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Overcoming a History of Inequity in the Delta

March 16, 2021
Sanford Johnson
To reach their full potential, the region’s people and communities need partners, not saviors

Twenty years ago, I never would have expected to be where I am today – living and working in Mississippi.

I was one of those Mississippians who left the state after high school thinking I would never live in Mississippi again. I was headed to Auburn University, where I intended to study architecture and design sports stadiums.

Wear a Jersey Not a Cape
Sanford Johnson, Mississippi Executive Director of Teach Plus, delivers a keynote address at Learning & Leading Together: The Next Five Years.

The summer before earning my political science degree at Auburn, I took the opportunity to come back to Mississippi and work with Sen. Thad Cochran. I met with elected officials and educators about the challenges they faced. By the end of the summer, I was focused on all things Mississippi.

I ended up getting a job offer to go to D.C., but I turned it down to teach high school in the Delta.

Eighteen years later, I’m still here.

It was the right decision. I met my wife at the Teach for America Institute. And this is where we’ve chosen to raise our family.

Streets signs mark the junction of Issaquena Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

My family story has always been about the transformational power of education.

My grandfather grew up as a sharecropper outside Jackson. He and my grandma had 14 kids. They were not able to go to high school – because there was no high school for them to attend. But they wanted all 14 of their children to graduate from college. All 14 did.

They raised enough money on the farm to send the first kid. The first kid graduated, got a teaching job, and sent money back for the next kid. I was 4 years old when I attended the graduation for the 14th graduate in the family.

Considering that my dad was an educator, and several of my relatives were educators, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I went into the family business.

Here in the Delta, educators, advocates, and policymakers face some pretty serious questions.

Chief among them: How do you transform an education system that was not designed to educate every kid and prepare them to be successful adults?

We see what’s working around the country. We hear about best practices. But how do we do that effectively in an area where students are spread out over hundreds of miles?

What works in New Orleans, Memphis and other large cities may not work here. What might work in South Dakota, Wyoming and other rural states may not work here either.

There is a history of inequity we are trying to overcome. How do we take policy solutions from across the country and deep fry and season them in ways that work for Mississippians?

It takes policy knowledge and advocacy knowledge. This is why I’ve joined Teach Plus, and that is why I’m so proud of the educators in our programs.

We’re building a coalition of education policy experts who are still in the classroom, influencing students through real instruction, while at the same time helping to move education policy.

A lot of teachers don’t yet recognize the power they have to influence policy. I get to work with teachers who advocate for trauma-informed policies for our schools, and teachers who are educating lawmakers about the value of a teacher pay raise.

If you’re coming to the Delta and you want to help communities, wear a jersey not a cape.

Five years from now, I want to see over 300 teachers in our Teach Plus network in Mississippi and Arkansas. They may still be in the classroom. They may be principals or superintendents. Some, I hope, will be in the legislature. If there is policy work to be done — a new study by the legislature, a statewide coalition for policy change — we want to make sure teachers are a part of it.

This brings me to the point of my message: If you’re coming to the Delta and you want to help communities, wear a jersey not a cape.

There’s this perception that the problems here in the Delta are overwhelming – and nobody on the ground wants to do anything about it. In reality, a lot of folks are working very hard here. When folks come here and want to help, we want them to understand: You’re not coming here to save the day. You’re coming here to be part of our team.

They say that true change comes from the ground up. Well, the Delta is home to the most fertile soil on the planet. If you plant a seed in the Delta, it will grow. But you can’t throw seeds in the ground and walk away. You need to cultivate the soil, water those seeds and support the plant if necessary.

Yes, the Delta is fertile ground. You don’t produce the musicians, the educators, the advocates that we have any other way. The talent is here. There are folks here who are hungry to get work done. It’s just a matter of: are you going to plant the seeds? If we get the opportunity, we will make the most of it.

This, for me, is what it means to support community-driven change.

Adapted from remarks delivered at the Walton Family Foundation’s Learning & Leading Together conference on February 10, 2021.

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