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Speaking of the Economy
Anita Brown-Graham giving key keynote at the Investing in Rural America conference in April 2023.
Speaking of the Economy
June 21, 2023

Sustaining Momentum in Rural Development

Audiences: Community Advocates, Community Investors, General Public

Anita Brown-Graham describes the key components of lasting development in rural communities. She shared these insights in her keynote at the Richmond Fed's Investing in Rural America conference in April 2023. Brown-Graham is a professor of public law and government and director of ncIMPACT, an initiative to help local leaders use evidence in policymaking, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Tim Sablik: Hello, I'm Tim Sablik, a senior economics writer at the Richmond Fed. My guest today is Anita Brown-Graham, the Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government and the director of ncIMPACT at the UNC School of Government.

Anita, welcome to the show.

Anita Brown-Graham: Great to be here. Thank you so much.

Sablik: You were a keynote speaker at the Richmond Fed's Investing in Rural America conference back in April. I'm excited to have you on today to share some of the highlights from your address with our listeners, and to continue that conversation from the conference.

The title of your talk was "The Fourth Way to Investing for Transformation." Maybe we could start by you addressing what is the "fourth way" and how does it connect to rural development?

Brown-Graham: During a time when I was trying to do something other than work, I ended up reading this book, "In Search of Being: The Fourth Way to Consciousness" by George Gurdjieff. I was particularly captured by his focus on fusion as an important asset. As he defined it, fusion or inner unity is obtained by a means of friction, by the struggle that individuals go through between yes and no.

Because, apparently, I'm completely incapable of turning off the work button, it started to occur to me that the self-development trajectory [Gurdjieff] articulated is what I had been observing for many decades in communities. Inner struggle is actually an asset. And, if that asset is capitalized on, it helps communities to get to places they otherwise would not be able to go.

Sablik: Can you share a few success stories about this approach?

Brown-Graham: I have seen this happen in North Carolina around affordable housing, for example, where there are real frictions at the onset about how to provide housing for the full complement of residents. People start out in a very "yes and no" position. That positioning changes over time and what began as friction turns into fusion, which allows for the development of common values and consensus strategies that would not have happened unless there had been that friction in the first place.

I've also seen this happen, again in North Carolina, around particular physical assets in a community. I can think of one community, for example, where the city council decided to build a sports complex. There was so much pushback against it. But in that pushback, the city council was able to refine its strategy. By the time the complex was built, the community was much more prepared to deal with both the positives that came from the economic development spillovers in terms of restaurants and hotels, and the downsides that came from a lot of out-of-town traffic every weekend. You can just see where that process moved from friction to fusion and where that crystallization that Gurdjieff talked about happened.

For some communities, the timeframe is short. For others, it could be very long. But the point here is to recognize that rather than shying away from friction, communities need to lean into it in order to make the kind of strides that are really important for rural communities.

Sablik: I see. Yeah, that makes sense.

Another component that you highlighted in your talk is the need for "bridges and bonds." Could you explain a little bit by what you mean by bridges and bonds and how they are important for achieving, ultimately, community transformation?

Brown-Graham: For centuries, we've understood intuitively the importance of social capital. Networks and connections and trust in communities are also assets.

Bonding capital is that capital that allows you to connect to people who are similar to you. It was me calling other moms when I knew I was going to be late to pick my child up from daycare and say, "Can you just get my baby so she's not the last person in the class and sit in the car with her until I get there?" All of us have to have that kind of capital just to make it day by day.

Bridging capital is what's described as the set of connections you have that help you get ahead. It's those connections with people who are differently situated than you are — by geography, by income, by race. What's important here are the people who help you to have a perspective that you otherwise would not have and to take advantage of opportunities that you otherwise would not know about.

For rural communities, this is important at the community level. You have to be able to learn from communities that are similarly situated. You also have to be connected to communities that have perspective and resources and outcomes that stretch you.

Sablik: Building these bonds can happen on an individual level, and then these bridges are more on a community level. Is there a need for someone to lead the process of building these bridges and bonds, for some sort of leader to emerge?

