we also invest in research evidence and best practice in rural places so that we can have those strategies there?
One final question. You know, we typically try to end these conversations with a call to action. And we’ve had a discussion today that includes public policy, philanthropy, you know, the importance of civic infrastructure, the way people and institutions and systems align in communities, or wonder, for an equitable recovery, that includes, really highlights the need to support and invest in rural communities. I mean, what will be your call to action, to policymakers, to philanthropy, to our listeners at home? Tony, we’ll start with you.
Well, one is to be intentional about making sure investments get to rural communities. And to Dreama’s point, to understand that different things might work in different ways not to just presume that because an intervention worked in some other community or neighborhood that that’s, you just take that and then plop it down in a rural community, and that’s going to work. So, but one to be intentional, and to ensure that adequate resources are there and are targeted to rural communities, and to equity and inclusivity in the outcomes in those rural communities. I think, secondly, flexibility. Flexibility and also a long term investment. We often talk about, well, rural, you know, there’s lots of federal money, go into rural communities. Look at the food stamp program, or look at disability payments, or things like that. But those things are more designed to help families and households sort of keep their heads above water, rather than invest for the future, and ensuring that we’ve got flexible investments that are future oriented. And will have, to Dreama’s points not just a one time injection, but could maintain or sustain over time, I think is really important. And then third, to my mind, is just sort of investing in local leadership, local institutions, local tables being set, because there’s not going to be a one size fits all. We’ve talked about how diverse rural communities are both demographically and economically, historically. And culturally. I think what’s been challenging for rural communities over the past couple of decades is to keep their civic infrastructure strong. That’s the kind of investment that’s been missing both philanthropically and publicly. And I think we were starting to recognize that and we need to make sure that our investments then are directed that particular way.
Yeah, I love that question. I think the first thing for any person listening is to really question themselves. And really, whether they’re holding any unintentional bias, stereotypes about rural America, rural places and rural people. And really to examine that, because I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to who, when they find out where I live and where I’m from, and where my heart is. They’re like, well, how could you live there? How could you be there? How could you surround yourself with people who do that? And just the ignorance that is there around those stereotypes and that bias, right? So really to question that, that would be the first thing. I think the second is those folks who’ve had that power, that authority that comes with being part of philanthropy, or to do this, to recognize the bright spots, and the practices in rural America, the places that are working, because I think there are places in rural America and other places in rural America that anyone can learn from, right, that are doing things exceptionally well. So how do we identify those bright spots, and replicate those bright spots, not just in rural America, but in urban America, too? And then the third is that recognize that leaders exist throughout the country in rural places. And as Tony said, how do we set tables and bring them together so they have an opportunity to share their expertise, their commitment, their passion, and they have access to the capital needed to really improve their communities?
Well, thank you both. That’s a word I think we can end on. I’m so grateful to both of you for participating in this conversation today. I’ve scribbled many a note, and I think our listeners will draw from the conversation as well. To our listeners. Thank you for joining us today. Stay connected to us by visiting StriveTogether.org where you can find transcripts of our Together for Change podcasts. Thanks, everybody.