Reflecting on Black History Month at Heartland Forward

Solomon Graves


As we approach the end of Black History month, I want to take a moment to reflect on the consistent work of Heartland Forward. That work is ensuring America’s heartland provides opportunities for all people, in every place, to grow and thrive.

According to a February 2024 article from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the “wealth gap” across America continues to grow. Quoted from that article, “white households continue to own a disproportionately greater share of total family wealth. Though they represented 66.3% of households, white households owned 84.5% of total family wealth in the third quarter of 2023; this is 27% more wealth than their representation in the U.S. might predict. In contrast, Black families accounted for 11.5% of households and owned 3.5% of total family wealth (70% less wealth given their household share), while Hispanic families represented 9.4% of households and owned 2.3% of total family wealth (76% less wealth).” 

To be clear, I do not share the statistics above to point fingers or make excuses. Quite the contrary, these validate the work we are doing at Heartland Forward. When you dig into the data that drives the themes above, one thing becomes abundantly clear: certain communities have been written off for far too long.

The work we do in partnership with Builders + Backers to provide an onramp and springboard for aspiring entrepreneurs, is helping to lift up and empower many individuals from underserved and underrepresented communities. Recent data showed that Black-founded companies received just 1% of all venture capital funding which makes our work to fill the gaps essential. We are working hard and are confident that our efforts to increase entrepreneurship in the heartland will inspire more people—from all communities—to support initiatives which create meaningful economic opportunities for themselves and others.

Beyond access to capital, it is our view that the number one economic issue of our time is access to affordable high-speed internet. For that reason, we launched the Connecting the Heartland initiative and are committed to helping states in the heartland create pathways for everyone to have the skills to go online to learn, work and maintain access to health care in or near their community. Our current work is focused on Tennessee, Illinois, Arkansas, Ohio and Oklahoma and we are hopeful the gains there will be replicated and scaled across the country.

An element of the Connecting the Heartland initiative included supporting a cohort of fellows across our programmatic states. In partnership with Land O’Lakes and Lead for America, Heartland Forward helped launch the American Connection Corps –– an AmeriCorps program supporting approximately 100 leaders in building the capacity of government offices and community organizations to expand access to affordable, high-speed internet. The fellows also developed digital opportunity programs in their respective communities which reached thousands of people. 

Lastly, another critical pillar of our work centers on our efforts to help improve health care access and services in the heartland for all people. We realize that getting people off the sidelines and back to work means addressing their health needs. Decreasing complexity,  increasing access and quality are among the areas we are addressing. Not only are we addressing this work directly through research and programming, we are convening the public sector to develop their own solutions for the health care challenges impacting their communities. 

The work we are doing in all these areas represents our view that the efforts to support, lift-up and celebrate underrepresented communities must and should live on well beyond February. Heartland Forward was founded because America’s heartland was being underrepresented and left behind. We are lifting up the heartland everyday. We are lifting up underrepresented communities everyday.  For those things, we are proud of the work we do. 


About the Author
Solomon Graves is Director of Public Policy for Heartland Forward. In this role he works to advance Heartland Forward’s advocacy and public policy activities for its four program areas across the 20-state heartland region including leading the Connecting the Heartland initiative. He is also developing strategies for operationalizing Heartland Forward’s research and programmatic work by increasing brand awareness, fostering public-sector partnerships and positioning the organization as a leader on policy solutions.