Julian Miller, director of the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice and Tougaloo College assistant professor of political science, is fifth generation, born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. While there has been some ebb and flow in the Delta’s economy, the region’s problems are chronic, he said.
“It’s just structurally poor, it’s the second poorest region in the United States behind Appalachia, and the structure of that hasn’t changed since then,” Miller told the Mississippi Free Press.
“It was purposeful because back in the 1800s before the Civil War, agriculture in the United States was king, and Mississippi was the wealthiest state in the country at one point because of chattel slavery and exports.”
Merchant families on the Coast had an agreement with planter families in the Delta that agriculture would continue to be a leading industry in the state, so there was no investment in public education or a tax base to invest in infrastructure and social services, Miller said.
“They educated their kids overseas and in boarding schools, so we’re still feeling the effects of that, of structural economic exploitation. Structural racism,” he said. “Now we’re at a point where in order to attract new industry, we have to have a good education system, but the education system in the Delta is the most underfunded in Mississippi and in the country.”
To break the cycle, Alcorn State University’s Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Center and Tougaloo College’s Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice are joining forces to launch the Bennie G. Thompson Delta Leadership Initiative, aimed to address economic development in the Mississippi Delta.
“The Bennie G. Thompson Delta Leadership Initiative is designed to accelerate the development of socially disadvantaged black and indigenous grassroots community leaders living in Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District,” a press release states.
This initiative—named after Tougaloo alumnus and U.S. Congressman Bennie G. Thompson—will focus on identifying and developing early-stage grassroots and community-led work and sustainable solutions in areas such as sustainable food systems training, social enterprise development models and workforce transportation, a statement says.
The initiative, Miller said, “is trying to address these issues at a systemic level and look at how the resources of the Farm Bill can be leveraged in order to create sustainable community and economic development to begin turning this cycle around.”
He said that systems in the Delta spend about $1.4 billion a year on food that is imported, while local farmers only occupy a small percentage of that market. Ten years ago, he co-founded Delta Fresh Foods, which is working to build community food systems in the Delta, he said.
“Part of this leadership development work (is) we’re trying to figure out how we target the EBT market and provide food systems training for farmers in order to centralize the local food market in the Delta, so that we can actually capture that $1.4 billion to be invested in the Delta,” the professor said.
In capturing the market, sustainable living wages and jobs can be created and communities can be revitalized in the Delta, he said.
“The key focus is actually to coalition mostly black small farmers and organizers who are trying to capture that local market and that we’re creating these sustainable food systems in the Delta, primarily through trying to do small and medium scale production, like high tunnels and hoop houses, and raise their production to produce large amounts of produce on small plots of land,” the Anderson Institute co-founder said.
This initiative—the first of its kind for Alcorn State—will provide mentorship, advising and networking resources to support the participants, who will receive up to $15,000 in equity-free grants. The program will also highlight the diversity and strength of the 2nd Congressional District through five seminars over seven months. Three seminars will be held throughout the state with one seminar in Washington, D.C.
“With this new initiative, we will continue to empower community leaders to engage in practices guided by courage and common sense; specifically, to increase the net worth of the Mississippi Delta,” Congressman Bennie G. Thompson said in a statement.
Miller said the Delta’s biggest problem is that major foundations are investing in institutions and people who are disconnected from the work being done on the ground.
“One part does the work on the ground, but the other part gets the resources for it. And it creates employment and good jobs for the people who are not from the Delta, but it does not do the work and investment to actually transform the Delta,” Miller said.
The Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center focuses on policy research focused on disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The goals of the center are to make policy recommendations that will improve the success of disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, accomplished through a management structure that focuses on research, stakeholder engagement and outreach, the school’s site reads.
In the press release, Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center Director Eloris Speight said that the program provides an opportunity to assess the needs of socially disadvantaged people in rural America in a different way.
“It gives us insight on potential policy recommendations that could provide long-lasting, positive impacts on those we serve,” Speight said in a press release.
Miller said Tougaloo partnered with Alcorn State University due to their agricultural work in communities across the Delta and the state.
“There was a real opportunity there to bring the policy and community development work we’re trying to bring to the institute married (with) the resources that they have with SDFR and have a real chance to affect policy. It was just the perfect fit. They’ve been a great organization to work with in that regard,” he said.
Community leaders and entrepreneurs that have solutions to generate an equitable economy in the Delta are encouraged to apply, a press statement reads. Applications for the initiative are open year-round, though cohort selections will begin Dec. 20, 2020, and the selected participants will be announced January 2021.
“We can revitalize communities in the Delta and have investment in our education system and social services to be able to actually break this cycle of poverty (and) attract other industries in the Delta,” Miller said.