A Millennial Perspective on Community Development in Rural North Carolina: Part III

Why Does CED Matter Anyways?

By: Riley B. Foster, NCCDI 2017 Summer Associate

Last week I finished my second summer as an intern for the North Carolina Community Development Initiative. These past two summers have taught me more than I could have ever envisioned or hoped. I am walking away confident in my newfound desire to pursue a career in community economic development, which is leaps and bounds more than I could have said in the spring of 2016. I doubt that I could have even defined community economic development before May of last year.

To me, community economic development means providing access and opportunity. It means working from the inside out; starting with at the grassroots level to identify needs and challenges on a small, community by community basis.

It’s enticing to envision being the person who creates the end-all be-all solution to a social problem, but I’ve become convinced that those broad, one-size-fits-all answers rarely exist. I don’t think that saying this makes me a cynic or a pessimist. Rather, I think that it is a realistic approach to the dynamic, diverse world in which we live. The challenges of my hometown of Chapel Hill, are never going to parallel those of Lumberton or Princeville or Rocky Mount, and that’s perfectly okay as long as I am cognizant of that.

Since I can only truly speak to my city’s difficulties and corresponding responses, I am ill-equipped to determine the problems, needs, and answers in a smaller, rural towns in Eastern North Carolina. This was never more apparent to me than while making site-visits to Lumberton and Rocky Mount with my colleagues this summer. The Initiative had received funding to address the outstanding capital needs seven months out from Hurricane Matthew, so we set off to conduct some on the ground investigation into where these dollars could be most effectively deployed. I figured that this process would be fairly straightforward. After all, how hard could it be to find landlords and small business owners who would be interested in low-interest, partially forgivable loans? The answer? Pretty hard.

See, what I hadn’t fully appreciated, even with several months experience working in the CED field, was that believing in the theory behind community economic development was significantly different than putting that theory into practice. I learned more useful information in the brief visits that we made to the eastern part of the state, than I’d gathered in weeks of cold-calling and online research. For example, I never would have known that such a high percentage of small business owners in these rural towns are above 65 years old, or that many of their businesses had been hit by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. No wonder the bites on our small business loan products were few and far between–who wants to take on debt when they already owe money and when they’ll only be operating their businesses for a short while longer? In addition to this tidbit, we discovered that residents in these small communities would be unlikely to attend information sessions that required a 10-15 minute drive; that word of mouth and paper communication are much more effective than electronic communication; and that a widespread lack of financial literacy is one of the greatest barriers to successful business ownership. These small, yet significant realizations make or break capital investment. It’s imperative that outside organizations develop strong local connections and relationships in order to truly make a positive impact in communities that have experienced disinvestment.

The other notable takeaway that I had from these adventures was a greater comprehension of the interconnectedness of social challenges.

It’s fine and dandy to construct affordable housing, but what do we do when residents can’t afford the affordable housing because of a lack of economic opportunity and jobs?  How do we create long-term prosperity when the quality of public education continues to degrade? How do we expect a successful next generation of entrepreneurs in areas where financial literacy training doesn’t exist? These are the types of questions that everyone in the CED world must pose. It’s unrealistic to address one without also addressing the others.

That being said, it’s not my job or my colleagues’ jobs to solve these problems for every community in North Carolina in one fell swoop, even if our organization is a “statewide intermediary”. The residents and community-based organizations in towns like Rocky Mount and Lumberton know what challenges they face and what they need for successful development. They also know the strengths and the beauty of their communities, and they’re the ones with the capacity to harness these assets and transform them into long-term prosperity. That’s the main aspect that I love about CED work: success requires collaboration, inclusivity, and optimism.

I am incredibly grateful for my time at the Initiative. This work has pushed me, inspired me, and forced me to reflect on complex issues on a deep level. I believe in the power of community-based work to tackle today’s pressing issues, and I’m optimistic about what we can accomplish when we forge partnerships.

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