How has your career prepared you for your current role?
During the first half of my career, I worked in developing countries — Haiti, the Sudan and Nigeria. In the second half, I worked on inner-city poverty in the United States— South Bronx, inner city Detroit and Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. Now I am in the third half (!) of my career, working on the problems of rural communities in Oregon and Northern California. Along that far-flung journey, I’ve really only worked on just one project: to improve the well-being and life chances of people who have been disadvantaged for economic, social or political reasons.
What are the most important issues for rural grantees in your community?
First of all, rural Oregon is absolutely gorgeous — whether it’s the coast, rivers and forests of Douglas County, or the high desert, mountains and lakes of Wallowa County. And, not surprisingly, rural Oregonians have a deep love of and commitment to their hometowns. But it has gotten very hard for many to earn a decent family-supporting income in rural Oregon. Nationwide, there has been a massive restructuring of the economy due to technological change and globalization. That restructuring has shifted us from labor-intensive industries. From autoworkers in Detroit to wood-product workers in rural Oregon, it's hit the American working class hard.
This shift has led to a cycle of economic decline that now crosses generations: As rural industries have shriveled, so have tax receipts, which has led to a decline in all kinds of government services, from education to public safety. As poverty becomes more concentrated — especially multi-generational poverty — there are serious social consequences in terms of family dynamics, mental health problems and community cohesion. Those who can leave for decent careers elsewhere, do. And the sad truth is that rural Oregon’s most devastating export is its youth.
What are your core strategies for addressing these issues?
I am spending a lot of time analyzing our rural landscape through the lens of the four roles that a foundation can play:
- Help make sure that the local economy is providing decent incomes.
- Support the provision of high-quality services and programs (especially education) for children and families.
- Promote democratic problem-solving and civic action.
- Develop knowledge about and capacity to implement improvements in rural wellbeing — at both community and state levels.
Foundations occupy a unique place not only in keeping each of those four strategies thriving and operating in sync, but also in making sure that the field of poverty reduction and social change has strong organizations working together.
How are demographics changing in your region, and how is your funding strategy addressing these changes?
Until the mid-1980s, southwestern Oregon had plentiful, well-paying jobs in the timber industry. No postsecondary degree required. Timber accounted for almost 50% of the jobs. Today, timber accounts for a little more the 10%. So, unskilled labor can only find jobs in minimum-wage service jobs; high-skilled labor is leaving the region. Rural Oregon is losing its 25- to 34-year-olds. These are the young adults who would be establishing careers, starting families, buying homes and participating in public institutions. Meanwhile, the incoming migrants are different from the households moving out. First, we have agricultural laborers who are largely Latino, constituting a much-need Latino “revival” of rural Oregon. Second, we have older people who relocate to rural Oregon as they retire. Rural Oregon needs to help these in-migrants find ways to contribute to the community.
What has been a big success for your organization?
Any community-revitalization initiative needs to be led by and owned by the residents. Residents should develop the vision and plan; their knowledge of the community should undergird the work; their energy should govern the work. This way of working has been called civic capacity building or community democracy. We call it community building.
Few foundations even recognize that this is critical. The Ford Family Foundation not only recognizes it, but it has the Ford Institute for Community Building, dedicated to supporting rural community leadership development since 2003. The Ford Institute has now trained more than 6,000 leaders in 88 rural hubs across Oregon and Northern California. Our goal is to help all who’ve been trained to take action in their communities. We’re now shifting the work of the Ford Institute from individual leadership development to broader community development led by local residents.
What's the biggest rural funding challenge your organization is tackling right now?
With the changing circumstances of rural Oregon, community-based problem-solving needs to evolve and needs the support that our foundation is committed to providing. The most important way is to expand the types of participating voices. Throughout our foundation’s 12 years of leadership development, we’ve seen a lot of the usual suspects in rural communities step up, notably white women in their fifties and sixties. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we need to reach out and encourage leadership from new voices, including Native Americans and Latinos. Perhaps most important, we need to engage the young people in creating the future for their hometowns that they want to see.
Economic development is a cornerstone of community vitality. In 2015, we created a new department at the Foundation: Community Economic Development and hired three new staff. They are focusing on this critical area.
What's one more question we should ask, and how would you answer it?
Q. Earlier, you mentioned the importance of knowledge development. Can you tell us more?
A. A key role of foundations is to develop knowledge about how to make positive change for children, youth, families and communities that are disconnected from the social and economic mainstream. This kind of knowledge is painfully weak when it comes to rural America. This role focuses on learning from interventions that are making a difference, disseminating that information to practitioners and to policymakers and others who can fund the work. I’ll call the nonprofits that fill this role “think tanks” — although the best ones do more than just think: They think and do — and then work hard to share their findings widely.
There are precious few of these organizations across the country, hardly any in Oregon, and almost none focus on rural issues. The unsolved social problems that face us today need high-quality programmatic interventions, of course, but these unsolved problems are complex. They require reforms of institutions, policies and systems, and they should evolve continually.
In the business sector, these problems are known as “adaptive problems.” Others call them “wicked problems.” They can’t be solved by isolated initiatives or by traditional random control experiments that the medical world uses.
There is no silver bullet. No single organization has sufficient resources or authority to bring about the necessary change. The whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. We have to understand how the parts interact. Our learning has to explain how and why a strategy is effective, not just whether it works.