South Carolina communities need improved education, more affordable housing and better access to economic opportunities, according to almost 1,000 of the state's community leaders and residents.
In Charleston, affordability struggles have been realized on the peninsula's East Side where increased rents have sparked gentrification.
In a community meeting years ago organized by the Coastal Community Foundation, a longtime East Side resident put it this way:
"If you would please not renovate every house on the block and charge $2,000/month for a two-bedroom house on Nassau Street ... you’re outside your righteous mind.
"There is a new community coming in, Silicon Harbor is now here, people are coming here and are making enough money to do it, so the cost of housing jumps 500 percent."
The foundation recently culminated a three-year effort begun in 2017 where it partnered with two other organizations to conduct dozens of small-group conversations in the foundation's nine-county service area. They gathered input from more than a thousand people living and working across coastal South Carolina.
At the time of a 2018 report, 36 community discussions had taken place involving 400 people. More conversations have since taken place to include almost 1,000 residents who revealed shared concerns across racial and socioeconomic boundaries.
The 2018 report showed 29 percent of those participants said access to economic opportunity was the most important issue facing their communities, spanning across Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and Hampton counties.
Nearly one-third of all community conversations chose education as the No. 1 topic of concern, according to the report.
Quotes from participants, whose identities remained anonymous, illustrated their frustrations with the lack of economic progress.
Since the closing of the 240-person Panolam factory in 2014, many Hampton residents have felt pressured to either commute long distances to neighboring counties or uproot their families entirely in search of a better livelihood.
In Hampton County, where 34 percent of residents work outside the county, underdeveloped economies have led to a decrease in quality of life. One woman who said she “had to lie, fake that my child attended Allendale schools so she could take swim lessons.”
In Charleston, the longstanding issue of racial divides has caused some minority community members to feel left out of community progress. This in a county where just under 9 percent of African Americans are unemployed, compared with less than 3 percent whites, according to 2016 census data provided in the report.
A participant in a Charleston meeting expressed frustration with new development in downtown neighborhoods, stating, "You almost feel like a stranger in your own home.
"How are you just getting here and you’re redeveloping Nassau Street, when I’ve been here my whole life and I haven’t had access to capital to do that myself? I can’t speak for all black folks, but I think that embodies the frustrations of the African American community, especially those of us with an entrepreneurial spirit."
Having long sat behind the scenes supporting nonprofits, the foundation is shifting its focus to begin advocating for legislation that its board members, staff and residents feel are in communities' best interest.
Based on the community input, as well as data and research by the University of South Carolina-Upstate’s Metropolitan Studies Institute, the foundation crafted a Civic Engagement Agenda, which highlights the main themes that surfaced in community conversations.
That helped the foundation create its policy agenda, which lays out the eight policy areas the foundation will prioritize in its advocacy work this year.
The organization will support laws that could enable local governments to pass inclusionary zoning, provide alternative banking solutions to low-income communities, improve teacher recruitment and retention, and other policies.
“What we have produced is a well-paved set of priorities in line with what we heard in the community," said Darrin Goss, president and chief executive officer of the foundation. "In the end, we felt we could speak authentically on behalf of the communities who won’t be able to show up to our board tables."
The Rev. Bill Stanfield, CEO of nonprofit Metanoia and former six-year board member of CCF, applauded the foundation's effort to engage residents. He said their vision embraces the concept that collaboration is a necessary step toward addressing community issues.
“I think it's important that they went out and listened and got the feedback," he said. “Where they’re going recognizes that the problems aren’t going to be solved by money alone.”
Rich Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a Maryland-based organization that partnered with CCF on organizing the discussions.
The Institute’s “community conversation” framework is used by nonprofits across the country, offering a grassroots understanding of issues and bottom-up avenues for social progress.
Harwood said the effort has helped spark positive change in other parts of the country, such as Mobile County, Ala. There, the institute partnered with an education foundation in the early 2000s to address the area's struggling school system.
Efforts included more than 10,000 people protesting a cut on education in 2001. Around that time, Mobile County successfully passed a levy to fund education — the first one in the county in over 40 years.