Responding Locally to a Global Pandemic

a group of workers on a community farm

Building a community infrastructure for collaboration

When a group of six community leaders began meeting in Addie’s Chapel in West Marion, an often-overlooked and under-resourced part of McDowell County, to discuss ways to help their community, they had no way of knowing their work would grow to become an integral part of a community-led response to a global pandemic.

The meeting in Addie’s Chapel grew into the West Marion Community Forum, Inc. (West Marion, Inc.) which, with support and funding from Healthy Places NC, became a nonprofit organization in 2018. West Marion Inc. engages structurally excluded communities in developing locally driven solutions and partnerships for racial and health equity. The purpose of their Black-led nonprofit is to create brave spaces for community members to share their stories, speak brutal truths, voice ideas, and build collective power to advance real and lasting changes for all.

“The most important thing for us was that Healthy Places really listened to the community and cared about what we had to say,” said Paula Swepson, West Marion, Inc.’s executive director. “Rather than telling us, ‘This is what you need to do,’ they asked us, ‘What do you need?’”

Early successes, such as a back-to-school book bag drive and a large Thanksgiving dinner attended by residents from all over McDowell County and City Council’s decision to host official meetings in West Marion, encouraged community buy-in and resulted in excited and engaged community members.

a group of people working in a community garden.

The Forum continued to grow and played a critical role in launching free public transportation service in West Marion for their residents in need with a partnership with the local Department of Social Services. They even influenced county-wide policy changes related to transportation by coordinating petitions to establish a local transportation system. This resulted in new financial resources, new jobs, and the county hiring one of their community leaders as the director of the McDowell Transit System.

The community forum model expanded to other structurally excluded neighborhoods, including East Marion and Old Fort, where they facilitated more than 150 community forums that mobilized new leaders, centered the voices of those who are most impacted by inequities, and catalyzed people power for grassroots-led change. They also co-authored a book called, “Shift Happens in Community: A Toolkit to Build Power and Ignite Change,” which shares their tools, stories, and lessons learned with movement leaders locally, nationally, and internationally.

The rise of West Marion Inc. and its grassroots leadership in McDowell County allowed for collaboration with other community-led organizations like Foothills Food Hub and Centro Unido. The Food Hub is a program of the McDowell Local Food Advisory Council, and its mission is to improve food systems in the region. Centro Unido was founded in 2011 and is a Latinx-led organization that offers more than a dozen programs with six focus areas in mind; health, workforce, advocacy, leadership, education, and art and culture. These programs are designed in a community-based method that allows Centro Unido to establish programs that target the community’s needs. Working together through Healthy Places NC on health improvement, grassroots organizations representing all parts of the county have collaborated to build trust and put equity, diversity, and inclusion at the center of their collective work.

a person handing a box to another person while someone watches

“In McDowell County we look beyond the traditional community power structure to identify individuals and organizations to develop community-led solutions,” said Margarita Ramirez, CULA Executive Director. “Now when you work with one organization in McDowell you get an entire tapestry of community groups and leaders ready to facilitate change.”

This ecosystem of changemakers was urgently called upon during the COVID-19 pandemic, where together they helped lead a community-driven response to the lockdown and public health emergency.

“When COVID-19 hit, we didn’t have to figure out who to call. We all have each other on speed dial,” said Heather Edwards, Foothills Food Hub project developer. “Our community was facing an unprecedented crisis, and we knew that the community had to be central to driving the response.”

​​Together grassroots organizations worked with the health department and county agencies to support drive-thru pop-up events for COVID-19 testing, food distribution, and resources; partner with Emergency Medical Services to support mobile vaccine clinics; and participate in weekly county round table meetings with emergency management and county officials, to name just a few of the efforts.

“It was a scary time for all of us as we saw COVID-19 sweep through our county, but I am proud of what we were able to accomplish together,” said Swepson. “We lost too many people, and our community is still feeling the lingering effects of the pandemic; but I know that things would have been much worse if we had not already built the trust, relations and human infrastructure we have in McDowell County.”