Speak Your Piece: Communities Need More than ‘Outreach’

Rural communities need more than "bridges" to progressive urban institutions. They need their own people-powered organizations.

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In the 1980 presidential election, West Virginia was one of five states carried by the Democrat Jimmy Carter in his contest with Republican winner Ronald Reagan. Reagan won Virginia with 53% of the vote; but southwest Virginia and its “fighting” 9th Congressional District, which runs north along the Virginia-West Virginia state line, voted for Carter. The 9th, where I live, was the only rural Virginia district to swing Democratic in the 1980 election. Compare 1980 to 2016: West Virginia voted 69% for Trump and 26% for Clinton. Trump carried every county in West Virginia. In 2016, my neighbors in the “fighting” 9th voted 75%-plus for Trump. What so radically changed between 1980 and 2016?

Of many regional factors, among the most decisive was the loss of the United Mine Workers of America in the late 1980s as a center for political analysis and continuing community education. At their best, union halls functioned as democracy’s classrooms.

Many, like Bernie Sanders, have argued that since Reagan’s 1980 election we have had 35 years of public policy that ignored rural and inner-city poor and lower-middle class people. In my county, Wise, and its neighbor, Dickenson, we now have two “super-max” prisons. The majority of the prisoners are African-American from distant cities; the guards are white and local. Prison construction began to boom in the 1980s.

Over the past 35 years, philanthropies have increasingly abandoned rural and inner-city communities. In 2008, one of the leading national foundations discontinued its rural funding with the rationale that rural communities were no longer statistically significant. It is estimated that now 5% of foundation dollars support rural nonprofits, which are attempting to serve 20% of the U.S. population. The importance of nonprofit organizations as centers for the delivery of essential services and for civic engagement must be made plain to federal agencies and philanthropic foundations.

The Los Angeles-based Inner City Cultural Center emerged from the Watts Riots. It was founded by C. Bernard “Jack” Jackson and was one of the chief institutional allies of Appalshop, a media arts organization out of which Roadside Theater was formed. True to its civil rights antecedents (e.g., Septima Clark’s “Citizenship Schools”), it was an artistic and cultural hub as well as an educational and social service organization. When you are one of the few high-functioning institutions in a collapsing community, you are a first responder. The Appalachian coalfields are experiencing an economic crisis, so Appalshop is using the power of art and culture to address economic development.  Jack Jackson understood: “One of the major problems in the so-called minority communities has always been the transient nature of institutions, particularly arts institutions,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. With Jackson’s passing in 1996 and the ongoing culture war against nonprofit arts centers serving the majority of Americans, the ICCC’s vitality drained away.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, a combination of public and private support helped communities build these centers; that support began to dissipate in the 1980s. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s claim is as true now as it was 50 years ago, when he made it in his ringing essay From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement: “To advance civil and human rights we must build community centers of power.”

What I fear we will see from so-called progressives in the wake of Trump’s election, instead of this commitment to building people-powered organizations, is a flurry of support for “bridge initiatives” – for example, incentives within universities to do more community outreach. We know from experience, however, that without community-based anchor institutions as partners, higher education institutional outreach at best fails to meet the test of need; at worst, it has a disempowering effect on community members’ own sense of agency.

For our government of, by, and for the people to work, there must be opportunities and places for people to come together across lines of perceived difference to share their life stories, learn from each other, and form community bonds. For more than three decades now, too many of our social policies have been anti-community, and our economic policies have been divisive. Both Sanders and Trump campaigned as populists – candidates of the people. The big question for the winner: Will you bring us together or further divide us?

Dudley Cocke is the artistic director of Roadside Theater, a part of Appalshop.

 

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