A Q&A on “Shift Happens in Community: A Toolkit to Build Power and Ignite Change” featuring Jason Baisden, senior program officer at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust; Paula Swepson, executive director of the West Marion Community Forum, Inc.; and Mary Snow, principal consultant, Equitable Community Strategies.
As a funder, a community organizer and an equity consultant, Jason Baisden, Paula Swepson and Mary Snow work together to support locally driven changes across historically excluded neighborhoods in McDowell County, a rural area located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina.
We strategize on ways to mobilize grassroots leaders, establish non-traditional partnerships and bring large-scale resources to support solutions for health equity.
1. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you 3 get to working together on this project?
Jason: We started working together in 2016 as part of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Healthy Places NC Initiative, a commitment to invest $100 million over a decade in 10 rural North Carolina counties. This is a place-based strategy that works to engage local residents to better understand their assets, challenges and solutions for health equity.
Mary: I was working with a group of local stakeholders to facilitate monthly community forums in West Marion, a historically Black neighborhood in McDowell County. The purposes of these meetings were to listen to the needs, visions and ideas of those who are most impacted by health disparities and mobilize community leaders to take action.
Paula: I remember those early days of the community forums. Mary was facilitating and she asked us, “What is your vision for your community?” I was so struck by that question. I never realized we had a choice. I thought, “Do you hear what she is saying? We have an opportunity to do something and make real changes on our own terms.”
There was so much good energy in the room and my whole attitude was that we can do this with or without the money — it may take us longer without funding, but we are going to make some positive changes in our community. I was determined to do what my community said they wanted to do.
2. Briefly, what has been the result of this transformational, rural place-based community-philanthropic partnership?
Paula: At first I didn’t understand the philanthropic world. Jason didn’t present himself as being over me. He was always willing to get in the weeds with us, strategize with us, have our backs, and get us what we needed to make our vision for change a reality.
After we got our first grant Jason said, “Paula, this is West Marion’s money — not our fiscal agent’s — you do what is best for your community with this money.” In other words, don’t let those white people downtown tell you what to do, as my mamma used to say.
Those words proved to be so empowering because in the beginning we were constantly underestimated as a new, Black-led collective. Traditionally only white-led groups were considered to have decision-making authority in our town.
I realized when others were underestimating me and my people that, “They just didn’t know who I was,” but they were about to find out. Today I work for my community, not my funder, not any institution or good ole boy network. I can’t be controlled by your title or money. I’m beholden to the will of my community.
Jason: I think that line of sight was so helpful when we ran into challenges and roadblocks. For example, we learned that our technical-assistance provider was not a good fit for the community and was disrespecting the wisdom of local leadership.
Paula was able to tell us what went wrong and hold us accountable to the community’s needs. She also advocated for us to commit large-scale investments to do this work in a deep and meaningful way — upwards of $1 million, which honors the capacity and staffing it takes to move this work to scale.
We were also called by elected officials when the group was participating in nonpartisan voter-engagement activities. Those calls were an attempt to shut those voter engagement efforts down. But the trust gave our full support to West Marion. We used our influence as a funder to lift the groups up as a critical partner, give credibility to their work, and encourage them to stay the course as positive disrupters.
As a funder, I recognize that this work takes a lot of money because you are investing in community leaders who have a long history of being disenfranchised. In philanthropy there is a need to move away from modest annual grants to address historic inequities. Tackling these challenges is like pushing a boulder up a hill — you need a crane, not small machinery.
3. A lot of these insights are told in your book “Shift Happens in Community: A Toolkit to Build Power and Ignite Change.” Why did you write this book?
Mary: This book is our love letter to the rural community development field in the South. We believe that real and lasting change comes from the bottom up, and we want to share our model for others to replicate far and wide.
We are moved by the power of community voices when they are invested in and supported to come together to advocate for their needs, envision new ways of being, lift up each other, run for office and flip the status quo. This work allows us to connect more deeply to one another, create stronger social connections, and reground in our collective humanity. For me, it’s about starting a love revolution, where we heal together, laugh together, break bread together, dance together, and truly start to show up for and celebrate each other’s personhood.
Paula: We believe this work is more urgent and more timely than ever before. We want to share our knowledge and help others who have struggled through similar challenges. This book teaches one how to unlearn the institutional way of doing things.
We can’t continue working the way we have been — the state of the world is telling us that we need to do something new and outside of the box. It’s about bringing the personal back to this work and back to your relationships. We have to see ourselves in the bigger collective. This is what this book is telling us — it’s not about you, boo.
4. What do we want people to walk away with?
Mary: I want people to walk away with strategies for getting proximate to communities and working intentionally to co-create systemic change. This work requires a long-term perspective and a commitment to build real and lasting relationships. It’s sitting at kitchen tables, talking in the church parking lot, getting to know each other over a meal. This is where real trust and relationships begin to manifest.
Jason: It’s the same with funders — you have to get out of your office and listen to voices in the communities. You have to listen more than talk. Ask good questions, make connections and deliver on what you can do to support the community.
Paula: I want people to know that shift can happen in community. It’s about being intentional, thoughtful and committed to the real work of relationship building. It’s also about having your dream team to hold you up during the highs and lows. If you learn to create a space where people are included, invested in and feel empowered to speak, then your village will become stronger and more equitable. #ittakesavillage.
5. Where can people find the book and/or support West Marion Community Forum?
Paula Swepson and Mary Snow are leading community organizers in the Southern Appalachian region. In the past 4 years they have raised more than $3 million from public and private foundations for rural community engagement and grassroots movement building initiatives. They have hosted more than 150 community forums, bringing together citizens to discuss issues like housing, immigration, racial equity and policing. They registered new voters, organized candidate forums and engaged lawyers to discuss voting rights. In 2020, they raised $20,000 to create a community mural that memorializes the fight for civil rights in Old Fort, N.C.
Jason Baisden is the senior program officer at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Learn more.