Investing in our own diversity, equity, and inclusion journey
Economically successful and resilient communities, whether rural or urban, are diverse in endless ways, but they share one common trait: they are welcoming places that tap the potential and passion of every person who wants to contribute. To grow, thrive, and be globally competitive, rural North Carolina and its leaders and advocates—ourselves included—must be willing to see, celebrate, and embrace our diversity.
But doing this work, building communities where everyone’s voices and contributions are heard and valued, can only be done successfully when we confront the corrosive force that racism, discrimination, and economic inequity have in communities across our state and nation.
From its first inclusion in the Rural Economic Development Institute’s (REDI) curriculum in the early 90’s, to the 2020 launch of CornerSquare Community Capital, education and action around equity has been a part of the Center’s DNA. And while that work has been a part of our journey for more than 30 years, it has also continuously evolved in how we address racism and discrimination as we learned and grew both as individuals and as an organization.
“As an economic development organization, we know firsthand how these historical power and social structures have led to the continued economic exclusion of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and we know how this history exacts a continued influence on all marginalized groups and perpetuates economic inequity.”
Racist practices like slavery, redlining, employment discrimination, lending and mortgage discrimination, among others, have contributed to longstanding and costly economic disparities on the dimensions of race and ethnicity. As an economic development organization, we know firsthand how these historical power and social structures have led to the continued economic exclusion of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and we know how this history exacts a continued influence on all marginalized groups and perpetuates economic inequity. Examples of these disparities include:
- A wide gap in Median Household Income (MHI), where as of 2018, white MHI was three times that of people of color, as reported by the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
- The 2018 rural white poverty rate is 13 percent, compared with the rates of poverty for people of color, which fall between 26 and 33 percent, as reported by the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 5-Year Estimate.
- Of the 25 most economically distressed counties in North Carolina (all rural), as measured by the North Carolina Commerce annual Tier rankings, 16 are majority people of color—and another eight of those counties have more than 40 percent of their total population as people of color.
- A recent Citi GPS analysis estimates $16 trillion in lost national GDP (Gross Domestic Product) due to racial inequality in the last two decades.
We cannot build a resilient rural economy if we ignore these disparities, and we believe that to be truly resilient as an organization—and as a state and nation—it is past time for all of us to confront these hard truths and take action to make lasting, structural and systemic change.
Over the last few years, the Rural Center has more intentionally turned our gaze inward to evaluate how we can be an organization that truly lives the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) so we can ensure that our organization and our programming addresses the tolls that racism and discrimination exact in the communities we serve. In 2019, we established our Equity Leadership Team and in 2021, a DEI working group of board members and engaged consultants to help us understand where we fall short and identify a path with clear actions we can take towards becoming a more equitable organization.
Internally as a start, we are also engaging our staff in ongoing action and educational opportunities.
- We have created an internal newsletter devoted to resources, information, and updates on racial equity work.
- We are hosting community leaders, experts, and educators for our ongoing equity conversation series.
- We convened a racial equity book club, wherein staff members read and discuss educational materials centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion and how it relates to our individual and collective work.
- We are collecting baseline demographic data on staff, board members, and program participants.
- And we implemented quarterly pulse surveys of employees, which allows us to assess key differences in workplace satisfaction across race, gender, and age/generation.
Additionally, we updated our program offerings to include education and resources around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some examples of this include:
- Adding a curriculum around the economic impact of racial inequity to our leadership development training programs. In REDI and Homegrown Leaders, participants will now engage in an analysis of the historical impact of social structures and power relationships on specific economic issues, social conditions, and marginalized populations; and participate in in-depth conversations on how rural community leaders can eliminate barriers and expand opportunity for the future economic well-being of all rural North Carolinians and their communities.
- Updates to our Framework for Community Economic Development to now include five building blocks, guiding principles, and Core Values of equity and inclusion.
- In September 2020, we launched CornerSquare Community Capital, a resource designed to support Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs) and increase investment in communities and entrepreneurs that have seen decades of underinvestment. All of CornerSquare’s funding is allocated to racially and ethnically diverse small business owners, women, and individuals in low-to-moderate income communities, with a focus on Black-owned small businesses. Read more about CornerSquare’s impact here.
“We do not think of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a destination, but rather a lifelong journey and continuous process rooted in education and action. Our next steps are to further operationalize our internal and external efforts and develop systems of measurements and impact to ensure we are accountable.”
We do not think of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a destination, but rather a lifelong journey and continuous process rooted in education and action. Our next steps are to further operationalize our internal and external efforts and develop systems of measurements and impact to ensure we are accountable. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination of any kind exacts both a moral and economic toll—on individuals, communities, and on organizations. The long-term viability and resiliency of the Rural Center as an organization, and of the rural communities we serve, depends on us examining our participation in discriminatory structures and working together to access the tools, resources, and supports necessary to make real change.
By dedicating our time and resources to becoming more equitable as an organization, we are ensuring that the quality and reach of our work includes every rural North Carolinian, that we can meet the changes and challenges of an ever-changing state, nation, and world, and that we are doing the right thing.
And by resolving to continually improve our programmatic offerings to address racism, discrimination, and systemic inequities, we are continuing our commitment to ensuring our growing rural economies are welcoming places where everyone can thrive and access necessary resources without barriers to their full potential for a brighter, more vibrant future.