Chiquikta Fountain, a Mississippi Delta native, is the executive director for Delta Hands for Hope in Shaw, Mississippi which is also in the Mississippi Delta. Fountain has spearheaded the organization’s pivot from offering youth after school and summer programming to also becoming a designated emergency food pantry once the pandemic hit.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.
Mississippi Today: What do you do as director for Delta Hands for Hope?
Chiquikta Fountain: Our organization is focused on youth. We do a lot around education. We do after school programming, we also offer summer camps. We also focus on health and nutrition. An example of that would be our summer feeding program. Right now we’re actually operating as an emergency food pantry because of COVID. So we’re using our background in working with kids in that area to ensure that they’re still getting access to meals until school starts. So pretty much whatever the community needs, we try to serve in that capacity, but our main focus is youth.
Mississippi Today: Do you see yourself as an advocate as well as a community leader?
Fountain: I do. My background was in advocacy, particularly in education advocacy before I took this job last year. So one of the things that I really wanted to do when I came into this position was find ways to use that skill set as a director. And I just think it worked hand-in-hand. We have access to so many resources and we need to be using those resources to empower our youth and how they see themselves. I want to help give them the tools that they need to learn how to navigate the world whether they choose to leave Shaw or to live here in Shaw, to show them that they can still make change. They can still bring impact and also help their families. There’s no way that we can focus all of our efforts on supporting youth and just disregard the family unit. So whatever it is that we can do to bridge that gap, we’re looking to do that as well.
Mississippi Today: How have you seen your role as a community leader and advocate evolved through this pandemic and social reckoning that we’re happening?
Fountain: Even — There’s still optimism. I want to use my position and my point of view to show that yes, these things are happening in our area. We were dealing with these things far before we even knew what coronavirus and COVID-19 was. But I want to use these opportunities to talk about the great people that we have in our community. One of the things that I have seen since we’ve been doing this, particularly around food security in this area and operating as a food pantry, is people coming to help. These young people are coming every day. Every day that we have something going on they are here and they are committed from the time they showed up until the last box of food was gone and the last gallon of milk was gone. They give so selflessly so I am just so happy to see that.
A lot of those seeds were sown in this community and into these children long before I got here. So I can’t take credit for that, but what I do feel like I bring to the table is giving them a space to show them how not only will this be something great for them to put on their resumé, but this is an act of kindness that we need to exercise more of. We never know a person’s situation and what they’re going through when they get home. But if we can do something in our actions to make someone else’s day brighter or to give them something to eat that they didn’t have earlier, let’s do that. And this is also an opportunity for you to be the type of person that you want to be. So we don’t want to just talk about what leadership should look like. We need to be setting those examples, providing spaces for them to actually see that in motion.
Mississippi Today: It sounds like the example that you want to provide for the youth is really shaping the way you’re thinking about yourself as a leader.
Fountain: Absolutely. When I first came into this position, I didn’t think that I was ready, even with having a teenager for a child myself. I really didn’t know what to expect or how I should go about trying to connect with these young people. It was like the more I started to settle into the job I just realized, ‘You’re really overthinking this.’ Because what I’ve been able to see in the past is a lot of older people who were neglected, who didn’t have someone to pull them aside instill love and support and understanding and confidence into them. So now I have an opportunity to not take the place of these children’s parents by any means, but I’m an extension of that home and I have a chance to forge those things.
There are so many kids who I see that people just disregard because of their last name, because of where they’re from because they’ve got behavior issues but you never know why. And just because they have that last name, that’s not a predictor of who they are. It doesn’t mean they can’t be great. So I’m really trying to see this new phase of leadership as a way for me to not make them be what I think that they should be, but help them to see what they can’t see. It could be an opportunity to say, ‘You don’t have to leave Shaw to be great. There are things you can do right here as a young person.’
I also think it’s important that people see the face of the so-called leader and not this person that is delegating responsibilities to volunteers. Because I could easily just say, ‘OK volunteers you guys handle all of this and I’m going to be up at the office.’ No, they need to see me out there dirty, dusty, sweating. They need to see that because that means that I’m invested. I’m not out here because I want a pat on the back but because I need you all to see that I’m a part of this.