We can’t change the South’s past, but let’s make all Southerners part of its future: Op-ed by John Simpkins

By John Simpkins
The State, Columbia, S.C.
October 20, 2020

Once you realize that Black Lives Matter, what comes next?

Across the nation and beyond leaders are finding themselves in the awkward position of needing to address systemic inequities, but they are devoid of the tools or even the language to reckon with our deep history of racial violence and exclusion.

Social justice advocates already are questioning whether this is a movement or a moment; they are worried that that real change will remain illusory.

We can’t let that happen.

Real change requires immediate pressure coupled with the unglamorous but important work of shifting power, involving a broader array of leaders and re-centering equity in funding and design decisions across the gamut of our institutions, including government, business, nonprofits and foundations.

After all, systems with centuries-long practices of shape-shifting to fit new realities don’t reform themselves.

Those who function as levers of change need support in learning how to make decisions differently.

At MDC we have been equipping communities and institutions for more than 50 years to build equitable systems and address urgent needs across the 13-state region we serve.

Our “State of the South” reports move the South’s economic agenda toward equity.

We have helped foundations with more than $1 billion in assets change their grant-making to have an equity focus.

And we have enabled leaders from across Southern communities to acknowledge their history, examine their priorities and see the areas where change must take place.


MDC’s work in Danville, Va., provides a good example of this approach in practice.

It begins with a story from Karl Stauber, a former president of the Danville Regional Foundation who also served as an agriculture undersecretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Stauber said a day care operator came to the foundation one day to seek money to repair his roof.

When Stauber asked how fixing the roof would help the educational outcomes of the kids attending the day care, the operator remarked that if the roof wasn’t fixed, the day care would be closed down.

“If I stay open,” the operator told Stauber, “kids will be better off than if I close.”

In the end, however, Stauber recommeded that the foundation reject the day care operator’s request.

“My analysis was that if we gave (the day care operator) $350,000, we would have temporarily solved his problem,” Stauber said, “but the kids wouldn’t be any better off — and that’s too low a standard.”

Eventually the day care operator found another way to get his roof fixed.

And Stauber’s organization used that experience as inspiration to launch the Smart Beginnings initiative, a nearly $9 million commitment to early childhood education that has seen Danville reduce the number of 5-year-olds who weren’t ready to begin kindergarten from 31% to 14%.

It’s one thing to build a roof.

It’s another to design a system that improves what takes place under that new roof.


Taking on this challenge in the South also means dismantling a mindset that low-wage jobs and underinvestment in human potential represent the best approach to economic development.

From Chattanooga to Spartanburg to Amarillo, MDC is seeing communities dig into the difficult long-term work of building infrastructures of opportunity, places where all people can thrive.

The key to these efforts is changing the collective conversation as well as who gets to participate in shaping the vision.

By changing who’s in the conversation, communities can reorient governments, nonprofits and other organizations to provide the foundations that people need to thrive: stabilized finances, quality education and good health care.

This is equity-centered leadership.

Southern leaders cannot change the history of our region.

But they can acknowledge it and focus their resources to address it.

This is what must come next.

John Simpkins is the president of MDC, a Durham, N.C., nonprofit that equips Southern leaders, institutions and communities to improve economic mobility and advance equity. He is a constitutional law scholar and former Obama administration counsel who was previously vice president of Aspen Global Leadership Network at the Aspen Institute. He is a native of Lexington, S.C.., and a graduate of Lexington High School.