What would it look like for rural civic infrastructure to thrive, not just survive, in the 21st century? This is a question animating much of our work in East Texas, where a local family foundation (T.L.L. Temple) and a community development financial institution (Communities Unlimited) are teaming to develop bottom-up structural solutions to building rural capacity. 

When we talk about economic development in East Texas, we often like to start with the figure below, which comes from a T.L.L. Temple Foundation report and shows 13 years of comparative employment data for the United States, the state of Texas, and three East Texas regions. 

The graph has a clarifying quality, disabusing any suggestion that our regions (represented by the green, blue, and orange lines) are on the right track. Despite press accounts about the past decade’s so-called Texas Miracle, rural East Texas employment is still lower than where it was more than a decade ago. 

East Texas is a sprawling, largely rural region consisting of 38 counties and over 1.9 million people. Our communities are rich in history and diversity, including sizable Black populations in urban hubs like Texarkana and Beaumont, a rapidly growing Latinx population, and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe.Unfortunately, these distinctive communities share a common feature of often being excluded from the benefits of economic development.

Combined with other data that reveal our rural communities to be sicker and poorer than the state and nation, these facts have by necessity moved the search for solutions from activities and projects to systems and structures. 

The barriers to change are real and persistent. Efforts to initiate rural revitalization strain institutions and distressed communities. Exhaustion and exasperation often lead to a sense of: “Not another thing to manage.”

Read the full article about rural capacity building by Jerry Neal Kenney and Martha Claire Bullen at Nonprofit Quarterly.