Hundreds of miles from urban centers like Memphis, Atlanta, and New Orleans, the five counties served by the Community Foundation of East Mississippi are a textbook definition of “rural.” Cotton was king here years ago, but ever since it left—along with a good deal of the manufacturing industry—many of our region’s 157,000 residents have been trapped in what some experts refer to as “cycles of dependency.” That is why we have been asking our local elected officials to support the Rural Philanthropy Growth Act (RPGA). It’s also why I am attending the Center for Community Foundation Excellence’s (CCFE) Public Policy for Community Foundations seminar this week in Jackson, Miss.
This part of East Mississippi is very poor, and many communities are underdeveloped. Our public high schools have high dropout rates, and people often lack the skills needed to be productive members of the local workforce. The community foundation is contributing to a solution by awarding more than $214,000 in grants and funded disbursements to more than 50 local agencies (as well as many college scholarships), but there could be much more community leadership.
We’ve also increased our support for education by merging assets with the Neshoba Education Foundation to create a powerful force that will provide lifelong support in Neshoba County. Investing in a more educated workforce is one step to improving rural communities. Passage of the RPGA would allow use of existing Department of Agriculture funds for challenge grants to further improve education, economic development, and other pathways out of poverty for Mississippians.
Learning opportunities like the CCFE public policy seminar and Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) are so important to small community foundations like ours, where a little goes a long way and we all wear many hats. We initiated a conversation with our representatives at FOTH about the RPGA, and—with the additional skills we hope to pick up at this week’s seminar—we intend to continue it. I also encourage my fellow community foundation leaders to sign up for November’s public policy seminar in Albuquerque, as well as for September’s Fall Conference for Community Foundations.
M’Lea Davis is executive director for the Community Foundation of East Mississippi