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.
Read more about this place-based philanthropy from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy at Medium.