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The big question: Will it really help the region

Millions planned for Delta community development

Last month, when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Mid South Delta Initiative held its first leadership development discussion meeting at the Eagle Ridge Conference Center at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Dr. Anne C. Petersen talked about $15 million the foundation will be pouring into the Delta over the next five to eight years.

“Why the Delta? We’re hoping we can learn a lot,” said Petersen, senior vice president of programs for the foundation, the cereal giant’s philanthropic arm. “Community development has been the cornerstone of our programming for quite a long time. As we talked about what we know and what we know is effective, we felt we really needed a more geographically-focused area. It doesn’t work to give a grant to a model program and assume it will magically be transported everywhere. We really wanted to stick with a place for a while and see what happens.”

Money will be funneled through grants in the 55 contiguous counties and parishes in western Mississippi, eastern Arkansas and northeastern Louisiana that comprise “The Delta.” The Mississippi Delta consists of 18 counties. An office, the first outside Battle Creek, Mich., has been established in Pine Bluff, Ark.

“After we decided to be here, we conducted random surveys and focus groups,” she said. “We wanted to find out from people who lived here what the issues are. We knew a lot of foundations had come and gone, and that there had been other kinds of efforts. We wanted to learn from them and not make the same mistakes. One thing that seemed to be overlooked before was that people in the community weren’t really involved. Our surveys found that people were ready. They weren’t looking for people to give them money. They really wanted to be engaged in an effort on their behalf. That was music to our ears because our mission is to help people help themselves.”

In 1998, the foundation awarded planning grants to Holmes County and Quitman County in Mississippi, and to three other sites in Arkansas and Louisiana. Ten planning grants for 1999 will be announced in September.

“Funding is provided initially for planning grants so communities spend a year deciding what to do,” she said. “Then they get another grant to really begin doing it. For example, the Quitman County project was to develop a youth credit union and the community decided it. The money we provide is probably less important than the approach of getting people around a table. The big difference from an economic development approach is that jobs may be created but community involvement may be minimal. They may be grateful to the company that writes the paycheck, but there’s not a feeling of ownership. After the period of time we hope to be here, our hope is that things will be just bubbling along.”

The MDSI program works well with leadership programs, Petersen said.

“The problems of the future will require different kinds of leaders,” she said. “Not just the mayor, but also business people, teachers, neighborhood organizations and parent organizations in schools.”

Petersen, who previously served as deputy director of the National Science Foundation, a $3.6-billion federal research agency with 1,300 employees based in Washington, D.C., is responsible for human and financing resources and planning and reviewing all program areas.

Since the foundation was established in 1930, grants have been concentrated in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean, and the southern African countries of Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

“We’ve made some comparison between this and our program in southern Africa,” Petersen said. “There are, for sure, big differences. But there are also similar issues. The people who are ready don’t know how to take the next step.”

MSDI will be measured by conventional methods, but results will not necessarily be uniform, she said.

“My guess is we’ll find some efforts really take off and some don’t,” Petersen said. “We’ll have to learn from those to find out what the key ingredients are and take it from there. We’ll really be disappointed if no jobs are created, but what we’re really looking for are people in communities who are really taking charge of their future and not just waiting for something to happen, but rather are really trying to make something happen.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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