Second part in a three-part series about leadership in the Mississippi Delta.
Neither Mississippi State Representative Orlando Paden nor Family Nurse Practitioner Mary Williams chose public service. It’s more like public service found them.
Both are passionate about their callings, and each works in different ways to make their communities better. Representative Paden, a self-described “worker,” says he has always participated in community projects. Now he’s able to help by serving the Mississippi 26th District as a state representative.
Nurse Practitioner Williams has grown in her career from entry-level nursing to earning a doctorate and specializing in renal care. Now, she uses strong community connections to help treat and prevent kidney disease.
Tell us where you are from.
I was born on Harrison Street, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. We later moved to the projects, on Sunflower Lane, Apartment 10e. I’ll never forget the number. We later moved to 10th Street. So, I’ve been in Clarksdale my entire life.
How did you come to public service?
I’ve always worked in the community. If you are a part of something, you should be vested in it. I’ve always participated in organizations here. I’ve been in the NAACP, the church; I helped register people to vote before I was old enough to vote. I’ve always had an interest in how government runs. In the NAACP I was the Coahoma County youth representative. I was Coahoma High School class president.
I was always a worker: how do I get to the end? Let’s find some resources. If not, lets die trying. I participated in Youth Leadership Clarksdale, and as I stayed in my church, I was a youth deacon. I was vice president of Pi Gamma Mu at Alcorn State. I reestablished the NAACP youth branch for Coahoma County. I was vice president at youth and college division of the NAACP and served on legal redress for the region. If anyone needed work done, I was ready.
Why did you decide to run for office?
I’ve always wanted to run for office. It was an honor to run as representative for this district because it had once been the seat of the late Dr. Aaron Henry, president of the NAACP for the State of Mississippi years ago. He did so much for this state, the southern region, and our nation. Several others filled this seat after him, as well. I saw myself doing the same types of things that Dr. Henry was doing – for equality and equity.
Sometimes people say: “You are an elected official.” But I say: “Actually, I am a community official.” I always said I was going to run when he [Dr. Henry] was going to leave the post. I felt comfortable here. I’m vested here. I don’t think I’ll ever leave. Then, when I got into the office I said: “What did I get myself into?” People say a lot of things about elected officials, but I had a lot of sleepless nights.
What is the greatest opportunity and challenge for the Mississippi Delta?
I always like the word challenge. We have so many ways of getting to success. People have a tendency to look for one way to find success. I think you should approach success from many angles. Find a road map that goes to the same area: You might need another avenue to go down. A detour.
Sometimes we can be so strong headed about the same thing. We need to find the common goal that will get us there.
I would use the example of secret barbeque sauce: The tomato team is so adamant. The spice team is so adamant that you need to have them. But the end is barbeque sauce. The end is a thriving community. You need to have that in mind.
But, I will forever say this: Our greatest opportunity is our children. If we can get them early on, invest in them and educate them, that is our great opportunity.
Our opportunities are our students, and bringing jobs in. We need to bring in jobs, and that means better healthcare, better education, all at the same time. But, good education means housing and healthcare. We need to get them all on the same board. And I know that sounds broad, but it means making a better place, a better life.
It takes what my great grandmother said: “stick-it-to-it-ness.” It’s not a word but it’s important.
What do you believe the region most needs to make a better future?
I have to talk from experience. I see myself as an individual that is a part of the community. I am not above anyone. I am in the trenches with you. I am a servant leader. Personally, I have a God-given ability to learn from older individuals. I think I consider myself a connector. I try to take the old and connect it to the new.
How do I see leadership in the future: The older generation must continue to pass things down, and the new generation needs to have the gumption to listen, but be their own individuals. …
To make a better the future of the Mississippi Delta, a person must understand the people, the culture, and the food – the entire aspect of the Mississippi Delta. Not just delivering teachings and messages, but you need to make sure you know what is understood by the people. We can say so many great things, but what does that really mean? The people have been oppressed here for so long. People have a right to look skeptically on the people talking to them.
Tell us about where you’re from.
I currently live in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I was raised in Marks, Mississippi – a small town 16 miles east from Clarksdale. At age 17, I was a mother of two.
When did you come to practice medicine?
I am a nurse practitioner and I began nursing as a quick career that is expandable and allows me to care for my children. I worked in a hospital setting and moved to Clarksdale to get a job in surgery. That was a pivotal move, because I saw there was more to life than just working and going home. Even without my knowing it, nursing was my calling: to take care of other people. I slowly walked into my passion.
I went to nursing school, and worked years in the hospital. I decided that with my leadership ability I wanted to start my own company – the first locally owned hospice agency. I managed that for seven years. I returned to school and became a nurse practitioner – cultivating my calling, filling the need to care for others. As a nurse practitioner, I began to work back in the one hospital here. Then, I returned to school to get my doctorate degree. There, I branched into renal care – kidney disease.
How do you see yourself as both a public servant and a doctor in Clarksdale?
My passion is to motivate healthy living in order to prevent ruining the kidneys. I go out into the community to raise awareness of hypertension and diabetes, the main causes of kidney disease. And to raise awareness of the patients we already have on kidney care, because it’s a silent disease. Once you find out, you’re often ready for dialysis.
Each year I organize our annual kidney awareness day. You need blood work to detect kidney disease, and it’s expensive. A lot of people often don’t have insurance and they don’t go to the doctor. So once a year we have these kidney screenings free of charge. It costs around $85,000 a year for one patient to have dialysis, so think about the economic impact. If we can prevent that by even one person, we’re saving a lot. We have 50 to 100 people a year getting screened.
Also 95% of the people in my region that have this disease are African American, and as a demographic group we have lower likelihood of donating organs. So, I also raise awareness about organ donation.
What is the greatest opportunity and challenge for the Mississippi Delta?
The greatest challenges in my community are the lack of opportunities. It’s multifaceted: lack of education, lack of economic development, and poverty.
The greatest opportunity in the community is… a difficult question, which is sad. It’s difficult for me, because of the poverty levels.
The greatest opportunities might be community support. For example, my greatest opportunity is my network and community support. However, that opportunity might not be the same for people who don’t socialize as much as me. Also, race relations are a big issue in the community.
How do you see yourself helping make the changes you think your community needs?
I see myself as being the change we need actually, because I’ve seen the many different landscapes of the town. I’ve been to all sides, I worked my way up from the bottom and I see myself as a leader that can invoke change. I know where they’ve been and I know what the options are.
So, I might run for political office, to reach out to people that feel like they’ve not been included. I want most to invest more in the educational system, because a lot of people fail to stay in the community because of the lack of good schools.
What do you believe the region most needs today?
The Mississippi Delta as a whole today needs diversity – we need race relation improvements. For years it’s been either black or white, literally. In order to move forward in this progressive time, you need to address race relations and build what you have with it. I’m not saying that by no means black and white isn’t different, but I don’t mean that we’re not equal: different but equal. One is not greater than the other. But, respect the differences, and come together and build a community. I think that’s the largest thing. You bring up the Mississippi Delta, and people bring up the Blues and race relations. And that’s not good, because we’re so much more than that.
This article and the accompanying video were produced by Timothy Lampkin of Lampkin Consulting Group LLC and Winfield Ezell and Sean Cokes of Obsidian Creative Studios, with support from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.