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Rooted in the Delta

January 24, 2018
Kyle Peterson
How bold thinking and steady determination hold potential to help transform a challenged region

When you ask Cali Noland, executive director of Griot Arts, to describe what she loves about the people in Clarksdale, Mississippi, she talks about their "soul," "heart" and "grit." Those are among the defining qualities, she says, of residents in a Delta community that has a storied cultural history but which has faced more than its share of adversity.

There's another word Cali uses, though, that captures the underlying strength she sees in the people of her hometown and its surrounding region: "Potential."

Sam and Helen Walton, our founders, saw that same potential for the Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi over years of visits and work in the area.

Their commitment to helping the Delta create a better future continues today through the Walton Family Foundation, which supports organizations working to promote economic development, improve education, enhance quality of life and protect the natural environment.

The Delta faces myriad challenges that are not easy to solve. The region suffers from persistent poverty - with rates exceeding 20% since the 1990s - and significant challenges to economic development. In Coahoma County, Mississippi, more than 35% of the population lives in poverty.

Despite that, I am more encouraged than ever about the possibilities for the region after spending time during a recent visit with the people whose roots there run deep and who are committed to creating opportunity.

They are people running groups like Griot Arts, a non-profit organization that works with at-risk youth in Clarksdale, provides academic support, skills training and fosters creativity through the arts.

Students of Griot Arts

Cali Noland invests her time and energy at Griot providing middle and high school students with an outlet and the resources to develop their artistic talents through after-school and summer programming in the visual arts, theater, dance and instrumental music.

I met Cali at Meraki Coffee Roasters, a new non-profit enterprise created by Griot, overlooking the Sunflower River in downtown Clarksdale. Meraki is an example of the innovative thinking that can help transform the Delta. It's a small-batch coffee roaster and café that provides skills training to the youth it employs while also offering them a safe community gathering place.

"The big battle we are facing in Clarksdale is the effects of the generational poverty cycle. The resources and the support system that these students need have not been in place," Cali says. "Adversity has created so much beauty and grit in our students. They just need a chance to get over the hurdles that have been built into the community for so long."

In five years, Griot has grown from serving a dozen students to nearly 50.

I saw the Delta's potential as well in the work being done by Gabriel Fotsing. Gabriel is a former teacher in the Arkansas Delta who founded The College Initiative, which mentors low-income students and provides them with the tools they need to successfully apply to college. During our visit, he told me about the dramatic impact the initiative is having in the Mississippi's Coahoma County and Phillips County in Arkansas, where every high school senior that has completed the program over the past three years has been accepted into colleges and universities.

Gabriel Fotsing of The College Initiative with students

The work we're doing with partners in the Delta is true to who we are as a foundation. Like our grantees, we do not run away from difficult social and economic problems - we embrace them.

This is a thread that connects our conservation work in the region, where people like James Cummins, director of Wildlife Mississippi, are working tirelessly to restore wetlands and improve water quality.
When I met James in the little town of Lula, he told me about the remarkable environmental improvements occurring throughout the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Over the past 25 years, more than 700,000 acres of wetlands have been reforested and protected. The foundation has directly supported the restoration of more than 73,000 acres since 2009.

Through the federal conservation programs, private landowners are being compensated for returning these frequently flooded, unproductive farmlands to wetlands and hardwood forest. The conservation efforts are boosting the bottom line for landowners, providing new habitat for wildlife and creating economic opportunities for recreation-based businesses.

James Cummins of Mississippi Wildlife

"That makes good sense for conservation, and it makes good sense for the landowner," James says.

But the impact is also helping improve water quality in the Mississippi River because less sediment and fewer nutrients and pesticides are running off the land and into the river.

In partners like Cali, Gabriel and James, we are seeing how bold thinking by people rooted in the Delta is making a difference.

"I was born and raised in the Delta," James says. "I think working to make the Delta a better place for future generations is really what I enjoy doing."

As a foundation, we are determined to help realize that vision, too.

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