DREW – On a cold and rainy Saturday morning in early December, twenty-six black middle school-aged students – energized to learn – gathered at the center for We2gether Creating Change, a local nonprofit geared towards moving youth and adults from poverty to prosperity.
Each Saturday, these middle schoolers participate in Dollars ($$$) For Your Thoughts, an umbrella program of We2gether Creating Change — formed in 2011 — that inspires youth to “use their talents, skills, and passions to create a healthy and whole life.” In turn, students receive money for speaking up and sharing their thoughts.
Every class session features a different topic: being confident and building self-esteem, cultivating healthy relationships and graduating high school and entering college, to name a few.
We2gether was started in 2009 by Gloria Dickerson, a Drew, Miss. native and civil rights activist, who returned to help improve education in her hometown decades after integrating the former all-white Drew High School in 1965.
Another program, Girls Write the World, was founded in 2014 by four women who were teachers in Greenville, who wanted to empower and build leadership, self esteem, and creativity for young women.
Together, they’re a part of a tradition of strong, resilient women fighting the racial history of Mississippi and the Delta through the power of education. And the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, the only public grant-making foundation focused entirely on improving conditions for women and girls across the state, is helping to expand these programs by investing a total of $25,000 over a one-year period.
Blake Case, manager of marketing and public awareness for the Women’s Foundation, said it is important to highlight these efforts.
“To me, this is really about those Delta organizations. …We’re really able to start investing in women like this. We know we have a huge responsibility and there’s a sea of need all around the state,” said Case.
“When women thrive, Mississippi thrives,” said Case, noting the mission of the foundation.
Battling educational inequity
On Dec. 8, students engaged in conversations surrounding African American history, education, and creating a positive mindset during Education Day at the We2gether headquarters on North Main Street in Drew in Sunflower County.
Class started around 9:00 a.m. Students filled out an impromptu education survey –placing check marks in the blanks that best fit them – so instructors could get a better sense of the students’ strengths, weaknesses, and habits.
As a way to empower the students, Kyree Smith, teacher for the program, recited the 8 Healthy Mindsets with her students following behind, saying phrases like “All things are possible,” “I love myself first; then others,” “I am using my inner power to succeed and connecting to the power of the universe for help,” and “I have high hopes and expectations for myself.”
With high energy and excitement flowing through the room, Smith and Dickerson, founder of the nonprofit, decided to go through the survey findings with the students. Some of the results were disappointing, the leaders said:
• 5 of 26 said they study at least one hour after class
• 11 of 26 said they like to read books
• 17 of 26 said they do homework
The results sparked a deeper conversation about the history, challenges, and importance of education for African Americans in Mississippi, specifically the Delta, where there is an abundance of poverty, small stream of hope, and few economic opportunities.
Out of the 82 counties in the state, Sunflower County — a population of about 26,000 — ranked 76 with an unemployment rate of 6.4 percent. The median household income is $28,556 and 32.6 percent people live in poverty, according to Census data.
And like other Delta counties, the schools are low performing.
The Sunflower County Consolidated School District received an F accountability rating for two consecutive years and the graduation rate is 76.5 percent, about 7 points lower than the state’s average, according to reports from the Mississippi Department of Education.
Returning to Drew after working in Battle Creek, Mich. and Jackson, Miss., Dickerson visited the schools, stating she was in shock at its state. Students expressed their concerns of not having books, teachers present in the class, and homework, she said.
“When I went to Drew High School, it was a really good school. However, it was not pleasant to me because I was the only little black child in my class. ..I took the spit balls, all these name-calling, nigger-calling, everything I could think of to make me feel bad,” said Dickerson.
“When I got back (to Drew) and saw these kids weren’t even getting an education because they weren’t even in class … I was like, ‘So why did we sit here, me and my sisters, all these years ago, fighting so that people could really get a good education? Was it all in vain?”
This fueled her focus to teach youth (then expanding to adults) to what she felt would lead her community out of poverty, she said.
She, along with instructors, teaches reading skills, public speaking, law of attraction, civic participation and education, voting, history and health through her four, year long programs: Dollars ($$$) for Your Thoughts, Pen(Penitentiary) or Pencil, Youth Early Success (YES), and adult/community classes.
Sustaining programs like these requires financial investments, said Dickerson, citing spending over $500,000 of her own money to keep the program afloat every year.
“I retired from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, so every dollar I put into a nonprofit, they match it 2 to 1. When I first came back to Drew, I put my money up, then the W.K. Kellogg Foundation matched … I put up $50,000. They gave me $150,000,” she said.
From 2010 to 2016, the organization has received $1.45 million in financial contributions, according to Guidestar, a website that houses nonprofit tax filings. In 2014 and 2015 alone, Dickerson gave $302,000 to the organization.