Brown-Graham: I have not ever seen a community change its trajectory without being able to point to one or two or three people who really catalyzed the effort. We talk about bonds and bridges, but there's also that connective tissue or capital, the people who wake up every morning thinking about how to build that. In the absence of them, it just tends to fizzle or falter.

So, the answer to your question is yes. It's important to have leaders who are absolutely committed to building these connections and unwilling to yield, even in the face of pushback, until they're able to get them done.

That said, having a handful of exceptional leaders is never enough. It's perhaps what my mother used to say is "necessary, but not sufficient." You have to have other people who then are inspired and willing to come to the table.

So, the real strategy — and this is so much of what my work is about — is helping these leaders figure out strategies to make the work sustainable. That often means a set of cross-sector collaborators who are focused on the big picture of community change, particularly in rural communities facing complex challenges that all seem to be interrelated. That's got to be a broad-based set of collaborators. [It has] to include the private sector, the public sector, [and] community-based organizations — whether they [are] formal nonprofits or faith-based organizations or just the lady around the corner who keeps kids every afternoon and understands their challenges more than most. You [have] to bring all those folks to the table if you're interested in sustainable change.

Sablik: It definitely sounds like if you're trying to achieve this sustainable change at a community level with all these partnerships, it's a long-term process. How do you measure success and progress along the way? What are the signs that this approach is gaining momentum in a community?

Brown-Graham: I start by looking at dimensions of collaboration. Who's at the table? Are they actively engaged? Do they show up for meeting after meeting? It's very easy for some community actors to sign their name on a collaboration. But we tell your commitment by how you walk, not how you talk.

But it's also true that you can have a lot of activity, more meetings than anyone wants in their lives, without much progress. So, the second set of indicators that I tend to look at are indicators such as the power dynamics in the community. Are folks who typically didn't play the visible leadership role now ascending to those kinds of roles? Are resource allocations different in the community as a result of these collaborations? You [have] to find tangible indicators of change in order to feel any confidence that all of the activity is leading to ultimate change.

Ultimately, it will take you years, sometimes decades, to get to the kind of economic or educational or social welfare issues that are at the core of the community's work together. But I think if you can see the progress and if people still keep coming to this cross-sector, collaborative core, that gives you a sense that they're finding value-add, which means that the community is moving — even if only incrementally — towards success.

Sablik: As you mentioned, it's important to keep the partners in this process engaged. Do you have any strategies or advice to communities for how to build partnerships for the long haul, particularly when it comes to financing partners, which would be an important component of achieving a lot of these changes?

Brown-Graham: First of all, it's important to think really hard about what would be valuable to each partner. Sometimes that's very, very difficult to do. A lot of the initiatives that I have worked with have been instigated by the public sector without a lot of thought for why would busy business leaders keep participating or why would financially strapped nonprofits keep participating.

The other piece of advice I often give to these collaboratives is it's important to do stakeholder analysis on a regular basis. The people who you needed at the beginning may be dwarfed by the people you need three years [from now] when you've really got something going.

In order to be successful, you're going to need to keep bringing new voices into the collaborative. That can be really disruptive and can cause people who have been at the work for a long time to be exasperated by new people coming and saying, "Why are you doing it this way? You should be doing it that way. I would never have done it that way."

Finally, the third most important piece of advice is figure out some early wins. There's nothing that keeps people more motivated than feeling as though they've won and there is momentum beneath their wings.

A lot of times, communities are trying to tackle the biggest issues and they're looking for the most difficult ways to unearth systematic challenges. Pick something easy. Pick something that you can do in the first six months and something else that you can do in the next six months. Create that sense of excitement and enthusiasm about the prospect of change.

Sablik: Anita, thanks so much for coming on to talk with me today and share some of your insights and encouragement for communities that are trying to enact change.

Brown-Graham: Thank you so much. I'm excited to be with you.

Sablik: Listeners can head over to the show page for a link to all the highlights from the Investing in Rural America conference. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review on your favorite podcast app.

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