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If you want to build something strong and beautiful, get creative people involved.
That advice works whether you are building a house, a piece of art, or even a regional economy, says a Delta nonprofit leader who is helping develop the business skills of “creatives” in Mississippi.
“I think some people forget how innovative the Delta really is,” says Tim Lampkin, the founder of Higher Purpose Co., a community development nonprofit based in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“People [in Mississippi] have done a lot of creative things to get this far, in the face of some tough situations. I think right now we just need to harness that innovation for new creative business models, arts and culture.”
To help make that happen, Higher Purpose Co. teamed up with a Minnesota nonprofit arts service organization, Springboard for the Arts, to provide free business training for artists and other “creatives.”
One of those creatives is photographer Trent Calvin. He teaches math at a rural community college in Coahoma County, Mississippi. For the past four years, he’s also been building a photography business – using a visual art to help spark economic activity.
Calvin now has a little extra money to invest in his business, thanks to the Delta Business Challenge, a business pitch contest in which workshop participants told a panel of local judges their ideas to start or expand a business.
Calvin said he will use the $1,000 prize to invest in new equipment and complete some legal work for his business.
“I’m also using a portion of the funds for a community photography workshop,” Calvin said. “I was trying to get the price down so that anyone who wants to learn photography can learn about it, and now I can.”
The Delta Creative Business Challenge focused on Coahoma County, Mississippi. Lampkin said he hopes to expand the program across the state in the future. Participants in the challenge included business owners, an artist, and entrepreneurs who had completed the business training sessions.
The training and pitch contest weren’t just to create sustainable local businesses, Lampkin said. They were a step toward building “community wealth,” a concept developed by the Democracy Collaborative.
“Building community wealth is not just about giving people any kind of jobs or monthly income,” Lampkin said. “Ownership is all about having the ability to control your own future.”
Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, says they started to work with Higher Purpose because of Lampkin’s focus on bringing arts into a wealth-building project.
“Specifically, we’re interested in how the tradition bearers, cultural makers, are also benefiting economically from their art,” she said. “And we know there is as specific set of challenges and opportunities around that in the Delta and in Clarksdale. There is this history of music and culture, and the people who benefit from that are not always the people doing the making.”
Zabel sees potential in the partnership with Higher Purpose Co. to change “how people in the community have a sense of their own agency and power. Cultural tourism can open up a lot of avenues for economic benefits.”
For Lampkin and Zabel, it’s a question of who benefits from the activities. And questions of who benefits are not the easiest conversations in Mississippi. The region has long been known as a place with high racial inequity and a marked racial wealth gap, not coincidentally a site of intense conflict during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the site of perhaps this country’s most brutal and extensive slave labor regime before the 1860s.
Lampkin, speaking at the National Rural Assembly in May 2018, in Durham, North Carolina, told audiences, “You know, when we’re talking about building wealth and ownership, we’re talking about creating a new economy which means there must be a shift in power and control.”
This isn’t the first time people in the Delta have attempted a social movement focusing on ownership of businesses, land, and culture. In fact, it’s been a consistent theme since Reconstruction, when the nation attempted to rebuild the South to include the 3.5 million enslaved people who officially gained freedom through the 13th Amendment.
W. E. B. Du Bois, writing in 1935, detailsthe experiences of freed African-Americancommunities in the Delta and across the South that fought for control of land during and after Reconstruction – 1867 to 1876 – as a strategy to own their own futures. From Mississippi to the Georgia Sea Islands and the Virginia coast, Du Bois details instances where African-American communities where offered the option to purchase large parcels of abandoned lands with which to build wealth. Despite the political overthrow of the land redistribution projects in the 1880s, African-American land ownership continued to increase until the 1920s. The Great Depression, New Deal policies, consolidation of agriculture, and widespread white terrorism against successful African-Americans all wrested land from African American farmers.
A report from the Center for Social Inclusion details how in 1910, African-American farmers owned over 15 million acres of land, but by 2007 African-American farmers accounted for only 2.9 million acres in the South. Between the 1990s and 2000s alone, the total number of African-American farmers in the South dropped 45 percent. A recent Nation article has detailed that black land loss has continued until the present, with causes such as USDA discrimination in lending (addressed in the Pigford v. USDA lawsuit) rural poverty, second-home developments, and overall consolidation of farmland across the country.
One of the few “experiments” of African-American land ownership, as Du Bois termed them, that lasts into the present is the African-American community of Mound Bayou in Bolivar County, Mississippi. At one point comprising several hundred residents, the community is now home to several dozen families and a few small businesses, including a pottery studio and a community healthcare facility. Born out of land concessions from railroad companies, African-American Reconstruction politician Isaiah Montgomery founded the town in 1880, as Clyde Woods documented in his seminal book on the Mississippi Delta, Development Arrested. Residents have weathered gripping poverty rates and a familiar tale of rural youth leaving and population loss. As such, Mound Bayou is also another testament to importance of land ownership and the Delta’s potential.
Higher Purpose Co. envisions something new and different when they say “ownership.” For one, they are starting with artists and creatives. The Delta Creative Business Challenge is one example of that effort. Second, they see their community wealth-building strategy starting in small towns. Land ownership to Higher Purpose also means “community real estate investing,” explains Lampkin. They are beginning to attract funding to invest in Delta towns and cities, like Clarksdale. Lampkin intends to help revitalize vacant neighborhoods by working with residents to buy abandoned or empty properties, while providing subsidized space for the businesses they help incubate and affordable housing.
Lampkin believes that reducing poverty in Mississippi cannot happen with one-off projects, or just by focusing on one issue. “We have to create systemic change and develop pathways of wealth with low income residents to improve their overall quality of life.”
Gabe Schwartzman is a volunteer for Higher Purpose Co. and is pursuing a Ph.D. in geography at the University of Minnesota.