Ever hopped on a big interstate, cruise control set at 9 miles above the limit, looked out onto a rural landscape, and wondered—Who lives out here? What’s that like? What’s their quality of life?

If so, you’re not first. This initiative asks—”What gaps exist which create the divergent paths of poverty and prosperity in the rural south?” And before Independence Design, there was Community Action. There was Lyndon B. Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act and the 1964 War on Poverty. Over half a century ago, at the start of his movement, LBJ’s cohort traveled to the rust belt to say “cheese” and promote their revolutionary poverty solution.

The president’s PR committee scouted the perfect home off the side of the road for his photo opp. It’s owner, a father of eight named Tom Fletcher, agreed to share his life story. He told the president about his decisions, his regrets, and his fears.

And the reporters followed up, year after year, to find out what happened to Tom. What became of his family? Little else that would make national headlines. Neither Tom, nor his children, became revolutionary prosperity success stories.

Photo by Walter Bennett | Bettmann/CORBIS © BETTMANN/CORBIS

Photo by Walter Bennett | Bettmann/CORBIS© BETTMANN/CORBIS

These are their stories, and how they navigate the waters of life

These stories are thematic, personified accounts based on narratives we heard in the community. The names are fictitious and the photos are stock.




Clarence grew up thinking the most respected and well paid people are doctors. His parents encouraged him, and he went out of his way to find other kids in his school who are interested in medicine. In his junior year of high school, he was already reading about different types of specialists. He connected with a school counsellor who helped him understand the steps to get into medical school. His counsellor introduced him to contacts at the local hospital who offered Clarence an internship.

“Sailboat” personas represent the community’s most promising young adults. They’re more than bright: they take initiative to maintain a productive environment and a strong support system that gives them the exposure they need to understand their options and connect with opportunities.




Casey didn’t have much growing up, her family wasn’t a support system. To improve her situation, she worked hard in school, found mentors who helped her find scholarships, was admitted to college, graduated, and found a job in a city far away. But Casey didn’t know how to navigate the world, or what was expected of her at her job. After six months, she was dismissed. To get by, she has took a job that didn’t require a degree, and returned to her parents house when her savings ran out.

“Whirlpool” personas have learning potential and a desire to achieve, but ultimately are directionless. Family issues may cause them to look for mentors outside of their home, but the advice and guidance they receive may be missing a stable foundation and a cohesive plan. Pushed toward any “good” direction, they may find themselves out in the world without the life skills needed to navigate adulthood. Too often, they drift back toward the comfort of the familiar environment in which they grew up, continuing the cycle.



“Treading water”

Brett often fought with his family and wanted to leave his situation, but didn’t know what his options were. He often heard “Dream big,” and told his friends he wants to work on Wall Street, but he knew few people who worked in a professional setting. Already in his 20s, he is studied for his GED and learned how to write a resume, but he didn’t know what skillsets he should try to acquire. It was hard to find time to study when everyday felt like it was over too soon. He had to walk over an hour to get to his job at Kroger. He had to take on lots of extra shifts since his mother has become too sick to work.

“Treading water” personas have often overlooked opportunity costs. Early decisions regarding education, employment, and relationships may have offered money or leisure at the time, but have resulted in a struggle to maintain the status quo later in life. These personas may be encouraged to set and achieve goals, but, because of their limited life experience, they may not have a realistic expectation for what they can achieve and when. These ideals, and rapidly increasing adult responsibilities, may lead them down other wrong paths—or may discourage them from ever changing course in the first place.




Everyone has always told Brandi she’s smart, and she prioritized being a great mother to her two children, but she struggled with past trauma. Compared to everyone she knew from high school, she’s felt like she’s so far behind. It has been almost impossible for her to find the motivation to take the right steps. She will need rehab and a period of sobriety before she can work for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant. She’s heard the phrase “Get your GED” many times, but never figured out where to start or how to manage that goal and her children.

“Underwater” personas face the greatest barriers and may need a combination of rehab, counseling, financial support, education, and individual case work in order to make ends meet. Often, they struggle with an apathetic life outlook that helps them survive day-to-day, but sees no hope for—and spurs no action toward—a better tomorrow. The most impactful solutions for these personas will likely be resources that help her raise, educate, and provide for their children so that their example does not continue the cycle and prosperity can be achieve by the next generation.

Next? Co-designing solutions.

We’re collaborating with stakeholders and community members to co-design solutions for young adults whose stories match these personas. Have questions or ideas? Connect with us, or share your thoughts on Twitter!