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It's like old times. I'm spending the night in Clarksdale, Miss., and thinking about the Delta. I'm in town with Kyle Peterson, who has served since June 2016 as the executive director of Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation.

Peterson, whose foundation gives out almost $400 million per year for projects around the world, is visiting various grant recipients. I'm here to work on a story about the foundation, which can be found on the front page of today's Perspective section.

I think back to 2005-09 when I served as one of President George W. Bush's two appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, which is headquartered in Clarksdale. I continued to live in Little Rock during the years I worked in the Bush administration, but I averaged about two nights per week in Clarksdale.

I became a creature of habit on those nights in Mississippi. I would work fairly late, buy a newspaper when leaving the office, go to supper at one of four places (the Ranchero for steaks or ribs, Rest Haven for Lebanese food, Abe's for barbecue, or Ramon's for shrimp) and then head back to my room at the Comfort Inn to read and watch the 10 p.m. news on a Memphis station.

On this night, I introduced Peterson to the Ranchero (where the walls serve as a sort of local history museum) before retiring to much larger accommodations than I had in the DRA days. We're at the Lofts at the Five & Dime, which as you might have guessed are above what had once been a five-and-dime store at the corner of Yazoo Avenue and East Second Street in downtown Clarksdale.

I marvel at the things that have been added in the past decade for the blues and heritage tourists who visit here. On the Memphis television news, though, I hear a report that the Kroger store in Clarksdale will soon close, putting more than 100 people out of work. In the Delta, it so often seems as if it's one step forward and two steps back.

Like most of the region, Clarksdale is experiencing population losses. The city's population has fallen from 21,673 in the 1970 census to an estimated 16,200 these days. The situation is no better across the Mississippi River in Arkansas where Phillips County has seen its population tumble by more than half from a high of 46,254 in the 1950 census to about 20,000 today.

A number of well-known foundations across the country have begun efforts in the Lower Mississippi River Delta through the years, only to leave in frustration after determining that their dollars weren't making much of a difference in this land of seemingly intractable problems. While others have fled, the Walton Family Foundation has stayed. The key has been to make grants not across the entire Delta region but instead in a defined area--in this case Coahoma County in Mississippi and Phillips County in Arkansas.

Progress must be measured in small increments in the Delta, which has been bleeding population in most counties since the widespread mechanization of agriculture in the years following World War II. Tens of thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers no longer were needed.

Earlier in the day, we met with Cali Noland, a Clarksdale native who majored in art at Ole Miss and thought about moving to a large city like many of her friends.

"I saw that there were needs right here in Clarksdale," she told Peterson. "There was no need to go halfway around the world in order to do good."

She formed a nonprofit organization called Griot Arts Inc. in an old gym in 2011 and began offering after-school programs. Students could take dance lessons, music lessons and the like.

"What I heard over and over again from those who participated was that they just needed somewhere safe to hang out after school," Noland said. She also heard something else from those who participated in the program: "We want jobs."

That led to the creation of Meraki Roasting Co. Its promotional literature proclaims: "Ambitious young people come to work at Meraki to learn to roast coffee while building skills that will help them come closer to finding their God-given calling. While we are making excellent coffee, we teach young people in Clarksdale what it means to work with the Meraki ideals--to put soul, creativity and love into their work. Small-batch roasting allows us to have the flexibility to innovate on roasting techniques, to experiment liberally with taste and to focus on every bag upholding our high-quality standards for excellent coffee. This also allows for transparency about the suppliers with which we work. By buying Meraki coffee, you are not only getting high-quality, freshly roasted coffee, you are also changing the lives of young people in the Mississippi Delta."

Noland said there's a need to teach those who apply for jobs soft skills that most of us take for granted--setting an alarm clock in the morning, getting to work on time, etc. Griot and Meraki are examples of the types of programs the Walton Family Foundation is supporting in the Delta.

On the Arkansas side of the river, the foundation has been a major supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of Phillips County. The club began about a dozen years ago in an empty church building, serving 100 area young people. Help from the Walton Family Foundation and others led to the $1.2 million renovation of a vacant lumber yard into a facility serving 750 members and to the later renovation of a 1940s armory building. There are basketball teams, summer reading groups, field trips and leadership programs. High school graduation rates at Helena-West Helena Central High School are up, and the Boys & Girls Club is among the groups that have contributed to that progress.

I loved the years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority. I've long been fascinated by the region's history and fell in love with the people who live there. The downside is this: The problems can be so overwhelming that those who work in the region find themselves wondering if they're making a difference. Like Cali Noland of Griot Arts and those at the Walton Family Foundation, we must learn to celebrate the small victories. The best way to improve the Delta is one person at a time.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 01/14/2018

Print Headline: One at a time


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  • Jfish
    January 15, 2018 at 7:41 a.m.

    Good column Rex, I grew up in the Delta and can relate to exactly what you are talking about. However, it is depressing and I think that in order to make any kind of comeback, the region is going to have address some quality of life issues, like more outdoor opportunities and some way to at least reduce the mosquito population to a bearable level.