They are communities which nurtured many of us and to which many of us return when we want to recharge and reconnect. The fact that they are rural and removed from the economic dynamism driving the revitalization of urban areas across the country also means they often lack the capital – financial and human – needed to improve the circumstances of people who call them home. That organized philanthropy, like much of corporate America, finds it relatively easy to overlook such communities further complicates the situation.
One foundation looking to change that dynamic is the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a philanthropy established in 1946 by Kate Gertrude Bitting Reynolds, the wife of William Neal Reynolds, chairman of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, to improve the health and wellness of low-income residents of North Carolina. In March, PND spoke with Karen McNeil-Miller, the trust’s president, about Healthy Places North Carolina, a new place-based initiative focused on rural areas of the state.
Philanthropy News Digest: The Reynolds Charitable Trust has always supported efforts to improve the health of North Carolinians. What's new about Healthy Places NC?
Karen McNeil-Miller: Well, for us, almost everything. For instance, we're not leading with money, which is a huge thing. We're not going into these communities saying, "Here's our agenda, apply for a grant." We're going into these communities and, essentially, are trying to help them organize themselves. In a way, we're leading from behind instead of leading from in front. The trust is deferring its goals to the goals of the community; we want the community to determine what it needs or what it would like to change, and then we'll bring our resources to bear to help them achieve those goals.
PND: Beyond a lack of resources, what are some of the challenges unique to rural communities that you aim to address through the initiative?
KMM: Well, one of the things we want to address is the building of human capacity. These days, it's hard to get folks to move to rural communities, which means if you want to help these communities thrive, you have to build the leadership capacity of the people who are already there.
We also want to help them, where we can, with access to care. In so many rural communities, you may have a primary care physician or two, but hospitals and specialty care are much less common. So, through the initiative, we've been helping community-based organizations invest in tele-health infrastructure, whether it's tele-psychology, or tele-therapy, or even tele-osteopathic medicine.
Of course, one of the most plentiful assets in rural communities is land. So helping communities make the best use of their land assets, whether it's through building an amenity like a playground, or bike or walking trails, or any of the other things that make communities more livable and healthy, is something we're interested in.
What's harder to address is job creation. But if we can help local people see the connection between physical and mental health and economic health and help them build their capacity to partner with local government to create the kinds of amenities that help attract jobs and improve quality of life for everyone, that will be big. We want everybody to start thinking that health is their business, not just the purview of healthcare institutions. It's about broadening the conversation to people who don't normally see themselves in the health business, to people in law enforcement, to people in the educational system, to business and industry, and bringing them all together to talk about what they can do to make their community the healthiest community possible.