“For the first seven years, I didn’t even get a paycheck at all because I was spending my own money. Now I wake up every morning saying how can I keep doing this work unless I get some money to pay part of it,” said Dickerson.
This year, the Women’s Foundations of Mississippi awarded money to 11 organizations across the state in October. Two of these grantees were Delta based, including We2gether Creating Change, receiving $20,000.
Women taking charge
Despite not receiving much recognition for their work and being overshadowed by men, women continuing to thrive is a powerful theme across the nation. Just this year alone, more than 400 women ran for elected positions in the United States. History has shown women have lead many efforts and movements fighting for progress and change.
For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement, led by three black women brought awareness to racial injustice and brutality against black people. The #MeToo movement, also started by a black woman, shared the experiences of a young girl who had been sexually harassed and assaulted.
And in the Mississippi Delta, there were matriarchs, women like Fannie Lou Hamer, from Sunflower County, and Vera Mae Pigee from Clarksdale, who were both civil rights activists and held political positions. Even Mae Bertha Carter, Dickerson’s mother, who enrolled seven of her 13 children as the first black kids into the all-white Drew school system, was a community leader and civil rights activists.
Like those generations, women in the Delta are continuing this work.
The power of the mind
Thinking about to her childhood and teenage years, Dickerson recalled her mother encouraging her and her siblings to get their education and persevere through the horrific incidents they went though. The extra encouragement, though, is what young people today are missing at home, she said.
“My parents were the biggest asset I ever had because they wanted it so bad for (their) children to not be in poverty. That was on (my mom’s) mind all the time and she broke the cycle. None of us live in poverty now, we all have careers,” Dickerson went on to say.
“We all say it starts at home. We know that, but what if it doesn’t start at home? What’s plan B?”
This is why empowerment is key, she added.
“I looked at myself as a person and I knew that I started slipping, and I wanted to get better,” said Arika Gardner, eighth-grader in the Dollars For Your Thoughts program. “I thought this program would change my mind — which it did in just two Saturdays. …I hope to not only to be inspired but to be an inspiration.”
Nacaiya Moore, eighth-grader, agreed: “My friends … told me how (We2gether) change people’s mindsets. (They) went from making all D’s to like making B’s. You know my grades started kind of slipping, so I was like let me take this program and see if its going to help.”
Similar to this program, the other Delta-based nonprofit that received $5,000 from the Women’s Foundation was Girls Write the World.
Unlike We2Gether, this Washington-County based program specifically targets young women. They are volunteer-run and geared towards “affirming, celebrating and projecting female voices through writing and empowerment,” said Sara Hutchinson, one of its four co-founders.
About five years ago, four English teachers, who were Teach for America members, talked with their students in the classroom about the issues they face. Through these conversations, they began to realize what their female students needed — a safe space to discuss the challenges of girlhood, leadership, alternative learning, and sex education, said Hutchinson.
“We describe ourselves as a power building and healing agent that’s fueled by poetry and sisterhood,” said Hutchinson.
“We know as former teachers that our campers have limited and inconsistent access to (health and sex education) and we think that they need this information to be able to make healthy and informed choices for themselves. It is something that is upsetting to us that they don’t have better access to them.”
Hutchinson and the other co-founders no longer live or teach in Mississippi. So, they use vacation days to come back every summer to host their camp.
Every summer, 15 high school-aged girls attend free workshops for six days to create poetry and discuss sex education, financial literacy, consent, self defense, and college advising. They attend trips to colleges and universities and present their poetry at a community showcase. Though the summer camp is free to students, it costs about $700 per student.
Although the program is only held during summer, it still has made an impact among its participants.
Asya Thompson, 16-year-old Greenville High School student, has attended the camp for two years, noting it helped her to be more outspoken and aware of her worth.
“We talk about feminism. …And how a woman can do a man’s job. I really started to learn in the program especially the way women are underestimated,” said Thompson. “It made me realize women need to speak up more and men need to recognize them. If it was something like this in the school system it would bring us together more and make it easier to express ourselves.”
The common threads that run through these two organizations is developing positive mindsets and inspiring each individual to be whatever they want to be.
“We had our campers write a love letter to themselves asking them to celebrate themselves and give themselves some advice …. Everyone can be really hard on themselves because our cultures can be really toxic and really harmful,” said Hutchinson.
“ To see our campers being able to develop this skill of resilience and self love and to celebrate themselves and each other so easily, that feels very powerful and moving to me … it’s that mindset and mental well-being that we hope to cultivate through that program.”
Smith, the instructor at We2Gether, concurred: “Through this program alone, we’ve actually given hope to the children. They think because you’re from (Mississippi), you’re a product of Mississippi. …. You can be better than your parents. You can be better than your community, but you’re better than what they tell you that you are or aren’t.”