Veronica Womack and the Rural Studies Institute: Putting small communities and Georgia College on the map

Veronica Womack and the Rural Studies Institute: Putting small communities and Georgia College on the map

G eorgia College’s innovative Rural Studies Institute was established in January. As Dr. Veronica Womack settled into her new role as its executive director, the coronavirus was raging in China. Now a global pandemic, it has sent billions of people home to work remotely by computer—giving more urgency and meaning to Womack’s work.

The current crisis emphasizes some of the most difficult challenges of living in rural places. As we retool our educational systems for online learning, those rural communities with limited access to broadband will have an enormous hurdle to overcome, in order to participate.
– Dr. Veronica Womack

“In addition,” Womack said, “many rural communities have few hospitals and emergency care services. So, during a world pandemic, they are vulnerable. Many people who live in rural places are in the hard-hit service economy. For recovery in these communities, they will need assistance.”

Before the crisis, Womack was already following the right formula. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped spotlight inequalities and challenges in rural America. The pandemic has “given rural America an amplified voice,” Womack said. Issues she’s been talking about for decades, like lack of broadband Internet, are now apparent for all to see.

Rural areas also need infrastructure of roads, bridges and water/sewer systems. They need funding to build up their communities with employment “that allows for thriving, not just surviving,” Womack said. To navigate the 21st century successfully, rural residents need to be retrained and given new tools and skills. In addition, young people need jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities to keep them from leaving rural hometowns for the city.

Dr. Veronica Womack
Dr. Veronica Womack
The Rural Studies Institute is meant to fill in these gaps, and Womack is the perfect person for the job. A vivacious outspoken academic, Womack grew up in rural Alabama and made a career researching the Southern Black Belt region—a conglomerate of more than 300 impoverished counties overlooked by policy makers but never far from her mind.

The Institute will produce research and community-building models to resuscitate and strengthen rural life in Baldwin County, Georgia and nationwide.

“There’s some question as to what would a liberal arts college do with a rural institute? Well, a lot,” Womack said.

“A lot of people would love to live in rural places. When you think about the quality of life that we have here—it’s not bad quality. People like the slow pace, and the fact that you don’t spend hours of your day in traffic and that our environment is still relatively pristine,” she said. “But there are things that would make it better. There are a lot of challenges, and I don’t think they’re just in Georgia or the south. If you go around the country, you’ll hear people discussing the challenges of living in rural places right now.”

 Dr. Womack speaks with Farmer Howard James. (Photo by Suhyoon Cho.)
Dr. Womack speaks with Farmer Howard James. (Photo by Suhyoon Cho.)

The idea for a Rural Studies Institute was conceived in 2012, when Dr. Steve Dorman became university president. He asked for proposals that would identify transformational ideas. Womack was a part of a group with Provost, Dr. Costas Spirou, Johnny Grant from external relations and representatives from each college.

The group envisioned an institute to address disparities in four areas: health, economic opportunity, education and the environment. Because of Georgia College’s unique mission, rural location and community-based engaged focus, the group decided the Institute could go beyond the agriculture focus of land-grant institutions to highlight all needs in rural communities.

We felt we could lead the solutions on disparity issues. We’re talking about moving communities forward, finding best practices and developing models that can be replicated all over the place.
– Dr. Veronica Womack
“We felt we could lead the solutions on disparity issues,” Womack said. “We’re talking about moving communities forward, finding best practices and developing models that can be replicated all over the place.”

Her concern for rural people and black farmers garnered national attention. In April 2016, Womack was invited to address the United Nation’s 18th Session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2017, she received a $150,000 seed grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to examine implementation of public policy in the rural South. Recently, she received an additional $75,000 from USDA to continue that work. Her research is also funded by the Robert W. Johnson Foundation to study resilience and health in rural communities.

Womack's book.
Womack's book.
Womack was featured in a New York Times opinion piece called, “Something Special Is Happening in Rural America.” She was interviewed for a radio podcast called “The Homecomers” that was covered by National Public Radio. Last year, Womack was also quoted in the national weekly magazine, The Nation. More recently, Womack was a panel member for a discussion on rural politics in a Wall Street Journal video. She is presently a fellow for the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP), sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute, where she’s studying the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) and its impact in the Black Belt region.

Often research is only focused on deficits of rural places, like the Black Belt or Appalachia. But Womack also sees a resilience within these communities, a pride of community and culture, and a people who’ve survived many hardships. The Rural Studies Institute will help identify barriers to economic viability and seek solutions that are reflective of a community’s needs.

“I grew up in the Black Belt,” Womack said. “I learned 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.”

Womack with Farmer James. (Photo by Suhyoon Cho.)
Womack with Farmer James. (Photo by Suhyoon Cho.)
By partnering with local communities, Womack said she’ll listen to residents and document their wisdom and stories—while also offering the knowledge and expertise found at the university level.  Using both, she believes a more comprehensive and beneficial plan for development can be developed.

Womack’s vision for the Rural Studies Institute includes:

1.    Building a body of literature, knowledge and understanding about rural communities. She will do this by collaborating with existing campus experts and tapping networks of national experts. Womack will use traditional research and community-based approaches to engage rural communities and Georgia College students
2.    Creating a podcast to highlight rural storytelling. This is the internship focus of senior English major, Jonesha Johnson.
3.    Focusing on strategic planning efforts, relationship building, funding and technical assistance for rural communities and community-based organizations.
4.    Offering workshops for rural leaders and residents. Workshops are scheduled to begin in Fall 2021 and will be free.

The Institute will also look to the future by developing student leaders, who’ll be the policy makers and CEOs of tomorrow. As such, they’ll need to understand the needs of rural Americans.

“How do we build the capacity of rural places to engage in a 21st-century economic development engine?” Womack asked. “The greatest thing we can do is to tap the expertise of the people who live here.”

“That’s why I really like the approach with Georgia College’s Rural Studies Institute of highlighting community assets, so we utilize the expertise and technical assistance from agencies that work on rural issues,” she said, “but we also leverage that with the body of knowledge that already resides right here in our in rural communities.”