One week. That’s it. That’s all the time that we’re spending in the Mississippi Delta. I spent more time getting adjusted to my new bed in Ann Arbor than I had here in Clarksdale. Thus, it seems rather incredible that, as a bunch of outsiders, we could so casually walk in to this community and say, “We’re going to help.” (Of course it was not so casual nor that presumptuous.)
We took time to observe and experience life in Clarksdale and visit various local community and health centers. These steps, along with a brief history lesson on the first day, were critical to our being able to enter the community knowledgeably and respectfully. After all, we’re not Deltan experts and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could certainly delegitimize our work. Yet, I recognize that what helped us gain the most access to the community was not necessarily our knowledge, but our relationships to “bridgers” like Dr. John Green and Jen Waller, who helped introduce us to the community we sought to serve and give us more credibility.
Being so focused on how I could enter and engage with a community in such a short time, so quickly, I nearly forgot to think about how we would leave. An interviewee asked me what would happen when our project was over, would I come back? It stopped me short– it would be so easy for me to never look back at Clarksdale, to never walk along Sunflower or Delta Avenue, or see Ground Zero or the Cutrer Mansion again. To never shake hands with Clarksdalian again. Yet, the people I interacted with would remember the good and the bad of our interaction; the impact of my visit would remain long after me. For the sake of our relationships with those bridgers, for the sake of future outsiders who want to help, for the sake of the people of Clarksdale, we had to leave on a good note. A meaningful one.
On our last full day, we made presentations to staff at the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center and the Coahoma County Higher Education Center of our findings, what community members had told us about health, education, employment, and more. It was a powerful way to exit, knowing that we had collected data and put it into the hands of people who could make a positive difference in the community that had hosted us for a week. We didn’t just collect the data for our own selfish purposes and put it on a shelf to get covered with dust. Our work could do good. I just wish I could find and say goodbye to all the people I interviewed on the street, and thank them for helping me do that before I left.
In public health, we often talk about Mississippi – Mississippi’s obesity rate, Mississippi’s STD rates. Mississippi consistently ranks among the lowest for many health indicators. And, many Mississippians are aware of these poor health indicators. As one resident told me, “I don’t have to study the numbers, I see the people.”
However, there are many things that Mississippi Delta residents are proud of:
1. Playwright Tennessee Williams’ early childhood was spent in Clarksdale, MS which provided inspiration for characters and settings in his plays.
2. The birthplace of blues music, and a claim to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
3. Hot Tamales Trail
4. Sunflower River Blues and Juke Joint Festivals
5. Scenes from “The Help” were filmed in Downtown Clarksdale.
Our project with the University of Mississippi seeks to add one more thing to this growing list: Coahoma County Higher Education Center (CCHEC). We will be interviewing and conducting focus groups of Delta residents to inform the strategic plan of the CCHEC and gain a greater understanding of education in the context of healthcare reform. Thus far, these interviews have allowed me to gain an in-depth understanding of the value of field work in community development and the value of community development in public health. The disparities we see are often the result of socioeconomic factors that are difficult or impossible to “measure,” and the qualitative methods we are using allow us to gain insight into the community and more importantly, the community’s needs.
Community is one of those ubiquitous buzz words in public health. We find ways to work it into every conversation, it appears in every checklist, every proposal,
every action plan. I’ve spent time volunteering in a community health care
center and I’ve proudly told anyone who would listen that of my high school’s
five goals for education, #4 (the building of community as a Christian value)
was my favorite. But nevertheless the community we’ve experienced in Clarksdale has blown me away.
A major part of a project this week is to work with the Coahoma County Higher
Education Center (CCHEC) to help them develop a strategic plan for the next ten
years. (Brief history: CCHEC has two parts, the Cutrer Mansion and an attached
skills center. It is currently operated as a joint venture between Coahoma
Community College and Delta State University). Last night we met with various
community members to talk about what they would like to see happen. The passion and excitement they had was contagious.
As part of our project we visited with the Center for Community and Economic
Development (CCEED) in Cleveland, which is also associated with Delta State
University. A big part of the visit was talking to the AmeriCorps Vista
members who walked us through their various projects in the community. As
we talked to them about early detection for breast cancer, community gardens,
and asthma action plans (see Wheezy the Asthmatic Bear) it was amazing to
catch the little details thrown in. One of our new friends had started an
HIV nonprofit on the side, but had come back to the Vista program when
funding became hard to find. Another member lobbied to work with the
asthma action plan program because he really wanted to help give the youth
in his community some hope.
We ended the day with some community building aka a good old-fashioned
game of down by the bank. Who says community building has to be boring?
The Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST) is working in Mississippi for the 8th time and the second time to the Delta region. Mississippi provides a rural southern context for PHAST members to become immersed.
Throughout the week, PHAST has had the opportunity to observe, participate and learn with students from the University of Mississippi and with the Center for Population Studies. The week has provided an in depth learning experience that explored community engagement, multiple forms of qualitative data collection, and reflection of the many meanings of community. By the end of this week, PHAST will have contributed not only to knowledge generation and formation for our partners, but the students will have contributed to their own personal and professional growth.
I must admit I was never eager to journey into the state that my grandmother, an Alabaman native, thought was far worse than her home state. However, I have come to embrace the unique character and honesty of the region. I hope the students will also welcome the warmth of the Mississippi Delta.
The State of Mississippi
The Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST) is providing an end of term field experience to Mississippi (Delta Region), May 12-18, 2013. This PHAST project will represent the eighth collaboration and trip to Mississippi. The work for this project will focus in the Delta region of Mississippi. The delta region of Mississippi faces a number of challenging issues in providing health care to its residents. There is limited access to health care facilities and providers, high rates of uninsured populations, and a higher-than-average prevalence of chronic diseases such as hypertension.
PHAST members will work with their long-standing partners, John Green, PhD, Director, Center for Population Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi and the Institute for Community-Based Research. The work and partnership is driven by the needs of community organizations to assess the needs of the community to better serve them. Five PHAST members, a UM Social Work student, and three University of Mississippi students will conduct focus groups and interviews in the Delta region.
The Practice Office will provide PHAST students with a project that will engage them in health and social justice issues in rural Mississippi. Examining health in a rural context will provide a unique opportunity to explore the complexity of public health problems as they impact communities and organizations. In addition, students will interact and engage with public health organizations, local researchers and community-based organizations seeking to improve the health of the community.
Post by Merrybelle Guo
Often, we compartmentalize or stereotype the things around us. This can be helpful in trying to make sense of the world but it’s only a first step, and it’s often one that will (or should) be shaken. Before going to South Texas, I likely had preconceived notions of what life was like down in the Valley, whether conscious of them or not. Texas itself conjures rich images, let alone a community living on the border of the U.S. and Mexico that is majority Hispanic. Though I knew a population we would encounter were Winter Texans (folks that live farther north during the summer months, but come down to Texas for the winter), the descriptions that influenced my thoughts the most had to do with the area’s close proximity to the Mexico border. Continue reading