Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Felecia Lucky, President of the Black Belt Community Foundation in Selma, Alabama, which serves Alabama’s 12 most financially distressed counties.
Black Belt Community Foundation was officially formed in December 2003 after several years of community advocacy for such an institution. It was established to strengthen these 12 rural Alabama communities and enrich them with more community goods like health care, education, youth programs, and economic development.
As President of the Foundation, Lucky shared with me some of the story of the foundation’s growth and evolution. She traced the origins of the foundation back to another woman leader, Dr. Carol Zippert, who had a vision of how to build community resources through a foundation, bringing philanthropy to an area of the country that hadn’t experienced much of it.
“We’ve had these superstar partners,” said Lucky, who was at first reluctant to apply for the position of President when the foundation was finally hiring.
“I was so fascinated by the work,” said Lucky of her formative years as an activist in the philanthropy world, where she was particularly interested in strategies that empowered communities to design their own solutions to address problems.
She found encouragement from one of her close friends and mentors, #MeToo movement pioneer Tarana Burke, who was also one of the founding members of Black Belt Community Foundation.
On May 1, Black Belt Community Foundation will celebrate its 17th year of being alive as an organization. “The piece that is so moving, had we not been led by this strong black chairperson, we would not have been in a position to anchor the Southern Black Girls’ and Women’s Consortium,” Lucky added.
“All of these black women who have brought each other up, when the rest of philanthropy was saying that this can’t be done. We said, this CAN be done,” said Lucky. She credits a long list of women like Gladys Washington of the Babcock Foundation, who gave her a warm welcome to the world of philanthropy when she was newly hired.
“She welcomed me and said, there are so few sisters in the world of philanthropy, especially in your position.” She said Washington was also one of the few leaders in philanthropy at the time who acknowledged the fact that Black women are underinvested in.
The Black Belt Foundation now has an endowment of just over one million dollars. While this is a great benchmark for the organization to be reaching, Lucky acknowledges that it is still not nearly enough.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t want more,” she said. “We have done a lot with a little. Imagine what happens when there’s a lot involved. “
“It’s a struggle that I’ve had being black and female,” acknowledged Lucky. “We don’t receive the same kind of investment that our counterpart organizations receive. The role of black women in our society, the spotlight is shining on it now more than ever. But it’s been black women who have held America up. We hold our communities up.”
Southern Black Women and Girls’ Consortium Goal: $100 million over 10 Years
As an extension of her work with the Black Belt Foundation, Lucky is also an anchor of the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium, a group of Black women philanthropists who are working together to fundraise and shift current grantmaking efforts in the South, channelling greater resources toward organizations that are intentionally supporting and empowering Black girls and women. The Consortium is working to cover the ground of 12 states in the South, trying to reach women and girls of color across a vast area of geography.
“The easy thing to do would be to say, hey this is a lot, and just pick out a little,” said Lucky.
But the Consortium is not going to do the easy thing. Their goal is to raise $100 million over a ten year period. “The goal is to build the consortium and also strengthen the anchor organizations,” said Lucky. “Others have larger endowments, but there’s still room for ours to be strengthened.”
Give Women’s Funds the Same Trust Given to Other Rural-Serving Foundations
Lucky referenced the fact that investing with community foundations is not as appealing to some donors, who want to have a heavy hand in what the work looks like. She said she would like to see donors “give us the same amount of trust you would give to other rural-serving foundations.”
“What often happens is, because we weren’t part of the initial strategic planning, they have a different idea of what should happen,” said Lucky, of how some donors arrive at the door with a solution in mind and don’t really want to hear from the people being given their solution.
“We did listening sessions throughout all twelve states to hear from the girls and the organizations providing services for black girls in women and are led by black women,” said Lucky.
Helping Rural Communities in COVID
Felecia Lucky found herself called to stretch her capacities as a philanthropy institution during COVID. While Lucky acknowledges she “never imagined she’d get into the business of providing short-term liquidity for local governments,” she was glad to be able to step into the breach and help her communities access needed resources.
The need emerged in 2020 when the region was one of the hardest hit in the state by the COVID repercussions.
“Our state chose that they would provide resources on a reimbursable basis,” explained Lucky. “That means communities who had resources could spend and then apply for reimbursement. But many of our communities don’t have the adequate tax base to expand those dollars.”
So through the Black Belt Community Foundation, Lucky established a partnership with Hope Credit Union, a CDFI in the area. “Then we were able to award recoverable grants, meaning we could purchase items for COVID, then submit to the state and we would get reimbursed,” said Lucky.
“In one rural community, they didn’t even know they were entitled to funding,” said Lucky. “If we were not there to help them, they would not get funding.”
To establish that line of credit, Lucky had to have investments and collateral from philanthropy and business. She recalled a conversation she had with another leader in the community about how much risk and extra work Lucky had taken on in doing this. The leader said he would never do such a program and take on so much risk and difficulty.
“I wish I had the privilege of saying no,” said Lucky, regarding her extension of the Black Belt Community Foundation’s work this past year. But she doesn’t have that privilege. “This is work that must be done,” she added.
“For too long, women have not received the kinds of investments they need to do the work demanded of them,” said Lucky. “For too long, that has happened. And for too long, others have sat by and acted as if it was okay. But that’s not anymore.”
Lucky said The Consortium’s purpose is to demand that society honor their rural community and work to empower these communities. “Not as partners who have the answers, but as partners who are able to work alongside us.”