Friday, June 5, 2009

Letter from the Delta

Air-borne report re: CSC at the Delta Citizens Alliance Conference, Harlow’s Casino on the Mississippi River, April 25, 2009

Stage One of our National Community Resiliency Project, Mississippi Delta Region

Dear Friends,

Our first trip to Mississippi has been most fortuitous. Our initial success came in just getting to the conference site in Greenville at all. It’s a three-legged flight from almost all cities. And Lloyd Fields, coming from just a five-hour drive away (in Atlanta, GA), endured two flights and a 2.5-hour car trip. We must find a better way!

I joined Lloyd at the Jackson airport (having also already flown on two planes) and we drove the flat, green, sometimes-swampy and mostly pastured and farmed landscape to Harlow’s together. Cynthia Stennis-Sera flew into the tiny Greenville airport. There, she phoned Lloyd upon arrival, saying “You better drive slow coming to get me, cause you ‘aint gonna see it!”

As some of you may know by now, conditions in the Mississippi Delta region (which spreads, flatly, out over Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas) are not so rosy and bright. With perhaps the highest poverty rate in the nation, and some of the highest infant mortality rates, diabetes rates, depression rates, and etc. etc. … I will not go on … suffice it to say that Larry Williams, our newest partner in the National Community Resiliency Project, and Executive Director of the DCA, started to choke up as he read off these statistics at the conference opening—and could not proceed until recovered. (He then skipped the rest of the grim story and neatly pulled the end of his speech out of a hat.)

NONETHELESS, we are pleased to report that turnout for the conference (only the second of its kind) was impressive (roughly 100 attendees). And Lloyd, Cynthia and I were so impressed with the loving, caring, hardworking and dedicated folks we met from various Delta agencies, colleges and foundations. Our own workshop, “Three Simple Principles for Releasing Hope and Changing Mindsets in Communities” was a full house—standing room only. Of course, we were holding it in the sitting area of one of the participants’ bedroom/suites—and so could not accommodate many. Harlow’s is new, and still the biggest hotel in the Greenville area, from what I have come to understand. But conference capacity is still “under development.” The slightly nervous sales manager for Harlow’s was breaking into periodic and heavy sweats for the two-plus days that we strained the casino’s seams.

We had to call in for extra chairs for our workshop, and Lloyd was able to achieve a technical feat of wizardry moving the flat screen TV so we could attach the DVD player and get the whole operation to work in a satisfactory conference-type way. Response to the workshop was overwhelmingly positive. So much so that Mr. Williams was suggesting another conference just based on the Principles. Evaluations were all 4’s and 5’s on our trusty Likert scale, with comments such as: “[I learned that] mindset is very important, and to start and look at myself first. If I have a positive mindset, I will be able to help others.” And “I loved the truth about the 3 Principles.” The only suggestions for improvement being: “We need more time!”

At the closing session, we were awarded with a plaque for “Most Innovative Collaborative Partnership,” and allowed to make a little speech. I invoked the spirit of Modello and spoke of Roger and his work. If there is a spirit of Modello (and there is) Cynthia and Lloyd are like the angels who bring that spirit with them. Cynthia’s sharing about her own transformation, especially around her children, touches everyone—and infuses them with the hope for change. In fact, all the women in Modello, and on the videos, cannot know (but should know) how their stories are impacting others—20 years later. Indeed, the A/V guy who set up the video to show on the wall of the larger banquet room came to me after and said that he had tested the video first, and watched it all, and now wanted to be involved in the work.

“Great,” I said. And then I found myself saying, with some surprise, “We’ll probably need more white folks.” White folks were definitely in the minority at the DCA conference, as they are in the Greenville area. But Larry’s intention is inclusiveness—and his pulling off this conference—with participants from as far away as New Orleans—was something of a miracle, with the politics of territoriality that have heretofore plagued the region. (And which, indeed, plague most regions.)

But you all know how we like to be a part of miracles.

We are terribly impressed with the DCA, including Larry and all of his staff. This organization is even younger, at three years, than our own. And look at what they have done! We left all our “sample” Syd Banks/Principles books in the hands of staff and residents of the Delta as gifts. Most importantly, we made new friends—with whom we would feel blessed to move forward.

I could go on and on about Doe’s Eating Place in Greenville (where the steaks come bloody and at 4 pounds, you eat in the kitchen, and a chatty armed guard patrols the front sidewalk.) About the decrepit homes and shotgun shacks alongside the lovely homes and rundown plantations on Highway 61. (Some homes you can’t believe anyone actually lives in, but there’s the car in the driveway.) And about the tremendous beauty and history of this area. But that, I guess, is for my novel or something … I will say that in the town of Yazoo, where most of the downtown stores are boarded up, or for rent, I turned to Lloyd and said, “Well, it is going to take a miracle, here.”

Therefore, it is a mighty good thing that the miracles have begun.

With Love,

Your Executive Director

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