Alabama’s Black Belt stretches across the middle of the state from Mississippi to near the Georgia line. Abundant in human, geographic and cultural diversity, the Black Belt’s name was derived from its rich, dark soil.
Covering central and west Alabama, the Black Belt is a complex area — abundant in the natural beauty, talents and treasures of its people. From the nationally recognized Gee’s Bend Quilters to its fertile farmland and scenic byways, it is known for its great beauty. However, it’s also an area that’s been deeply affected by the interconnected challenges of poverty, limited educational opportunities, and high unemployment rates.
The Black Belt has long struggled with the complex issues related to systemic poverty, but progress is being made. “There’s a saying that ‘So goes the Black Belt, so goes Alabama,’” offers Felecia Lucky, Executive Director of the Black Belt Community Foundation (BBCF). The BBCF serves as a central organizing force, awarding community program and arts grants to more than 100 nonprofits in the region each year in the areas of education, arts and culture, community economic development, and health and wellness. Working with gifts from national and regional foundations, including Protective Life Corporation, the BBCF helps direct resources to organizations that are tackling the area’s struggles head-on.
The BBCF’s effectiveness stems from the fact that leaders believe in listening to the community, identifying needs, and finding solutions based on that feedback. “We were really created by our community for our community,” says Felecia. The Livingston, Alabama native and her colleagues conduct community listening sessions, traveling across the 12-county area to better understand the concerns and challenges of its people.
The mission of the BBCF is fulfilled through a number of channels. First, through program funding, the foundation supports initiatives that already exist, furthering their missions in areas such as increasing graduation rates and improving reading programs. One program of note is a partnership between the Birmingham Education Foundation and SAIL Alliance. This program works to close the gap in education during summer months, the primary cause of the academic performance loss for low-income students.
BBCF also connects organizations with seed grants, as evidenced by the Black Belt Folk Root Festival. One of Alabama’s longest running festivals, it didn’t have a children’s stage, so its programming was limited. The BBCF helped secure funding, and now children can participate in learning about the rich culture of the Black Belt.
The BBCF serves as a catalyst for Black Belt nonprofits to grow and evolve by facilitating collaboration and technical assistance. For instance, many of the museums throughout the area don’t have the funds to connect with and learn from larger museum associations, so the BBCF advises on everything from preserving collections to utilizing social media best practices.
Felecia says that the Black Belt has experienced many improvements, and these wouldn’t be possible without leaders from inside and outside the region. Protective Life Corporation, through the Protective Life Foundation, is a longtime supporter of the BBCF.
This month, the BBCF honors John D. Johns, Protective’s Chairman and CEO, naming him the 2016 recipient of the Black Belt Legacy Award, which honors Alabamians who have distinguished themselves in providing leadership and support toward building a better and stronger Black Belt Region. He will be honored at the Legacy Award Dinner in Birmingham on October 18, which will also feature arts and crafts from the Black Belt, including the Gees Bend Quilters.
“We appreciate our partners and friends, both near and far, who have given so selflessly to make the Black Belt a stronger region,” Felecia says. “It’s through our partners’ generous gifts of time, talents and treasure that we have been successful in transforming this region so many call home.”
According to Felecia, Johns has long-taken a keen interest in holistic efforts to tackle the region’s toughest problems, providing strategic guidance and advocating for its residents — present and future.
“Johnny Johns is the epitome of what a good corporate leader should look like. He sees the potential of the people of our region and works to empower our communities as part of the solution,” she says.