Honesty & Accomplishment
Coahoma Community College,
“If you can’t be honest about things,
then you’re not going to accomplish anything.”
- Transforming a community college
- Autonomy, but guidelines
- Teaching Parents to be parents
- Race disguises poverty
- The Casino Industry
- Striking a balance
- Keys: Work Ethic and Math
Coahoma Community College was one of the original colleges chosen by the Ford Foundation, Rural Community College Initiative (RCCI). When I got hired, my boss said, “I want you to take that over” I didn’t know the community or the college system, and I certainly didn’t know the foundations. I found that to be an incredibly powerful experience. The way they structured it, it coincided perfectly with the creation of this facility here. This center and these passages were from the Workforce Education Act. The premise was that they brought rural colleges together from around the nation that had the same basic problem. So there were African Americans, Hispanic, Native Americans, and Appalachians. We all shared the same problems of poverty, teenage pregnancy, poor education, alcoholism, drugs, high turnover rate, and lack of industry. The most beneficial thing there was when we all got together, we realized we’ve got the same things, just different localities.
The Ford Foundation, the RCCI, was very empowering. They gave us the opportunity over the next four-years, the next two years particularly…I sent people over the United States looking at the best practices. We got the funds to do that, they brought home the ideas, we implemented it here. In this facility in 1993, there were 253 people, we started over 22, 000 people last year. It was built on the premise of: it’s just on institutional capacity, economic development, and access. Each college was to look at those three areas and use the Ford Foundation money, which was not a whole lot, but it gave you the money to link or connect with other people. We brought the best practices home and we employed them here. We were to look at those three categories and see how to develop or create programs within the college and within the RCCI. I think we met twice a year as a whole group, all nine colleges. And we would meet here, or we met once at Espanola, New Mexico; in Montana, in the Appalachian region. We met in each of the regions. It was a wonderful cultural exchange. That was incredibly powerful because of the ideas that developed and were shared between the people that had the same problems, or faced the same economic situation.
Our Coahoma group (at a strategic focus group in Montana) did some strategic planning and determined that for us to be successful with economics or with access we had to have institutional capacity, so that’s what we focused on: Building up out of the institution’s ability to do economic development, to do access and to provide programs.
We found a whole new way of thinking about how to run a college, a new perspective. Who are your clients? Coahoma’s enrollment went from 700 to 1300. That’s pretty good for us. The odd thing alone was that our spring enrollment was higher than our fall enrollment, that never happens. So, long term change and internal developmental change brought us together as a campus. There is a lot of hostility between the campus and this facility. There’s jealousy because we are having success. But we view this as a business and not as an educational entity. We were very aggressive with marketing and getting out in the community that we served. All of those ideas came from RCCI. They came from going to the best practices and looking at them. That to me was an incredibly successful program because they gave you autonomy. You chose how best to fit the needs of it and then you went forward. It was the sharing of like groups that was most powerful. The time commitment was kind of tough. But, when you did go to off sites, it was so filled with like people and you didn’t have people in New York trying to know how to think, feel, or solve. There was a Native American chief who was sitting up there dealing with this. He was talking to us and we were talking to him. He was saying we tried this certain program, and it failed. And we were saying here’s what we do to make it work. That was successful. They had RCCI people there, not as facilitators, but they just would just kind of float and see how it was going and what was being said.
The other foundations that I’ve worked with here have come in and they put a lot of money in. It gives salary to people to go out and do the same ya-ya, blah-blah talk that they have been doing for the last eight or nine years. We know that we have educational problems, we know that there’s a racism problem. But, I guarantee that exists anywhere you go. You’ll have the same racism problems in New York City that you have here. I’m so sick and tired of people saying let’s go fix the Delta, fix your own problems. And, quit pointing the finger at the Mississippi Delta, because we have made some wonderful strides in the past 10 years. The next generation will be a whole different ball game than what my mother-in-law’s generation was. That is something that takes time to change. I’m sick and tired of having these foreign Yankees coming down here and teaching us about cultural diversity. But truly, for the most part, when they come in and dump these 5 million dollar grants in this area to do leadership development, well, these people still need to learn to bathe before they go to a job. That’s all good, fine, lofty and ideal, and it has its place, but reality is a whole lot more gritty. Leadership should not be the primary focus. In my experience, with the other large foundations that have come in here, they were so controlling about their demands and their criteria that must be met. You have to go to three trainings a year at 5 days at each time. You get in there and it’s the same stuff over and over again. I’m not going to waste my time.
