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Learning From Successes in the Mississippi Delta

The Rural FES framework of "earn it, keep it, grow it" helps families increase their income, stabilize their finances, build assets and wealth. Twenty-five practitioners from across the country, who are working on RuFES strategies in their own communities, recently traveled to Arkansas to visit the Southern Good Faith Fund and its partners. The site visit gave them the opportunity to see, first-hand, the innovative efforts underway to build family economic success in the Mississippi Delta. It also provided an opportunity to share questions and ideas with their peers and learn valuable lessons to help fine-tune their efforts at home.

Learning From Successes
in the Mississippi Delta

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The 90-minute drive south from the Memphis airport to Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, takes you through three states—Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas—in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.  The horizons are broad, the land is flat, and the small white puffs tumbling across the highway and collecting in clusters at the edge of the road are not escaped styrofoam packing peanuts, but cotton bolls.  Real cotton.

This is the land of the blues, barbeque, southern hospitality, and deep-seated poverty.  The contrasts are stark and inescapable.  Beautiful, gracious turn-of-the-century mansions in Helena sit in close proximity to tumbled-down shacks and rusted-out cars. The fascinating Delta Cultural Center’s Blues Museum, housing King Biscuit Time, the longest-running daily blues radio show in the U.S., is just down the street from boarded-up shells of buildings in the once-prosperous downtown.  The region’s proud history is matched by its deep and daunting problems.

Helena-West Helena was chosen as the location for a recent Rural Family Economic Success (RuFES) Site Visit because of the remarkable work of the Southern Good Faith Fund (SGFF) and its partners, regional nonprofits that are working to increase the incomes and assets of poor families in rural Arkansas and Mississippi.  The Southern Good Faith Fund and its parent bank holding company, Southern Bancorp, have important lessons to share with others who are working to lift up struggling rural families and communities across the country.

Eleven two-person teams from ten states participated in the site visit. These included: Florida, Hawai’i, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon (two teams), Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont. At least one member of each team had previously participated in a RuFES Institute, thus attaining “alumni” status.  There also were guest participants from several other states, and local participants from Arkansas.  The site visit was planned and moderated by Janet Topolsky, John Molinaro and Kelly Malone, from the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (CSG).

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Once a booming Mississippi River port city, famous for the blues, Helena-West Helena and its surrounding rural region struggle with high rates of poverty.