Why don’t they just move? Climate change and the question of worth

We all want to live in safe places. But right now, many rural communities and Native nations aren’t getting the support they need to prepare, respond to, and mitigate increasingly extreme weather. 

When rural places face recurring flooding, drought, or fires, the response is usually limited. There is often the sentiment of ‘Why don’t they just move?’ implying that committing time or money in these communities isn’t worthwhile and continued climate change consequences are inevitable. This thought process misses these communities’ assets and opportunities.

Philanthropy has a unique role to play, given the history of underinvestment in rural places and Native nations. Funders have the opportunity to partner with communities to help mitigate disasters and create meaningful relationships that build prosperity with Indigenous and rural communities who are most vulnerable to recurrent disasters.

At the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, we work with practitioners to respond to these scenarios, and we share some of the ways philanthropy is changing course in communities like Duck Hill, MS, and ways in which additional philanthropic investment would be beneficial in Princeville, NC.

In north-central Mississippi, the predominantly Black town of Duck Hill has experienced chronic flooding for decades. Because of an antiquated drainage system, each rainstorm flooded the streets, repeatedly damaging cars and buildings. Years of discussions with state and federal governments about major flood mitigation projects have yet to yield much progress.

In recent years, however, residents have come together through the leadership of Romona Taylor Williams, an experienced community organizer, and developed their own plan to divert water in the worst-hit areas of town.

With the support of national philanthropic organizations, Duck Hill residents have installed water diversion systems, significantly reducing flooding. Encouraged by their success, they continue to work together on projects from democratizing data to youth environmental engagement.

We celebrate the success of Duck Hill residents and know it has the potential to be replicated by working with philanthropy. While the specific details of what’s happening in Duck Hill are unique to its local history and geography, rural underinvestment and undervaluation are nationwide issues, particularly in communities of colour and low-wealth places.

For communities of color and Native communities, the land they occupy is a vital part of their history, resilience, and perseverance. These communities were often forced to their current locations because the land was less desirable, and they shouldn’t be asked to abandon these places without the investment and opportunity they have historically been denied.

Residents in Princeville, NC, the country’s oldest incorporated Black town, have felt this double standard. After the Civil War, formerly enslaved residents could only settle on low-lying land near the Tar River because it was considered less valuable due to its geography. Given the low-lying land, flooding has always posed a challenge to the community, but Princeville has experienced two devastating ‘500-year’ floods in just 17 years.

Like their counterparts in Duck Hill, local leaders in Princeville have long worked with state and federal officials to implement flood mitigation solutions, but delays in planning and appropriation hinder progress.

So, how can philanthropy support efforts to achieve equitable prosperity within rural communities beyond an immediate disaster?

To answer that question, we convened 39 rural economic and community development practitioners from rural communities and Native nations across the U.S. Their experiences and ideas provided the foundation for our recommendations to philanthropy on advancing rural prosperity after disasters.

In the long term, funders need to build trust with rural communities and Native nations. This lengthy process begins with learning and listening, grows with demonstration and change, and solidifies with mutual partnership and engaged work.

As a first step, funders should hire staff who come from and deeply understand their communities. Once those staff members are hired, ensure they have what they need to stay connected to those communities and facilitate learning for the organization.

Funders can also provide flexible and responsive funding for disaster preparation, response, and recovery so efforts can advance equity and increase regional prosperity instead of recreating inequitable pre-disaster conditions. Additionally, short-term ‘bridge funding’ enables communities to fill gaps before federal funds begin to flow.

Some funders are shifting gears to instead learn communities’ language, processes, and practices, enabling more equitable partnerships and impactful projects that truly meet community needs.

This has been illustrated through simplified applications that allow the communities to share their work in innovative ways. These applications can be in the form of a video or a conversation versus a traditional written application. Reporting requirements should be less arduous and could, for example, be a conversation with the founder about progress and accomplishments versus a written report.

Rural places are striving to preserve their deep-rooted connections, address current needs, and plan for future prosperity. Are you ready to work alongside them?

Originally published by Alliance.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group