Rural Voices: More than Singing the Blues

Community development consultant Timothy Lampkin sees his Delta town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, as a land of opportunity. He plans to use next month’s National Rural Assembly as a chance to let the rest of the nation know it.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we’re starting a series of interviews with a few of the people who will attend next month’s National Rural Assembly, September 8-10, in Washington, D.C. The national gathering of rural advocates focuses on rural America's place in federal policy making. The Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder. 

In the Mississippi Delta, Timothy Lampkin sees great opportunity where others see big obstacles.

After leaving Clarksdale for a corporate job, he decided that life wasn’t for him. He returned home to become a community development officer for Southern Bancorp, a mission-driven development bank. When the agency focused more on banking services, Lampkin struck out on his own as a community development consultant.

For all the chronic struggles Lampkin sees in the Delta, he also sees ingenuity and innovation. The region could be a model for a new American approach for dealing with poverty, he said.

His neighbors have always been hardworking, determined, and creative, Lampkin said. Now, he says, they are also ready to break with old traditions and try new ideas.

The Daily Yonder asked Lampkin to describe his part of rural America and tell us his hopes for attending the National Rural Assembly.

Photo by Luke
The Delta is famous for tamales, like these from Hicks’ Famous Hot Tamales and More in Clarksdale. Lampkin says cultural diversity and food traditions are part of the region's strengths.

 

Daily Yonder: What is your part of rural America like? What are the key issues? 

I’m from Clarksdale, Mississippi, a very small town in the Mississippi Delta. The population is under 25,000, [the most recent Census estimate is 17,000] and we are in what is considered one of the most impoverished areas in the nation. Looking at some of the issues we face, they would be access to fresh food, access to clean water, and access to quality education from K-12 all the way up to higher education levels. There has been some progress. But there is a long way to go to really get to the place where I feel we need to be. Where we have quality education for all citizens, not just one part of the population, access to fresh food for all citizens, and access to clean water for all citizens.

In this country, if you ask someone about the Mississippi Delta, many people already have an idea of what to expect. What do you wish the rest of the nation knew about your community?

Timothy Lampkin

I wish people would see Clarksdale, or the Delta as a whole, as a place of opportunity, not necessarily as a place of obstacles. Every place has obstacles. I think there is a lot of opportunity here because we have so many challenges. That can definitely lead to a lot of innovation and creativity to address some of those issues.

And that really is why we continue to thrive, and continue to push on, because we have been able to withstand some of the hardest times in America. That’s what made us persevere, and be relentless, and continue to transform our areas by any means necessary. 

 

You’ve talked a little about some of the issues you’ve seen in your community – food, education, and water.  Can you tell me more about those challenges and where you see solutions coming from?

What we find is these issues are often a part of a larger ripple effect.  It’s all attached to each other. Looking at fresh food – look at the negative health disparities in Clarksdale. How do we fix that without starting with access to fresh foods? I can’t expect someone to use their SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits to purchase fresh foods if they’ve never been educated on cost saving, if they’ve never been educated in cooking these meals for their families.

So there is a need for community education beyond the classroom. Look at the high school drop-out [rate] in the Mississippi Delta. It’s amazing we have so many dropouts that become parents. You have a child that is attending the local middle school, and the parents are not able to assist them, and then you have frustration and tension in the home. And that leads to other issues in the community.

There are other challenges, but they can be looked at as opportunities. I really see Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta being the pilot for the most innovative strategies we can think of … to help bring people out of poverty.

People here are hard working. They persevere, and never give up. I think those are some of the key qualities of an entrepreneur. I think we have a real opportunity to help grow and develop business opportunities, because we have a diverse and creative and hardworking population.

 

Tony & Monica Li own Wong's Foodland in Clarksdale. The Delta has a larger Chinese population than most people realize, Lampkin said.

 

I know Clarksdale is a tourist destination – “the Home of the Blues” – and plenty of people come down to the area and love it. But what do you see as the bright spots in your community?

The good thing about Clarksdale is that we have such a diverse population. People might not fully realize it, but there is a lot of diversity in terms of age, gender, and ethnic background. When people look at Mississippi, especially the Mississippi Delta, they think it’s predominantly an African American population. But there is a large Hispanic population, and large Chinese population, and some people don’t see it this way, but we have a large very diverse religious population.

Most of the diversity settings I’ve been in, it’s like, if you have an African American in the room, it’s considered “diversity.” But this is 2015. Here in Clarksdale we have the ability to bring in the real diversity of the community to deal with problems by bringing in all aspects of the population. They can have an inclusive approach to solutions.

We also have important food history and important civil rights history. The Blues outweighs that, often, because it’s useful for tourism. But we have civil rights history, from Martin Luther King and Aaron Henry [head of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP] coming here to all these organizations that came to Clarksdale. They are often overlooked because people come here just for the Blues. I think that [civil rights history] is part of our uniqueness.

 

Daily Yonder: What do you hope to accomplish at the Rural Assembly? How could other rural advocates around the country help you in your work at home?

What I hope to accomplish is to give organizers and speakers and attendees the perspective that I have from Clarksdale. Not necessarily from the aspect of tourism or as the “home of the Blues,” but from the other aspect that it is a land of opportunity. … We’re open for innovation, open for creativity, open for entrepreneurship. I say we need to be open because for far too long we’ve continued to do things the same way. And sometimes we need to break out of that tradition.

I also hope to come back with resources. Not just business cards and emails but in-kind resources, to really move Clarksdale to a different level. I think people that are practicing in rural areas can share with me lessons learned and best practices, but also I really want to strengthen this concept of collaborating on a regional level. I think there is power in numbers. We can only do so much by ourselves, but if we have regional partners to help insure resources are getting down to the local level, then we could be very successful. 

Aaron Henry was a native of Clarksdale and a pionneer in the state's civil rights actitivites. Henry was part of Freedom Summer in 1962 and led an effort two years later to keep Mississippi from seating an all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention (pictured). The city's civil rights legacy is an asset, Lampkin said.

 

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