Jen Giovannitti has lived in communities as diverse as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, home to about 9 million people, and Elkins, West Virginia, a borough with 7,000 or so folks.
On Thursday, Giovannitti, the president and a trustee of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, shared her perspective gained by those experiences during “Preserving Democracy: Bridging the Divide Between Rural and Urban America,” a Zoom presentation sponsored by several organizations, including The Institute of Politics and The Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
She said it is important to not view the urban-rural divide in “adversarial terms.”
“I think the beauty of having the experience of living and working in both rural and deeply urban places has just developed a greater appreciation for community for me, and maybe it is a testament to my education at the University of Pittsburgh that I am a community planner at heart and find endless ways to be fascinated by both urban and rural places,” Giovannitti said.
Much of Giovannitti’s presentation dealt with rural life, which provides what she called “three buckets” of “intrinsic value for people that doesn’t get talked about enough” – beautiful places, homesteads and a feeling where “community is a very special and palpable thing.”
The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation focuses on philanthropy in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.
She pointed out the discrepancies between philanthropic money per capita, noting that from 2010 to 2014, some places, such as the Mississippi Delta and West Virginia, received a little more than $40 per person. In comparison, that number was about $4,000 in San Francisco.
“This goes to show that the way those dollars flow has a bias towards cities and is creating its own level of disparity, and probably not seeking opportunities that exists in rural places that could have just as successful of outcomes,” Giovannitti said.
She would also like to see more federal money directed to rural communities for improvements such as updated broadband.
“But, I think, to really be impactful, it’s more than just money,” Giovannitti said. “The way we’ve been treating federal funds and the grant applications still disadvantages and creates a continuous disinvestment in rural communities. It’s hard for rural communities to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars sometimes which is needed in cash match, just to get federal grants.”