In the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, the kudzu vine is ever-present, an emerald carpet that takes the shape and form of everything it covers.
Emboldened by the fertile land of the Delta, it races up the sides of homes, to the tops of trees, and through the windows of vehicles that sit idle for too long.
You see, kudzu is invasive. To an outsider, its overgrowth indicates neglect. But with a different lens, it creates a beautiful landscape unique to this part of the region.
Like so many rural places, the potential of the Delta to adapt and thrive in the 21st century has been overlooked by the outside world. This neglect has taken a toll, but its soil remains rich.
Look more closely, and you’ll see that despite the hardships it has endured, the Delta is deeply rooted in understandable pride, budding with people whose ideas and actions are transforming their communities.
From the earliest days of the Walton Family Foundation, our founders Sam and Helen Walton believed deeply in the creativity and brilliance of the people in the Delta. Before the foundation was even created, their efforts helped bring new school options to families and supported revitalization in the region’s downtowns.
Built upon our decades of work here, and the lessons we have learned, the foundation began a series of conversations with Delta leaders in the summer of 2020 to more deeply understand current challenges – and where they saw the best opportunities for innovation, growth and prosperity.
Following a year of open, honest community engagement, the foundation has re-imagined our work in the Delta to reflect what we heard from local leaders. We are more committed than ever to supporting the innovators who are creating access to opportunity.
Our conversations with Delta residents – the people who know the region’s strengths, needs and talents – have helped us better understand the inequities of support that may be a result of well-meaning institutions.
Our approach will be tailored directly to the Delta, anchored in solutions designed by the community that calls this place home.
For many in government and philanthropy, we too often apply a one-size-fits-all approach to funding. But programs that might work in a densely populated urban area can be irrelevant to a rural community.
In the Delta, with its dispersed population, reliance on small family businesses and undervalued property, it’s nearly impossible to ever meet the financial and population thresholds that trigger meaningful support – from COVID-19 relief to disaster assistance.
It’s why moving forward, our approach will be tailored directly to the Delta, anchored in solutions designed by the community that calls this place home.
We plan to use our position as a well-respected, national philanthropic organization to amplify the voices of those in the Delta. Throughout the term of our strategy, we will assist in finding solutions for the inequity of investment in rural communities and work toward building the next generation of leadership.
Our partners include local groups like Go Forward Pine Bluff. This coalition of business, political and community leaders have come together to create a city, as executive director Ryan Watley says, “where your children can be educated, where you have the skills to be competitive in the global economy, where you have the support you need to start a business, and where you have a good home to rest your head.”
It also means enlisting the support of proven national organizations like Rural LISC to develop creative access to capital for small business owners, more inclusive broadband infrastructure and housing solutions.
And it means becoming a more effective catalyst for action through the formation of broader regional and national coalitions, like recruiting more of our funding partners to join the Delta Philanthropy Forum.
When it comes to unlocking opportunity for today’s young people, every child needs access to high-quality education and postsecondary opportunities. But in the Delta, student preparedness remains a stubborn challenge, in part due to under-resourced teachers.
High-quality instructional materials and pathways to certification are essential for teachers in the Delta to be successful in the classroom. It’s why the foundation is supporting the efforts of national organizations like Educators Rising to help the Delta “grow their own” highly skilled teachers, and Aspen Young Leadership Fellows to develop a new generation of purpose-driven leaders.
Through our efforts to engage and listen, we also recognize that building opportunity is about more than just improving education—it means ensuring graduating students have pathways to success, whether that’s in higher education, technical training or the workforce.
Continuing support for programs like the Meraki Roasting Company internship program is a start.
We also will help strengthen efforts already underway in places like Jefferson County, where wide-ranging programming includes entrepreneurship classes and maker spaces open to anyone looking to build skills needed for the modern economy.
Local leaders told us it is also critical to help Delta residents work toward building economic assets in order to create financial security and economic mobility.
Historically, home and land ownership is how Americans build wealth, but their benefits have never been fairly distributed. What has resulted is a stark picture of economic inequity.
In order to begin to address these practices, the foundation will work with local partners and national housing institutions to thoughtfully address this inequity through pathways to ownership, financial literacy and the encouragement of affordable, quality housing.
As you can tell, we believe equity is the sunlight needed to help the Delta grow into its future.
With partners like Higher Purpose, an economic justice nonprofit, this work is already underway. Higher Purpose assists Black-owned businesses, with technical assistance focused on financial resiliency, as these businesses bring their ideas to market.
Over the past year, the organization launched Kiva Hub Mississippi Delta, a crowdfunding platform that offers hyper-accessible microloans for underserved entrepreneurs.
Our conversations with community helped stretch our thinking and push us forward to a place of deeper collaboration.
Moving forward, we understand that this work will move at the speed of trust so it will require endurance. As one of the few national philanthropic organizations with full-time staff based in the Delta, we are committed to ensuring that people are able to find us whenever they need to talk, whether that’s sharing the latest challenge or their next great idea.
Positive change in the Delta is happening. I see it every day, driven by the work of our local partners and the lives they touch. Perhaps we should think of the people in the Delta like the kudzu vine, each an unstoppable green shoot ready to overtake any barrier to its growth.
I say that’s a thing of beauty.