“Because the South is and has often been the proving ground for some of the nation’s most regressive public policies and rhetoric, choosing not to invest in Southern structural change work puts marginalized people across the country in harm’s way. Wages are too low to support working families in the Midwest because of anti-labor legislation exported from Southern states. Cities and states in the Southwest model their systemic harassment of immigrants on policies and practices pushed by a powerful minority of Southern elected officials. The road to a more equitable future nationally runs through the South.”
This paragraph, taken from the first page of a new report by Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng, highlights the stakes we face. Famously, it was the failure of Operation Dixie to unionize the South in the postwar period that set the stage for the gradual—and later rapid—retrenchment of unions nationwide that followed, leading to today’s extraordinary levels of economic inequality.
So, if nothing changes—that is, if “business as usual” persists and philanthropy continues to underinvest in the South and, even when it does provide grants, does so in a way that often undermines local capacity—we would be foolish to expect better results.
This is the wake-up call that Schlegel and Peng have issued. Philanthropy would be wise to heed it.
Schlegel and Peng’s report, titled As the South Grows, So Grows the Nation, is the culmination of a five-part series, based on over 150 field interviews conducted over a two-year period, published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress. At NPQ, we have covered a number of these reports, including On Fertile Soil, which focused on the South’s civil rights movement heritage; Weathering the Storm on environmental justice movements; and Bearing Fruit, which focused on Atlanta. NPQ also cosponsored a webinar on the series’ environmental justice report this past February.
In their latest report, Schlegel and Peng highlight the fact that, despite higher need, philanthropic funding in the South trails the nation. According to their analysis of the five-year period from 2011 through 2015, philanthropic spending in the South averaged $60 per person. By contrast, in New York state—where, of course, many national foundations are located—philanthropy spends $194 per person, three times as much. As for grants to marginalized groups, what Schlegel and Peng call “structural change” grantmaking, the disparity is even greater. In the South, such grantmaking totals only $1.16 per person, compared to $6.85 in New York. In other words, in the South, advocates must make their dollars stretch nearly six times as far.
But, as Schlegel and Peng also show, quality is at least as important as quantity. In their report, Schlegel and Peng present an interesting list of “what not to do,” which is reproduced below:
- Let those who benefit from the status quo dictate what is too dangerous to confront.
- Take a race-and-ethnicity-neutral approach, allowing past wrongs to go un-righted.
- Obscure the role national institutions have played extracting wealth and power from the South.