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C8XTRW Cherry Street in downtown Helena, Arkansas, USA - one of the centers of Delta Blues music on the Mississippi River

Supporting Economic Opportunity in the Delta

October 8, 2018
With the worst mobility odds in the country and a severe lack of funding, the Delta has become an ‘opportunity desert’

Everyone deserves an opportunity to succeed. It’s one of our country’s most universally accepted ideas – the belief that we all should get a chance – that our future shouldn’t be determined by the circumstances into which we were born.

Yet for too many, opportunity is out of reach. In the Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi – for generations one of the poorest areas in the U.S. – the sobering reality right now is that a child born below, or near, the poverty line is likely to remain trapped there for the rest of their life.

In fact, the upward mobility odds of a child born in the Delta are the worst in the country, according to data compiled by the Equality of Opportunity Project. In those areas, there is nearly a 40% chance that a child born into poverty will never rise out of the lowest income bracket. In other words, the Delta is an ‘opportunity desert.’

Through our Home Region Program at the Walton Family Foundation, we are working closely with nonprofit partners in the Delta to find ways to break the cycle of persistent poverty and create opportunity for people to realize their full potential.

The Walton Family Foundation works with nonprofit partners in the Delta to help break the cycle of persistent poverty by creating opportunity for residents, including support for arts and academic programs.

To advance that goal, the foundation recently hosted other local and national grantmakers to brainstorm ideas for the role that philanthropy can play in helping the Delta chart a more hopeful course.

The Delta Philanthropy Forum, held in August in Clarksdale, Mississippi, aimed to strengthen relationships, share information on current philanthropic investments in the Delta and lay a foundation for future cooperation to increase our impact.

One thing the meeting made clear is that the Delta’s needs are significant and also badly underfunded. A report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Southern Progress found that the Mississippi Delta received just $41 per person in philanthropic funding from 2010-2014 compared to $995 per person in New York state and $451 nationally. That means that a kid in the Delta has access to only one tenth of the funding that the average American child does.

Because of these challenges, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the Delta’s future. But the data on poverty and social mobility only tells part of the story.

Encouraging Signs

I am encouraged by the deep commitment that many philanthropies like the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and others have made to the Delta. They have been working in the region for years to improve lives through investments in education, economic development, workforce training, youth mentoring, public health and a host of other areas.

I am also inspired by the region’s people. During a ‘kitchen table’ conservation at the forum, we listened to the stories of residents who believe deeply in the Delta’s potential – and are writing a new narrative for themselves and the region.

We heard from Bill Bynum, CEO of Hope Credit Union, who shared his experiences working to create social mobility in the Delta. Bill has written that the region needs much more substantial investment to close the wealth and income inequality gap between the Delta and the rest of the country.

Bill’s credit union focuses on investing in black residents and businesspeople long ignored by traditional banks and investors. He has stressed that philanthropies need to commit to building long-term, authentic relationships with the African-American community – by truly engaging local voices in developing solutions – and be flexible in their investing strategies.

Clarksdale resident Yasmine Malone, a 19-year-old University of Mississippi student, also spoke about the importance of engaging locals. Yasmine stressed the need for grantmakers to “nurture real understanding” of the challenges that residents, particularly young people, face every day that limit their opportunity.

Yasmine, who was recently awarded a Young Leaders Fellowship through the Aspen Institute, spoke about growing up needing food stamps, but also said she saw herself as “one of the lucky ones” in town, because she grew up in a home with two parents.

“A lot of people don’t have that,” she said. “Teen pregnancy and gang violence are things we need to better understand. Students I’ve grown up with are experiencing a life that is much harder – and those people aren’t getting a voice.”

Participants at the Delta Philanthropy Forum brainstormed ideas about the role that philanthropy can play in helping the region chart a more hopeful course.

Cali Noland, executive director of the nonprofit Griot Arts in Clarksdale, emphasized the need for people from different racial and economic backgrounds in the Delta – where many major institutions like schools, churches and banks remain unofficially segregated – to “listen and understand each other.”

Griot, a Walton Family Foundation grantee, works with at-risk youth in Clarksdale, providing after-school and summer programming in the visual arts, theater, dance and instrumental music. It also operates a small-batch coffee-roastery and café that offers skills training and a safe gathering place for local teenagers.

Griot Arts in Clarksdale, Miss. provides after-school and summer programming that breaks down barriers between people from different racial and economic backgrounds in the Delta.

Cali’s message to philanthropies: There is enormous, untapped talent among residents in the Delta that can emerge with proper resources and support. “It really is about making long-term relationships between and within different communities,” she said.

Cali’s organization is just one of many that deserve credit for taking bold action to confront the social and economic challenges in the Delta.

They are demonstrating what’s possible when good ideas are put into action. And they’re providing all of us with important lessons: That real partnerships with communities matter, and those closest to the problems are usually the best ones to solve them.

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