How did you get involved in community development?
When I was president of the agribusiness club at the University of Tennessee, we attended a workshop at USDA RD. Afterwards, they told me that there was an interview with students for an internship with USDA RD. That was in 1992 and I’ve been with Rural Development ever since. It goes to show you how important it is to get involved and build relationships with professors and people you meet when you’re in school. We try to keep that cycle going and open those doors for promising students interested in business, economics & community development to connect to RD. We see the internships as great opportunities for students to start careers with RD or community development. I have maintained my relationships with faculty at University of Tennessee in the Agriculture and Resource Economics Department. It affords me the opportunity to return every year to present to juniors and seniors about working for RD and starting this type of career.
How has working with the Appalachia Funders Network influenced or affected your work at USDA Rural Development?
Working together is another way to get things done.
It has opened my eyes. I’m used to people coming to me for funding to support projects, so, to me, everyone is a practitioner because both foundations and nonprofit development organizations come to us for funding. When I come together with practitioners and funders, I get to understand their concerns and see them take the opportunity to work together to get work done.
At first, I didn’t understand how funders and practitioners thought very differently (and sometimes I still don’t), but working with the Network has opened my eyes to understand their different perspectives and also how they can work together toward a common goal.
What do you see as critical investment priorities in Central Appalachia?
I think healthcare is becoming an issue more so because clinics and hospitals in rural areas are closing. We often see proposals to support projects that address the lack of healthcare in rural communities. Drugs, and in particular meth, is an increasing issue. That also relates to jails that face overcrowded conditions and lack funding to maintain them because the public doesn’t want to spend taxpayer monies to properly fund them.
Education is also a critical investment need in the region, particularly higher education. It’s important to help kids see that they can go to college. It’s a common stereotype, but when kids don’t grow up expecting to go to college or have the support system to help them understand that it’s a possibility, they don’t pursue it. As an example, the Niswonger Foundation has a mentor program that helps high school students through the college application process. They help them fill out and strengthen the application, which gives them the support they might not have gotten with limited guidance from their high school. I was the first on my mom’s side of the family to go to college, and without my uncle helping me fill out the application, I might not have ended up where I am today.
What opportunities do you see for philanthropy and government funding to work together towards common interests?
Recently, I’ve seen more involvement from philanthropy because foundations can come in and match funding from the government. That partnership can create synergy between the two of us, which helps the recipients do the things that we might not be able to fund, so it makes the project that much more successful.
When you think about your role in the public sector and rural development funding, where do you look for inspiration?
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” When I heard that quote, it resonated with me because it means that just a small number of people can make a large impact in people’s lives. It inspires small teams like mine and yours to work toward big results. USDA-RD invested approximately $1 billion in Eastern TN in the last 4 years in loans, loan guarantees, and grants, while the average annual funding for all of TN is $1billion. That money isn’t just a statistic or a number, it’s also an individual; and one at a time, we help individuals with the work we’re doing in the region. That quote helps remind me of that.
What hobbies do you like to do in your free time?
I have two daughters: a junior in high school and a sixth-grader. I never thought my girls would take up golf, but they have, and I get great pleasure helping with the middle school team and spend a lot of time outside of work doing that. When I first got married, I used to play golf alone and my wife thought of it like a four-letter word. Now that my daughters play, we’re one big happy family!