stimulating civic leadership
Leadership is a chain reaction, as long as no one person dominates.
- Progress in East Arkansas
- Community newspapers and development
- Stimulating civic leadership
- Needs of the Delta
Dumas is one of the few brighter spots in the impoverished Mississippi River Delta. On a beautiful February morning, we came to visit Charlotte Schexnayder to try to find out why. Our discussions began at the opening of a new store. Charlotte was presiding at the ribbon-cutting in a reviving downtown. This event was just the latest in a series of new businesses springing up in Dumas. When one town progresses while similar towns decline, the reason begins long before outsiders notice the difference.
In 1944, Charlotte Tillar was 20 years old when she became assistant editor of the McGehee Times in the Arkansas Delta. The men had gone to war and she was a recent graduate of LSU in sociology and journalism. As one of the few women editors at the time and young to boot, she was tested. On the first day, a visitor said, “You can’t possibly be the editor, you’re just a girl.” But Charlotte says “it’s been great fun. The best fun is proving yourself.” After six years at the county seat paper, she and her new husband, Melvin Schexnayder, bought the other newspaper in the county, the Dumas Clarion. During the 44 years they ran the paper, Dumas grew to become the leading town in the region looked on with envy by surrounding communities. Officials in neighboring communities say, Why does Dumas get everything?
Charlotte has some ideas why.
- We have a optimism and a willingness to work together.
This town had vision when others didn’t.
Dumas has a can-do attitude. We were turned down four times before we got the first industry in our industrial park.
Another is: “A good newspaper is the soul of a community.” Charlotte knows of the success of Tupelo’s newspaper in developing that region of Mississippi. She and her husband have used some of the same approaches in Dumas.
An aggressive newspaper is key to any town. It’s really hard to find a booming area with a lousy newspaper.” The Schexnayder’s paper “was in the middle of every drive, every project for the town. One of the biggest problems for rural areas is the loss of small, locally-owned newspapers.”
Any development effort must be broad-based. No one person can dominate in any way.” “A newspaper is a good vehicle to bring people together to share ideas.” “People have to go beyond me, myself and mine.”
Charlotte’s office is messy. She tells the story of an editor she worked with who always had a clean desk, but “never wrote stories, never did anything.” Charlotte is concerned with getting things done. When she and her husband retired from the newspaper business, she became a full-time volunteer for the Dumas Chamber of Commerce. “I ouldn’t go home and sit down and do nothing.”
Charlotte had grown up near Dumas in a town named after her family, but her father and grandfather died of pneumonia when she was five and they lost the plantation three months into the Great Depression. Her mother kept the family going through rough times. Charlotte and her sisters learned to work. She muses about the different life which would have resulted from being a young mistress from a prominent family on a large plantation.
In the years running the paper, Charlotte has had many opportunities to help young people getting started in the working world. A key problem with many is learning to be responsible.
Have to have encouragement from someone in order to learn how to work. They hired lots of folks at the newspaper office and almost always had to teach them the key skills. A lot of counseling. by example, by listening. Welfare reform: won’t be able to get enough counselors. Has to be one on one.
Treat everybody the same and they’ll respond in kind. It’s easier in a small enterprise. Some of the most talented couldn’t learn the basics. He couldn’t grasp responsibility. Responsibility is hard to teach. Probably can’t teach it after a certain age. Helping young people be more responsible is the way to break the welfare cycle, though.”
Getting young people involved in key to long term development efforts. “You need young people tracking what the older people are doing. On every project, get young people involved. If people haven’t been involved before they are in their 30s, they rarely volunteer.”
“In Dumas we have optimism and a willingness to work together. People have become good workers for the community. But it’s taken an lot of mentoring and hand-holding.” “Say: ‘, this is where you’re needed and they’ll respond.” Civic leadership is the key to development of any region. Not politicians, but good, sound, principled business leaders.”
“Why don’t they get involved? They’re overwhelmed with very busy lives. And they’re disenchanted with anything with a government tinge.”
“There is a disenchantment with government, and all leadership, which has to be overcome.”
What does it take to stimulate such civic leadership?
- “It has to be someone on the inside of the community. An outsider can’t come in and do it.”
- “You have to have a vision. The Delta is beset by a lack of vision. We had vision when others didn’t.”
How do you do this?
- “People must understand you’re not in it for yourself. You must get it done without any personal agenda. You have no other reason to ask them except the good of the project.”People have tgo see that you have motives above personal gain, that you’re not trying to make a bunch of money off the deal.
- You have to be willing to make changes and have a vision for how things could be improved.
- Involve one person, that person involves others. Nobody alone is going to get it done.
- Leadership: If one person dominates a community, it’s hard to break it. You can break it with a lot of little projects.
- No community gets ahead if it only works on one project. Have to focus in a lot of directions.
- You need long-term vision, but initially few will see the value in long-term projects. “When we started working on the bridge, everyone thought we were crazy. All long term projects always seem far fetched. Pick out a few short term projects, so can show success. Show something, even if small, that’s successful. So our long term goals for downtown Dumas, we need small openings like the one this morning.”
How do you know someone is going to be a good leader? “Enthusiasm, perseverance, commitment. You have to really feel in your heart that the job needs to be done.”
In 1954, she and Melvin came to Dumas. “In 1955, a major employer, a hardwood mill burned, leaving 100 people unemployed. In some towns this could have started a downhill slide. In Dumas, the paper helped rally efforts for an ‘industrial foundation’ to build an industrial park. The Pickens family provided the land. In some towns, landowners won’t sell at all.” The first step is getting community members to to buy in, to realize the need for economic development.
Dumas continued to lag until the 60s. The town was divided into factions, with “hard core on both sides.” How do you decrease polarized factions in a town? “Leadership with integrity. You’re acting for the ultimate good of the community. Everybody can talk to somebody to help defuse a situation. If people don’t work together all is lost.” “You have to be a role model for leadership without dominating.
It takes leadership to stir the pot.” We saw beyond the moment and we had an aggressive mayor. You have to be politically savvy.
What does the Delta need?
“Regional Development Districts have not worked due to provincialism. An approach which might work would be to cluster communities together after you have identified towns which can work together.Cluster communities might work. Link Dumas with Winchester, Watson, Gould, Grady. A Watson resident once told Charlotte: get more jobs in Dumas, so people from here has a place to work.” “Let’s sustain key small towns to help others around it.”
“The roots of poverty are education and motivation.” In the Delta we have major education and economic problems.” “The Delta got lost when the jobs lost in the agricultural revolution weren’t replaced.” “The Delta has a lack of vision, especially in corporate agriculture. They have no desire to change. Every time something new comes in, the most influential farmers denigrate it. When the first rice crop was grown in DeSha County, people thought that farmer was off his rocker.”
None of her children came back to Dumas to live. Everybody has to do what they want to do. Some Four generation families here. Children come back and like it. People live where they enjoy living. Delta needs more recreation and cultural facilities.
In the Delta, some see the magnitude of the problem, instead of the possibilities. The problems are so huge, no one bold stroke will solve it. Instead, we need multiple solutions, lots of push in lots of different directions.
The solution won’t all be done politically. People have to get involved. We need more civic leadership. From the business community and professionals. They’re really the key.