The Ford Foundation brought the groups together. When I would go to Montana, they would bring in speakers who were involved in programs very similar to mine. They would share what worked and didn’t work. Every one of the foundations said that they were here to empower you. They themselves didn’t know the meaning of empowerment. Empowerment is giving that person that autonomy to make mistakes, to fix those mistakes, to change based on the people and the region- not on someone’s preconceived, idealistic notions who’s sitting up in an office somewhere. What really irritates me is when a foundation comes in and is all about the Delta but then puts it’s home office in Jackson. What’s wrong with that? Or they couldn’t recruit top level people that would live in the Delta. We’re rearing our children here, I buried my daughter here, we’re willing to be here in the heat of it.
There has to be guidelines. If not, you get pools built and barbecues and vacations. Autonomy is a great thing. You let the entity you’re working with work with you in developing the criteria or the guidelines, so that they’re reasonable, and so that they’re achievable. You’re coming in with your preconceived set of ideals…I’m sitting in my New York office and saying let’s help the Delta. You have to be willing when you get there and meet with these people to change your way of thinking. It’s all about change. I have said it for years. And I’ve said it to Myrtis Tabb. There should be a clearing house. We’ve got Outreach International over here and Americorp and the Ford Foundation and several Kellogg Foundations. Pool it, you know what I mean?! They need to work together, but they’re all so interested in grabbing the headlines. There needs to be an organization, and I think that Myrtis’ organization [Delta State Universities' Community Development Denter] would be the perfect vehicle for that. Where the foundations work together. Of course they’re individual organizations, so they don’t have to do that. But, at least they can try to work together rather than just everyone coming in with a perfect plan and there’s four right here with separate grants, and I get called in to serve on all four of them. And, all four of them have different sets of criteria and standards; I’m not going to fool with any of them.
The thing that I have found here to be so amusing, well not really amusing. My race is in the minority and that’s fine. I wasn’t raised to see color. But, when these foundations come in and they are not raised to see color and they are trying to tell us not to. And, they tell us that we need to be inclusive, and they pull together steering committees that are 100% African Americans and then complain that there’s no white participation. I just quit fooling with them.
RCCI finished last year, it’s over. I would love to be able to send my people back out to the best practices that the Ford Foundation identified. They worked with a group called MDC out of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And MDC is all over the Delta and all over Mississippi. MDC is the think tank that the state of Mississippi usually turns to. Stuart Rosenthal of Regional Technology Strategies is another developer that they bring in. Of course, Governor Winter serves on MDC’s board so I’m sure that’s one of the reasons. I wouldn’t fool with the Foundation of the Mid-South if I had to. They’re god and you’re wrong. The Tri-County Work Force Alliance, which if funded through the Foundation of the Mid-South here, is very successful. We work well with Rhymes. And, we partner well with her and we will continue to do that. Just as long as I don’t have to go to any Foundation of the Mid-South meetings, I’m happy. Josephine is an honest, hard working person. And like you, I have had the opportunity and privilege of traveling to many countries and living in some and the problems are pervasive. They are not unique to the Delta. Although our media certainly does a wonderful job of making it a Mississippi thing. I have got the best team in the state of Mississippi. When my daughter died, my team rallied around me because I was mentally unable to work for a year. There wasn’t any color; there wasn’t any socioeconomic stuff; it was just plain pure love and good folks.
The problems of the Delta will be fixed when we do an adequate job of: (1) eliminating teenage pregnancy, (2)having decent programs teaching parents how to be parents like the one in Montana. When you have 14 year old who has a baby and her mother was 14 when she had her, you don’t have good parenting skills. I’m a former elementary principal. When that child reaches 6 years old and goes to school, you’re in remediation from there out. Head Start does the best they can. I think that the parental education needs to begin. Teach them how to help their child achieve all they can. When they hit first grade they are ready to learn to read and write. Good folks come in and they are reading on a 5th grade level. To me education is the answer. Yes, we can bring more Hispanics in; they are a wonderful work force. But, then you’ve just displaced all the folks that are natives here. My husband’s farm had a wonderful Hispanic workforce. But farming today, you have to have somebody that can operate a computer. You don’t want to put somebody out there who is legal in Spanish, but can’t handle a computer when he’s on a half of a million dollar tractor or combine. This is not an answer; I think that education is the key. You graduate with a diploma, if you even graduate at all, and that diploma doesn’t mean that you are functioning on a 12th grade level. If you don’t fix the problem in 4th grade, you fix it before they hit school. I think that the ‘Parents as Teachers’ model that they used in MO was extremely powerful. And, from what I remember, they did the training all the way up through 12th grade. In this program, the parent educator went into the home and worked with the parent before the child was born. It was a very powerful concept. There are other programs like that which work with parents. We were read to as children. Things that we take for granted don’t happen.
