On racial justice and recent events

Events of the last week have laid bare the deep wounds of racial injustice found all across America. Every part of our country is in pain, reeling from the systemic inequity that has cut too many black lives short. I am deeply saddened and angered by the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dominique Clayton, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other black Americans whose lives have been lost.

Each of us must respond to the deep racial inequity in America by recognizing it and standing in solidarity with those risking their lives for change. But we also must honestly face our own failings, and commit to bold new action for the cause of racial justice. If individuals and organizations do not make real change, these tragedies will persist.

We founded the Center on Rural Innovation three years ago with a commitment to creating an economy inclusive of rural America. As we learned early on, part of our job is to push back on narratives that treated America’s small towns as uniformly white. Rural America does not equal white America, and the stories and experiences of the 10 million rural people of color must be told. Rural black poverty rates are the highest in the country, and many of the most disadvantaged places in America are in the black rural South. Racial discrimination and inequality are as corrosive in rural places as they are in urban.

As an organization, we cannot be content to just acknowledge these disparities. We need to actively address them. Our mission cannot fully succeed unless we do.

We have heard clearly from diverse communities in our network that they need help ensuring their development efforts are racially inclusive. We have also heard from predominantly white communities in our network that they recognize a need to be intentional about inclusive development, both to address the racial barriers that exist in their towns and to create diverse and vibrant communities that young people want to be a part of. And we have reflected on our almost entirely white staff and board, discussing ways to make our own organization a better reflection of the communities we serve.

It’s long past time for talking and listening. We have made excuses for not yet taking transformative action, saying that we are a young organization, and headquartered in the nation’s second whitest state, and working in a tech industry notoriously bad at inclusion. But these excuses are not — and have never been — acceptable.

Today, I am committing that CORI will make the following changes by the end of the year, as just the beginning of a continuous process towards advancing justice, diversity, and inclusion.

  • We will hire staff to lead efforts to ensure communities in our network can actively engage underrepresented and marginalized groups in the digital jobs and startups of the future. Building inclusive ecosystems means building them inclusively from the start.
  • We will diversify our board membership to include a wider array of rural voices.
  • We will proactively recruit communities of color into our network that represent the full spectrum of rural communities, and provide support to those with significant black, Latinx, and Native American populations facing systemic barriers to success.

We are asking you, our larger community, to hold us accountable to these goals. And we also welcome your thoughts and suggestions as we strive to better integrate justice and equity into our work.

Every person and organization needs to decide on the most effective way they can contribute to the change that many in our country — especially people of color on the front lines — are fighting for. Those of us who benefit from the privilege of whiteness, whether urban or rural, must be particularly motivated to real, concrete action and support. White people everywhere must see that racial inequity is not just a black or brown problem, not just an urban problem, but a fundamental American problem, deeply rooted in the country’s history and founding—a problem that falls on each generation to fight to overcome.

With humility, solidarity, and resolve,

Matt Dunne, Founder and Executive Director
Center On Rural Innovation