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Chief Diversity Officer gets USDA grant, offers hope to Black Belt region

Dr. Veronica Womack can pinpoint the exact moment her life changed, and it wasn’t pleasant.


Dr. Veronica Womack, chief diversity officer in the GC Office of Inclusive Excellence.

The life-altering moment came during a class discussion in college, when Womack raised her hand and asked: “What about rural poverty? What can we do about that? Especially in the Black Belt region?”

Pausing from his lecture on urban destitution, her professor said, “There’s no hope for the Black Belt. The only thing you can do with the Black Belt is give everyone a one-way ticket out.”

“That really, really didn’t sit well with me. It made me want to get the credentials to say otherwise. It was a driving force in me getting my Ph.D.,” said Womack, a vivacious woman, who exudes energy and enthusiasm with every word.

Now chief diversity officer in Georgia College’s Office of Inclusive Excellence, Womack continues today to answer her own question – and, in doing so, brings hope to deprived communities up and down the Southeastern Black Belt Region.

She recently received a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to examine how public policy was implemented in the rural south. She’ll analyze policy, record oral testimonies of African-American farmers and document Black Belt culture. Womack will also locate resources from the USDA Farm Bill to assist developing communities.

“I grew up in the Black Belt, and I know what those communities have in terms of resources, in terms of people. I know the prescription could be a little bit better,” she said.

Womack learned to believe in herself, growing up on her grandparents’ small farm in Greenville, Alabama, about 60 miles from historic Selma.

“I knew. I knew I could make a difference,” she said. “I knew ordinary people could make a difference – that you didn’t have to settle in whatever circumstance you find yourself. That we can make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others.”

Maps showing areas of African-American concentration in the U.S. haven’t changed much from 1861 to today. Womack’s first book in 2013, “Abandonment in Dixie – Underdevelopment in the Black Belt,” identified the region as more than 300 impoverished counties from Texas, up the Mississippi River, across Alabama and Georgia, dipping into Florida, then shooting through the Carolinas as far north as Virginia.

Womack includes any county with 30 percent or more African-American residents. Some have as many as 80 percent – a direct result, she said, of black enslavement and the cotton economy.

Statistics show a bleak picture of the region: It’s predominantly poor. Unemployment is high. Housing is substandard, health care inadequate. But Womack said negative stats do not show the pride and culture of a people who have survived “under extremely difficult circumstances.”

Since emancipation, Womack said 14 million acres have been lost due to policies that kept African-American farmers from getting bank loans. As result, she said many people have “difficult memories” of the land. She’d like to change that by giving young adults a choice to stay and build rural communities through entrepreneurship opportunities, like raising and selling organic food.

Barriers to economic viability in the Black Belt are capital funding, education and transportation – things Womack will address in her research.

“If you were a social scientist today, and you just looked at the Black Belt without seeing the totality of factors, then you would see a very poor deprived place – devoid of all that makes it the Black Belt,” she said. “But for me, I don’t just see census data or stats. I also see the people. I see the history.”


Dr. Womack recently got a grant to study how public policy has been
implemented in the rural South. 

Womack came to Georgia College in 2002 as a political science professor. She worked four years with the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, before being named chief diversity officer last year. She’s hosted leadership workshops for mayors in small communities, connecting them to organizations, experts and funding. This – and her previous research with Tuskegee University and the University of Georgia (UGA) – allowed her to meet over 300 community-based organizers in six Black Belt states and get people talking.

Now she’ll continue the work by hiring two assistants, an undergraduate and graduate student. They’ll help do community-based research, interview farmers and older residents to document life in the Black Belt, engage in focus groups and hold meetings to share community-building information. Womack is also interested in partnering with Fort Valley State University and UGA.

Hiring students with a liberal arts background will bring a rich overlay of history, critical thinking and analytical skills to the project, she said. It’s invaluable to have researchers who know the region.

“To come here and assess this area based on what works in Atlanta or D.C. or Los Angeles is a travesty to the people, because this is not those places,” Womack said.

“I’m so excited. I’m hoping by being a ‘seed grant’ that maybe this project will grow,” she said. “I would like to provide research, so when people are sitting around Washington D.C. and making decisions about rural development, there’s another piece to the puzzle that says, ‘This is doable. This can happen.’”

 

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