A few weeks ago, I met Jim from Pike County, Arkansas, and he said he loved his small town. He raised his kids there, built his business there, and knew his customers by name. He played golf with the city council guys, regularly attended one of the local churches, and was involved in his kids’ schools–which he told me were among the best in the state. And if his kids got out of line at school or after, he could count on his neighbors to let him know before they made it home. Jim believed in the power of his community.
But his story wasn’t all land of milk and honey. I knew bitter herbs were on the way when he smiled and gave a pre-apology before telling me what else he thought. He believed leaders at the state and national level “don’t seem to give a damn about small communities.”
He felt like statewide programs, government budgets, and solutions to big challenges catered to big cities. They didn’t take into account the unique challenges his community faced, the outsized impact their policies had on his town, or what he and his neighbors were already doing to make Pike County a more welcoming and prosperous community.
For Jim, government was a problem. Philanthropy was a problem. Well-intended big solutions were a problem. But he didn’t think they had to be.
Jim liked some government. He knew and respected the mayor, his state representative, and his school administration. He could point to a few times when big government actually helped his community.
Jim liked some philanthropy. He told me about the power that residents could have when they pulled together to support one of their own. He cited one example when his community raised $34,000 to support his neighbor, who was struggling to support his family while going through cancer treatment.
Jim liked some big solutions. He knew that the right resources, programs, and policies could make things better in Pike County. His town was building safer roads, attracting manufacturing jobs, and helping students earn college credit while completing high school.
The key lesson he taught me was that things work well when his community had a say. Big ideas only took flight when the timing was right for his community, when his neighbors were ready to invest their time and energy, when people really believed a vision of transformation would actually make their lives better.
In an analysis of two decades of philanthropic community-change efforts, The Foundation Review finds that what Jim believed worked well for him and his neighbors works well for other communities too. When outsiders try to identify, design, and create a timeline for improving the lives of children and families, it can “provoke resistance and disrupt existing relationships amongst local neighborhood players and programs.”
Lasting change requires a deep understanding of communities’ assets and challenges. Real solutions are “based on an understanding of what is already there.” It also requires investment in local leaders and the right support for turning bold ideas into positive community change.
The late Tip O’Neill, a national political leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives, once said, “All politics is local.” No matter how grand the program or visionary the strategy, nothing gets done within a community without organizations on the ground, knowledgeable leaders, and passionate residents all coming together to shape the future they want for themselves.
At WRF, we know that all philanthropy is local. Whether the best-planned programs, initiatives, and strategies find traction or hydroplane depends on whether local residents want to drive them forward in the first place.
That’s why we’ve supported solutions created by communities to achieve the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s goal to prepare every Arkansas student to read at grade level by the end of third grade. That’s why we’ve partnered with communities to realize ForwARd Arkansas’s vision of our state as a national leader in education. That’s why we’ve shared what Bright Spot communities are doing to answer Expect More Arkansas’s call to build partnerships between educators and business leaders to help more Arkansans earn the degrees and certificates they need to secure high-skilled jobs that provide family-supporting wages.
Jim and countless others like him “give a damn” about what happens–and how it happens–in their communities. They know that individuals can’t come close to solving problems the way an active and collaborative community can. They also know that when big ideas don’t account for local contexts, the folks in communities suffer the unintended consequences.
In Arkansas, communities are our unit of change. Without the involvement and investment of people in our cities, towns, and hamlets, we can accomplish nothing. But when communities are united and engaged, we can accomplish anything.