Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Vichi Jagannathan of Rural Opportunity InstituteOctober 6, 2022
Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI), one of eight organizations in New Profit’s first Health Equity Cohort, supports youth, organizations, and communities in rural North Carolina to help them interrupt the cycle of generational trauma and design innovative solutions for healing and resilience. ROI builds new tools and is open-source, freely sharing what works. ROI works to turn wisdom and the newest science into common practice.
Below, ROI Co-Founder Vichi Jagannathan shares the path that led her to start the organization and how, when properly resourced, a rural community can become a hotbed of innovative practice.
Q: Can you reflect on a moment from your life that really shaped who you are today? What about this moment brought about the greatest impact on your career?
A: As a child of Indian immigrants, I internalized education as the ticket to achieving success, believing those who did not attain it were fully responsible for their struggles. I attended three Ivy League universities, but never once learned about the legacies of racialized trauma still perpetuated by institutions, including schools, through policies and practices steeped in white supremacy.
When I moved to rural North Carolina to teach high school, a blindfold was finally ripped off. This was the onset of my journey to realizing that, even as a first-generation person of color, I benefit from and am complicit in upholding unjust systems. Since then I have been on a quest for truth and justice. I am obsessed with primary research and believe community members with lived experience are the only direct source of truth.
I helped found ROI to connect the privilege, knowledge, and resources I hold with rural communities whose stories are often told by others in ways that hide their power and light from the world.
Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about the issue your organization is working to solve?
A: I wish people understood that trauma (abuse, neglect, systemic injustice) is both a root cause of so many health, education, and career challenges AND that we have the tools and ability to heal trauma and prevent it from happening in the first place. People are not to blame for the trauma that they experience—trauma is the result of systems and environments that perpetuate punishment and isolation. Redesigning those systems and environments is at the root of healing.
There is so much wisdom and experience already present in our communities and our histories. It is a gift to get to soak up these lessons. I lead by listening to what our community is telling me, and figuring out how to channel as many resources as possible toward the path that leaders before me have already charted out. No one of us can do this alone, and we don’t need to. Each of us has gifts and strengths that, together, can contribute to progress far greater than anything we could do alone.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling part of the work that you do?
A: Some of the most fulfilling aspects have been:
- Learning from the tremendous assets and leaders in Edgecombe County and surrounding parts of rural eastern North Carolina. Our county is home to Princeville, the first town in America incorporated by freed black slaves after the Civil War. It is also where Martin Luther King, Jr. first gave his “I have a Dream” speech before delivering it in Washington, D.C. Janice Bryant Howroyd, the first black woman to lead a billion-dollar corporation, is from Edgecombe County. Our community has a long legacy of strength, resilience, and power and I am honored to be a small part of it.
- Seeing our rural, majority Black community be a model where community-driven innovation can happen. From our Resilient Leaders Initiative Social Accelerator program, to our Community Accountability Board, to our Small Bets Lab, to our biofeedback breathing program, we have countless examples of public institutions shifting their practices from punitive to restorative.
We seek to smash disparate worlds together to build upon the assets of our local community and combine that with the resources and best practices that exist elsewhere.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: I am deeply passionate about proving to the world that the way we have always done things in the innovation world doesn’t serve equity and justice and that there are other ways of doing things that honor people’s inherent leadership, redistribute capital, upend history, work at the speed of community, and still deliver better results. People always say you can’t have it both ways – that you can’t embody just practices while still delivering great results. In five years at ROI, we have proven that you can have it both ways. I aim to lead by example so that others no longer have an excuse to continue upholding biased and oppressive ways of doing things
I stand on the shoulders of giants—a tiny part of a centuries-long movement for liberation and self-determination. I am a learner, a listener, and a servant. There is so much wisdom and experience already present in our communities and our histories. It is a gift to get to soak up these lessons. I lead by listening to what our community is telling me, and figuring out how to channel as many resources as possible toward the path that leaders before me have already charted out. No one of us can do this alone, and we don’t need to. Each of us has gifts and strengths that, together, can contribute to progress far greater than anything we could do alone.
Is there anything else you’d like to share that might help people to feel closer to you or your work?
I seek to hear and tell the truth above all else. Here are two videos of me speaking to a group of funders about the history of philanthropy and the ways that foundations often unintentionally perpetuate a legacy of inequity and trauma.
I am working to more deeply understand how to rebalance centuries of wealth inequity that have served to systematically disadvantage many communities like ours in the Deep South. If this resonates with you (and if it doesn’t), please get in touch with me.
To get closer to ROI visit their website , this recent feature from BCBSNC and this Teach For America article about their work. You can stay up to date with ROI’s latest activities by following their social media accounts on Instagram and LinkedIn. ROI is incubated within and fiscally sponsored by Area L AHEC. Learn more about why Health Equity is a key investment area for New Profit here.