Shannon Blevins has often been recruited for positions outside Southwest Virginia, where she grew up and is rearing her own family. Blevins, the Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA Wise, has always said no. She researches the other offers, but “I can never check the box of the heart,” she says.

Instead, she is turning UVA Wise, a small rural institution with about 2,000 students, into a nationally recognized economic development actor (last year, Forbes and Sorensen Impact Center recognized one of its projects for enabling opportunity fund investments.) In an interview, she listed some of the rules she lives by to collaborate with many stakeholders and government agencies active in the central region of Appalachia. Some initiatives can move slowly, and many of the players stay the same. UVA Wise works across states, through Virginia’s higher education system and with regional and private sector actors.

You can learn more about her work in our profile, UVA Wise and Entrepreneurship in Appalachian Virginia, but here are some other words of wisdom she passes on to both students and members of the community.

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  • A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’
  • Don’t hold grudges. Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.
  • If you get something started, but there’s a partner that’s better suited, step aside.
  • You have to continuously remind yourself, you can’t be married to your programs.
  • Don’t have all the answers. Somebody in the room, other than you, has the answer.
  • Be intentional about developing the norms of the group, and “don’t ostracize folks that are territorial.”
  • Don’t get above your raising. No one group could do those projects on their own. It is messy work. It is messy, messy work, and it can be emotionally draining.

As COVID-19 moves through the United States, our divisions are cast into stark relief. We are separated by politics, geography, race and class. Against this backdrop, higher-education institutions can be their communities’ strongest anchors, keeping people moored to a space – physical or virtual – in which they interact and find what they share, instead of what divides them.

Next week, we launch “Impact In Action: Profiles of Higher Education,” a series exploring how three innovative higher-education institutions, Rowan University, Stillman College and University of Virginia-Wise, help produce impact-centered economic development in low-income and overlooked communities. “Everything boils down to resources,” Ali Houshmand, the president of Rowan University, told us. “Our first instinct is survival. Once we survive, we want to do better. How do we turn an institution that was reactive into one that is moving forward?”

“That, to me, is fundamental.”

These three profiles,

contain ideas and context for impact investors looking for trusted partners and high-leverage opportunities in the current fraught environment. They also offer higher education decision-makers insight into their peers’ actions to support low-income and overlooked communities while establishing new partnerships that help maintain institutions’ financial bottom lines. Collectively these post-pandemic stories underscore the three lessons featured in our Assets For Impact Insights Report.

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’”  

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet,’” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA-Wise. “Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.”

This project began before the pandemic and, obviously, ended in a different place because of it. We set out early in the year to look at the role of higher-education institutions working in an area that has been a media lightning rod: Opportunity Zone development. Tax breaks passed in 2016, under the Trump Administration, have been used by wealthy developers to create projects that likely could have been financed in the private markets.

Yet, a deeper narrative has evolved in Opportunity Zones – one that is missed in the politicized media. Some communities are turning the legislation to its overt purpose to propel development in low-income communities. In many cases, higher education institutions are at the center of those positive developments. We are, for instance, seeing OZ projects evolve slowly, with the help of higher education institutions, in Baltimore, Kannapolis, North Carolina and Merced, California, as well as the highlands of Appalachia, the West Side of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Glassboro, New Jersey. The latter three are covered in this series of profiles, produced as a collaboration between Lumina Foundation and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, with research and writing by Times of Entrepreneurship.

The Beeck Center was a leader in establishing the Guiding Principles and Reporting Framework for Opportunity Zones. These guiding principles include: community engagement, equity, transparency, measurement, and outcomes. Successfully investing requires careful attention to existing community assets, needs and priorities. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available for all. Times of Entrepreneurship explores the way deep innovation can propel communities and individuals.  For all involved, a clear approach guided by a shared set of principles and implemented through a common and flexible framework is critical. 

At the Beeck Center our goal is to capitalize on the investment and work to-date to catalyze non-traditional partnerships within our network of influential investors, community intermediaries, government officials and foundations to help scale efforts and develop guiding principles, tactics and resources to empower businesses and organizations to align their assets to respond to the immediate community needs as well as to ensure an equitable economic recovery and sustained community investment post COVID-19.

As the pandemic evolved, we felt responsible to look deeper into higher education institutions’ role as anchors in low-income communities. The pandemic and the economic recession are devastating the most vulnerable people. Institutions cannot afford to put their own futures at risk. The role they play in those selfsame communities is too important.

Thus, the focus of our profiles became how these three leading institutions innovate to find paths forward that benefit the low-income communities that rely on them. These profiles are not about trade-offs. They’re about long-term strategy even in the face of short-term pressure. The long-term strategies usually rely on partnerships that benefit low-income communities and strengthen the institutions. The institutions’ well-being is tied deeply, then, to the health of low-income communities that are part of its world.

As Cynthia Warrick, the president of Stillman College, told us: “it’s hard to turn your back on poor children.” 

These institutions didn’t – and find themselves stronger because of those decisions.