Countering Rural Disinvestment: Appalachia’s Ecosystem-Based Approach – Non Profit News – Nonprofit Quarterly – DC Initiative on Racial Equity
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What does it take for a low-wealth, chronically underinvested region to develop a community-centered investment system?

This is a central question addressed in a new report that Sandra Mikush—a former Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation network officer and deputy director—and I recently coauthored. In the report, By Us For Us: Growing a Community Investment System in Central Appalachia, we identify some lessons that might benefit others pursuing similar work elsewhere. While some of the principles are universal, this is fundamentally a story about a particular place—Appalachia—and the ongoing work to overcome structural barriers to shared prosperity.

Equity and Economic Exploitation

The report illustrates how Central Appalachia—one of the most historically impoverished regions in America—has collectively laid the foundation for a new economy that is more equitable, sustainable, and resilient. Specifically, it shows how the region has developed a home-grown community investment ecosystem capable of directing large-scale capital flows in support of community priorities. If properly resourced, this ecosystem could transform the region’s economic landscape for generations to come. But how did this happen?

When readers think of Appalachia, they face a barrage of negative media tropes—Trump country, opioid addiction, coal mining, and poverty, among them. The bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy implicitly attributed many regional problems to cultural dysfunction, casting a blind eye to obvious historical economic forces or structures. This book and line of thinking have been so thoroughly debunked it would take an entire book to summarize the counterarguments. (In fact, said book already exists).

Another common trope is that Appalachia is all white. While the region is majority white, Black Appalachians and other communities of color have long played important roles in Appalachian labor movements, culture, cuisine, agriculture, and industry. Racism exists in Appalachia, but so does a strong antiracism tradition and an increasing regional focus on racial equity in philanthropy and community development.

Appalachia’s equity challenge sits at the intersection of racial, economic, and environmental injustice. Even in a region like Appalachia where poverty cuts across racial lines, efforts that focus on the most excluded will inherently advance the universal goals of inclusivity, fairness, and resilience. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi put it during in a 2020 discussion on racial equity in West Virginia, “Appalachia can still be a leader in racial equity, by creating the conditions for inclusive and just societies and economies that empower all who live here and make all feel welcome here.”

Appalachian communities, regardless of race, face many structural barriers to opportunity that should make them natural allies of other historically marginalized groups. Bringing poor rural communities into the movement for economic justice and equity creates the potential for big paradigm shifts—while leaving them out means that manipulative political forces will continue to exploit rural poverty for political gain.

Rural communities in Appalachia should be part of the movement for a more equitable, inclusive economy, but building that supports requires organizing. Investing in underserved regions benefits not just area residents, but national civic well-being. Politically, chronic disinvestment and economic marginalization create fertile for anti-elite and anti-government political ideologies—this is true globally as well as in Appalachia. The feeling of being left out, of being abandoned by society as economic powers decide you’re no longer necessary, is palpable in a region that literally sacrificed its people and land to fuel a century of US economi

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