Developing New Possibilities for Communities in the Mississippi Delta

It was working with community leaders in the Ireland Initiative that led the Mastery Foundation to Mississippi and to the development of Community Empowerment as a major area of our work. We began in Corinth, where Liz Jones, a Mississippi native and at that time a board member, was priest of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. In the summers of 2000 and 2001 at the invitation of St. Paul's and other members of the Corinth community, we developed the two-day workshop now known as the Community Empowerment Program.

In 2001, at the invitation of the local newspaper and other members of the community, the program moved to Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. The Mississippi Delta is a region rich in history and culture that has been in economic decline for several decades.

Clarksdale, like the rest of the Delta, is an agriculture-dependent community. Its population of 20,000 is 70 percent African-American and 30 percent white. Before integration became the norm in the 1970s, there was little community cooperation or communication across racial lines, and today the citizens of Clarksdale remain largely separated. And while African-Americans now have significant political power with a majority on all governing boards except the County Board of Supervisors, they still lack economic power.

As many agricultural and manufacturing jobs have left the area, there has been a steady exodus of middle and lower-income citizens of both races leaving to find jobs elsewhere. The jobs that remain in Clarksdale are largely blue collar or manual farm labor. A small core of manufacturing also remains along with a growing health care sector. Crime, drugs, and gangs are a significant problem for all sectors of the community.

Still, the citizens of Clarksdale are a proud people who maintain a stubborn confidence in themselves. Their independent spirit and commitment to their community was a perfect opportunity for us to further develop our own understanding of how community programs can empower people to successfully take on and resolve their problems.

For four consecutive years, the Mastery Foundation and citizens of Clarksdale and the surrounding area worked to create a new conversation about and for their community. Business people, bankers, educators, community workers and volunteers made new connections with each other, considered new ideas, acquired new tools and skills, and created new possibilities for Clarksdale.

While the programs in Mississippi ended in 2006 when our key partners moved out of the area, the work we did there resulted in the development of several new programs and was invaluable to our understanding of community. The knowledge and experience we acquired is evident in the School for Leadership as well as in the community programs we offer from time to time in Northern Ireland and Israel.