BALLE Fellowship: What We’re Seeing & Learning in Rural Communities

Context and reflections on why a focus on rural leaders is so important and what we're learning as we talk to leaders, partners, and recruits across rural communities.

Over the past six months, the BALLE Fellowship team has been deep in conversation with energetic, creative, strategic, and wise leaders who are building local economies that work for all in rural places across the US and Canada. These leaders are helping traditionally marginalized farmers move towards sustainable and regenerative farming practices; they are creating economic opportunities for First Nations people that support the environment and honor cultural and spiritual traditions; they’re lifting up rural artists and other holders of tradition and culture as underutilized local assets; they’re building strategic conduits for new capital to flow to diverse entrepreneurs; and so much more. All of this feels especially meaningful in a moment in history when racism, bigotry, and other forms of oppression can make it so easy to despair.

A deep focus on rural communities is a new area of learning for us. In previous cohorts, about 20 percent of Fellows worked in or with rural communities (slightly higher than the 15 percent of the U.S. population living  in rural areas in the US and 18 percent in Canada).  Guided by the BALLE Leadership Network, we decided to prioritize leaders doing work in rural areas for our next 2018-2019 cohort. Our Network offered a few reasons for this focus:

  • Although rural people only make up less than 15 percent of the population in the US, they steward 75 percent of the land mass, and therefore a much more significant share of our natural resources including soil, forests, and watersheds. In Canada, the 18 percent in rural areas steward a staggering 95 percent of the land.
  • Despite their importance, rural communities are often overlooked by philanthropy, especially by national foundations. From 2005-2010, only 5.5 percent of grants from foundations went to rural organizations.
  • Rural leaders have specific challenges and opportunities that differ from urban and suburban leaders, including small and shrinking populations (and therefore human capital), big distances (and therefore challenges to economies of scale), and (sometimes, but not always) cultures of neighborliness and self-reliance that offer fertile ground for rebuilding local, relationship-based economies.
  • Finally, and perhaps most urgently, current conversation in the U.S. has painted “Rural America” as primarily poor, white, uneducated, and embittered, whereas this is far from the whole truth.

So, starting in February, we embarked on an exploration to learn more from rural leaders themselves and to identify our next cohort of Fellows. So far, we have had conversations with 37 referral partners (including members of our Leadership Network) and 43 potential applicants. Just a few of the themes that we’ve heard in these conversations that we are excited to explore over the course of the fellowship include:

Addressing challenges and opportunities of shifting populations. Most rural areas in the US and Canada are losing population, and many of the leaders we spoke with are especially active in efforts to attract, retain, and invest in young people in their communities. But population loss isn’t the whole story. Some leaders spoke of efforts to tap into energy, resources, and social and human capital that are being made available in rural areas through digital connection and broadband access, which can allow rural residents to connect with urban and peri-urban consumers, medical professionals, educational resources, and more and which can make it possible for formerly urban or suburban residents to consider relocating to rural communities. Others talked about both the opportunities and challenges of welcoming and supporting new immigrants in their communities.

Shifting culture, shifting narratives: illuminating rural creativity, resilience, and neighborliness. Many of those we talked to resonated with our Leadership Network’s view that rural communities have earned a bad reputation in the US*, especially over the last 12 months.  They shared a desire to lift up the creativity, resilience, and diversity of rural people, and to tell more stories – especially to national media, policy-makers, and funders – about specific examples of leaders and entrepreneurs who are regenerating soil, supporting Just Transition, protecting water, revitalizing main streets, and welcoming newcomers.

* Some Canadian friends explained that the narrative was quite different in their country.

Prioritizing equity across many dimensions. The leaders we’ve spoken to so far are hungry for further conversations about how to fight all kinds of injustice and oppression – based on race, class, sexual orientation, gender, indigeneity, immigration status, and other socially constructed divisions. Whereas in former cohorts, racism and anti-Black racism has been a primary area of focus and concern, rural leaders we’ve spoken with so far have had diverse and nuanced focus areas for combatting oppression, often recognizing and grappling with intersectionality especially of race, class, and gender. Some live in places where these conversations are common, but many are excited for the opportunity to be in the company of diverse peers who can dig in together to explore how to operationalize equity in their organizations and communities.

Experimenting with new (and old) models of business: Coops, Social Enterprises, and more. Many who have spoken with us are experimenting with non-traditional ways of doing business, ways to go beyond “business as usual” to find ways to share ownership and spread power, and to shift capital to social enterprises that balance community and environmental priorities with profits.

We are humbled, appreciative, and deeply excited to serve the amazing group of Fellows that will come out of these conversations! Applications are rolling, and we will accept first round applications until September 15. We expect to fill 90 percent of the cohort in this round, so if you have interest, or know of someone who would be interested, please send them to our website to learn more or apply now!


With appreciation, in solidarity,

Jess Daniel, Koy Hardy, Jocelyn Wong, Joann Lee, and Christine Ageton
BALLE Fellowship 2018 Recruitment Team

Categories: BALLE Fellows