Economic influence. Economic development. Economic freedom. Financial liberation in the South’s Black Belt Region became the hot topic of discourse during April 2019’s Socio-Economic Mobility (SEM) Summit held at Faith Christian Fellowship Ministries in Milledgeville, Georgia.
I served as a guest panelist for the summit. I must say: The conversations were honest and powerful. “We have to do a better job of partnering and pulling together all our resources,” said Gregory L. Barnes, summit participant and executive director of Milledgeville’s arts-based, social-enterprise hub CREATE Inc. “I meet so many individuals and groups who have great ideas to change our current state in the South. If we don’t start taking these ideas and putting collective action behind them, we’re going to continue to fall behind the digital times.”
Barnes, like other African-American leaders and entrepreneurs of the Black Belt Region, knows and works to combat this fact: The region is and has been underserved and underdeveloped for centuries. Data from the National Rural Funders Collaborative confirms seven out of 10 rural African-Americans living in Southern states, including Georgia, live in poverty. Additionally, rural people of color are more than twice as likely to live poor compared to whites in rural areas.
“It’s the truth and seen all around us,” said West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative Development Coordinator Eric Simpson. “One way we can come together and promote each of our services is through co-ops. I can’t stress this business model enough.” A co-op is a business working for and owned by its members. Co-ops have been the fabric of black farming communities since establishing more than a century ago. In short: a survival mechanism. African-Americans have always had a connection to the land, so this model has worked to continue to promote community-based economic development.
“I champion co-ops because they’re our chance to create a more inclusive economy,” Simpson said, “and it allows money to stay in our communities.” Barnes and Simpson participated in a round table talk with area academics, farmers and pastors to discuss and develop concrete strategies to help strengthen economic resources and opportunities for rural communities. The table talk then moved into a panel discussion with impactful guest speakers who joined me:
* Arnold Houge Jr., state director of Black Wall Street South Carolina, who spoke about land/home ownership and a fight to rural economic freedom;
* Daylon Martin, Jones County commissioner, who educated about the importance of elected official influence in economic development; and
* Quinton Robinson, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rural development state director, who discussed accessing USDA initiatives for rural economic development.
“The resources are out here,” said Robinson. “We want our rural citizens to know they can participate in home, farm and business ownership programs, which is economic development at work.” On behalf of USDA, Robinson visited Georgia College & State University four years ago to award the public liberal arts institution a $63,000 grant from the Rural Business Development Grant program. Designed to help rural, Middle Georgia businesses capitalize on e-commerce, the program provides technical assistance, training and other tools to develop and expand small, emerging private businesses in rural communities.
The Milledgeville summit is just one of many Georgia SEM Summits that take place across the state. SEM is known for sharing the principles of economic and social mobility through its annual community engagement and entrepreneurialism efforts. Supported by groups such as the Georgia NAACP, 100 Black Men of Oconee, CREATE Inc. and Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baldwin County, SEM travels the countryside in both the Middle Georgia and Oconee regions to connect Southern residents with professionals who can help educate and improve rural conditions. “The only thing really stopping us in between our ears,” said Simpson. “We have to ask ourselves the question: ‘Do we want to control the economics of our community or forever be at the mercy of others?’”