Georgia College & State University has named Dr. Veronica L. Womack as the first executive director of its brand-new Rural Studies Institute (RSI).

“The creation of RSI is timely as rural communities are challenged to successfully participate in the global economy,” said Womack. “Georgia College is launching this institute as a university-wide effort that will include all of our colleges (College of Health Sciences, College of Education, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business and the Library). This work is very important to me, because I’ve spent most of my life in rural communities. I know the unique challenges that face them. I also know the potential and possibilities of rural places if developed properly.”

The Black Belt Region is one of several regions that has struggled to remain competitive and to offer its citizens the services and opportunities needed. RSI will strategically use the expertise within Georgia College and beyond to address the challenges of rural communities, said Womack. The public liberal arts university announced the creation of the institute at the top of 2020 and that Womack was the right woman for the job.

RSI is designed to help develop rural, innovative approaches to address the disparities of America’s Black Belt Region — the crescent-shaped geographic region encompassing hundreds of counties with large African-American populations. These counties have been systematically underdeveloped and underresourced but have the potential to play a key role in the nation’s 21st-century economy. Womack became the perfect person for the new position because of her 20-plus years of academic research on the Black Belt Region, rural poverty and farm bill policy. Through RSI, Womack will focus on the following areas:

1. Educational attainment and achievement

2. Workforce development and training

3. Community health and health care

4. The digital divide

5. Economic and community development approaches

6. Entrepreneurship and business success

7. Regionalism and cooperative approaches

8. Rural leadership capacity building

9. Community asset mapping and development

10. Community engagement and community-based research approaches

11. Rural innovation strategies

12. Sustainable communities

Womack’s extensive work has earned recent features in The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on NPR — making her the first professor at Georgia College to receive such national exposure. Her riveting research is such a hot topic that she has gained the attention of international audiences as well. She has successfully secured research funding and support from federal agencies, national nonprofits and a working group of experts at the United Nations.

Her work constantly brings awareness and hope to local, state and national leaders and influencers to think more strategically to advance Southern, rural economic development in the Black Belt. During 2020, she also became a Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP) fellow, which is politician Stacey Abrams’ new policy initiative. With SEAP, Womack will conduct research about the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) to address underdevelopment in the Delta.

“I’m very excited about focusing on strategies that will develop the Southern region,” said Womack, who will work on the research fellowship for the next six months. “This research opportunity will focus on DRA and its impact on the rural Black Belt. DRA was created to tackle some of the pressing issues within that region. Importantly, there are several Black Belt counties within DRA. My research will look at how well those counties have participated in DRA programs, services and resources.”

Womack authored her first scholarly book “Abandonment in Dixie: Underdevelopment in the Black Belt,” which connects to RSI and shed lights about race relations in the South. The book offers solutions to move rural America forward, too. The publication became a “Georgia Author of the Year” awards nominee in 2013 by the Georgia Writers Association.

Five years later, she developed digital hub Black Farmers’ Network to give Black Belt farmers an online space to share their stories, products and services. This digital platform helps Black farmers and communities connect and exchange ideas to build more sustainable agribusinesses and agritourism sites in the South.

Womack joined the university’s Department of Government and Sociology during fall 2002. She was full professor of political science and public administration. She became coordinator of the university’s Master of Public Administration program and taught both undergraduate and graduate students as well. Before landing her RSI post, she served as the university’s chief diversity officer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations, master’s degree in public administration and doctorate in political science from the University of Alabama.

“I’m particularly interested in building relationships with community leaders — both elected and non-elected — community members and the community-based organizations that serve them,” said Womack. “I hope RSI becomes an important resource to build community capacity within rural communities.  The goals of the institute are providing community-based and focused research; offering technical assistance and capacity building for rural communities; strengthening rural leadership capabilities in an effort to strengthen rural communities; and developing student leaders to address rural issues for years to come.”

Visit veronicawomack.com to learn more about Black Farmers’ Network founder and Rural Studies Institute executive director Dr. Veronica Womack.