A rural advocate who helped strengthen the field of rural development through national efforts that produced local results is remembered as passionate, effective, and unrelenting.
Sandra Rosenblith, whose vision and tenacity helped spread the practice of nonprofit community development from the nation’s urban centers to hard-hit rural areas, died this week at the age of 70. The cause of death was cancer.
Colleagues remembered Rosenblith as a passionate, effective, and dogged advocate for policies to help rural communities.
“In my mind she contributed more to community development than anyone else I know,” said Arnold Montgomery, who worked in various capacities with Rosenblith since 1971. “She did ground-breaking things. And all of it was driven by her vision, her tenacity, and her determination to never give up – and I do mean never.”
Rosenblith helped establish Rural LISC at the Local Initiatives Support Organization in 1995. The program helps rural development groups tap public and private funding for local projects. Currently Rural LISC has 63 partner development organizations that work in 40 states and cover nearly 1,200 U.S. counties. Rural LISC has leveraged $3 billion in rural development investment in the past two decades, according to a fact sheet on the organization’s website.
Equally important was the network of rural development advocates she created, Montgomery said.
“She brought together people working in rural development from all over the country who would have never met each other otherwise,” he said. “Together they became pretty powerful because they could go as a group to see their members of Congress and tell them what rural organizations and communities needed. They got a lot of things done.”
Rural LISC will celebrate its 20th anniversary next month in Portland, Maine.
Rosenblith retired from LISC in 2009 and remained involved in rural development policy work. She served on the steering committee of the National Rural Assembly, which is coordinated by the Center for Rural Strategies. And she served on Rural Strategies’ board of directors from the organization’s founding in 2001 to 2013.
(The Center for Rural Strategies publishes the Daily Yonder and was also the fiscal sponsor for Stand Up for Rural America, an advocacy organization Rosenblith created.)
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies and publisher of the Daily Yonder, said Rosenblith was instrumental in helping the organization get off the ground. “I remember talking to Sandy about our plans and saying, ‘I think this is going to work, but I’m not sure I know how to do this.’ And she said, ‘That’s OK, honey, I know how.’ And she always did know how.”
Other colleagues at the Center for Rural Strategies remembered Rosenblith as a tireless and sometimes daunting leader.
“Sandy was larger than life, and she was a little intimidating to me when I first started working with her,” said Michelle Basso Reynolds, a former Rural Strategies staff member. “But nothing could get her down or stop progress. I learned very quickly that if you needed anything, she was the person to go to.”
Edyael Casaperalta, another member of the Rural Strategies staff, said she met Rosenblith when she was prepping to serve on a National Rural Assembly panel. Casaperalta was still in college at the time and was supposed to provide a young person’s perspective. “Sandy told me, ‘I want you to be a voice of dissent on this panel, so whatever the other panelists say, I want you to disagree with it,’” she said. “I felt that I was in good company, like she was an older aunt.”
After that meeting Rosenblith stayed in touch with Casaperalta to help her with post-college plans. “What I learned from that was that Sandy had a big heart and a clear vision of what she thought was just,” Casaperalta said. “And what drove her was that she was a very generous person.”
Justin Maxson, executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and a former Rural Strategies board member, remembered Rosenblith’s political acuity. As a teenager she worked on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. At Rural LISC she created opportunities for rural development leaders to interact with the people who set national rural policy.
She was a “truth teller,” Maxson said. “I remember seeing her at one of her events in Washington in Union Station. I turned around and she had [two congressional leaders] in head locks, describing to them what rural policy should look like.”
Rosenblith wrote occasional pieces for the Daily Yonder and regularly sent emails to Yonder staff with story ideas and links to news coverage.
Though she made the transition to computerized communication, her preferred work tools for many years were a legal pad and fax machine. “Often you would look at the time on her faxes, and they were going out in 1, 2 and 3 in the morning, not just to you but a lot of folks,” Montgomery said.
Rosenblith’s passion for rural communities dated at least to the early 1970s, Montgomery said, when she worked in the Mississippi Delta helping community development groups and entrepreneurs through the National Council for Equal Business Opportunity.
She retained that passion for rural work after becoming one of the first staff members at LISC, which formed around 1980. She managed urban development programs in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Miami, where projects and organizations she helped create were part of rebuilding South Beach. In the mid-90s she led LISC into greater involvement with rural projects.
“LISC was designed to work with urban areas,” Montgomery said. “But she always had rural in mind. For a number of years she went to battle to create Rural LISC, getting this urban-based entity to do a lot of work in rural communities.”
Rosenblith was a graduate of the University of California, Berkley and earned a law degree at Harvard. After working at the National Council for Equal Business Opportunity, she ran a community development consulting firm with Montgomery and Allan Gallant. She later served as director of the legal division of the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Office of Community Investment.
She was part of the federal task force that wrote the first regulations for the Community Reinvestment Act. She helped design and implement Department of Agriculture programs that supported affordable housing and nonprofit rural development organizations.
“With her intelligence and skills, she could have done almost anything,” Montgomery said. “And she chose to go into community development and to work on behalf of people who were not part of the ‘big economic party.’ She helped people get housing and better jobs. And she was truly dedicated to that.”