No trust between the races, well it’s been like that since the beginning of time. There’s a Chinese population that was severely ostracized because of their race, are the foundations working with them? I don’t think so. You’re going to have that everywhere. It’s not between the races, it’s just between people. Racism should not be an issue. Socioeconomics is an issue. I think that’s a disguise by saying that it’s race. The have and the have-not’s. There’s just a lot of cultural things that are going to have to be undone. Like I said, the next generation will be a whole different ball game because they’ve been exposed differently. Back on education, and this goes back to Sputnik, when the government said “Oh my golly we’ re falling behind the rest of the world and the Russians are going to dominate we’re all going to be drinking vodka.” And, they said everyone needs to have a four year degree. Well, before I came to work for the community colleges, I was just an elitist like the rest of them. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, you must get a four-year degree. If you get that four-year degree teaching school, you’re going to make less money. If you have a two-year degree in industrial maintenance, you’ll be making 60,000 a year because there are none. We don’t push skills. Oh that’s demeaning, that’s degrading. And that’s why they want the Hispanics to come in. It’s not demeaning, it’s not degrading and they make good money.
The Mississippi Developmental Authority (MDA) is the best agency in the state and they bring in some great businesses everywhere but here. Then again I can’t blame them. Our work force is good folks, but the next generation will be the one that does well.
One problem is community colleges are reactive, not pro-active. They’re saying that we, as centers, have failed in a sense that we have not encouraged our companies to be more pro-active in development. You’re investing in your work force that will, in the long-term, pay off. And the mind set has been ‘Just give me a warm body that will show up everyday and I’ll do the rest.’ That truly is mind set, that’s not just Delta but it certainly is pervasive in the Delta.
MDA came up with a great plan. MDA said that under the small community developments of the New Initiatives Act you could apply for up to $300,000 to do community development projects. And they totally streamlined it. So I wrote one to redo our streets in Duncan on the poor end of town. Their kids need streets that they can roller skate on and they can ride just like anybody else. They have made the process so simple. When you’ve got these small towns like Duncan where you’ve got ignorant people, like myself, serving on the board, of course, I write grants. But, most small towns don’t have that where they can pull from. So, it’s an intimidating process and then when it happens, they are blown away by the bureaucratic paper trail. MDA streamlined it.
I see a lot of evils with gaming. But,it has provided opportunities of employment for people who have no skills. We get chastised by Area ministers or senators for providing training for people in the gaming industry. They wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. Who am I to tell them that they cannot work in a casino because of gaming and they don’t have a way to support their family? I’m very thankful that we have them here, because it has allowed me to put close to 5,000 people in jobs that would otherwise not have one. Good paying jobs, not minimum wage jobs. So, our alternative is to work with the devil, and that’s what were doing. And if it puts food on somebody’s table and a car they can drive and a house -hallelujah! We don’t train for gaming, we just train for the resort industry, the tourism industry. By law, we can’t do any gaming thing.
“You have to strike a balance because you do have some people that will build a barbecue pit with that foundation money or fund their salary and create these really glowing reports and keep all the board members and the foundations happy. On the other hand, outsiders don’t need to come in here with these preconceived ideas of what needs to be changed. If they want to do that, then they need to look in their backyard first because they’ve got the same problems right there. You’ve got your people who want to work and you’ve got your people that say ‘I don’t give a flip.’
Any of our businesses and industries will tell you that they want somebody with work ethics and somebody that can do math. Gee, it would be good if we had some machinist or welders around here. Or technical maintenance men, they’re just not there. But, then again that’s not going to be solved either because you turn on the T.V. and the jobs that are glamorized are the white collar, sitting in the air-conditioning jobs. Those jobs are tough. They are hard working people, and they get paid well. And, I think that it’s grossly unfair to a child to tell them that you have to have a four year degree to accomplish anything. You may be incredibly talented with fixing things. It’s just a cultural mind set that won’t be undone.