What Happened to Community Economic Development Strategy?

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Greenville, Mississippi    Driving between New Orleans and Little Rock on my monthly route to oversee the 100,000 watt KABF in Little Rock and our union operations in Arkansas, you hopscotch from Vicksburg, Mississippi on Interstate 20 to Tallulah, Louisiana in one of the poorest parishes in that state, and go north on highway 65 through Sondheimer and Transylvania until you cross into Arkansas and Eudora. When you come to the dead end at the lake, you can either go left to Lake Village and on up to Little Rock or go right for sixteen miles and cross a modern newish bridge over the Mississippi and land in the delta town of Greenville. I had heard there was a small radio station facing some challenges in Greenville and though I had been missing a connection, it was only a half-hour out of my way to do some cold doorknocking and see if there was any way I could lend a hand.

I was interested in more than WDSV 91.9 FM and 1500 watts of power. In trying to track down the folks at WDSV, I had hit the web to see if MACE, Mississippi Action for Community Education, was still alive and well. It turned out that in fact the old “twin” organization, the Delta Foundation, was actually the license holder for WDSV. When ACORN was still a young organization in Arkansas and starting to expand, we would frequently cross paths with MACE and the Delta Foundation. Funders would ask how we were different and in some cases, suggest we should stop this community organizing stuff and just do economic development like Delta. Ed Brown, the founder of the Delta Foundation was from Baton Rouge, and was helpful when I was opening the ACORN office in New Orleans where he was living then before moving to Africa and later Atlanta. Charles Bannerman, his assistant from New York City, who ended up as the executive director of Delta was a legendary fundraiser and the darling of foundations, large and small, until his untimely death, and many ACORN leaders and organizers were Bannerman fellows over the years, which has become his legacy. Larry Farmer, the MACE community organizer, was my buddy and ally on the Youth Project board. I had been out of touch for decades, so it was worth a detour just to see what was up.

The Mississippi delta is one of the lowest income areas in the country and with its African-American majority the scene of civil rights struggles that in many ways haven’t ended yet. Economically, when you drive through Greenville, you see an abandoned housing project, for sale signs on empty warehouses, and downtown vacancies side by side with current commercial operations. When people talk about economic recovery, the conversation lingers over decades rather than just the last few years.

The Delta Foundation’s building was big and on Main Street. They had been in the small, select group of organizations that were the model for what community economic development might mean in the 70s. Two ladies saw me in the parking lot looking across the street at two radio stations. I was wondering if WDSV was over there, rather than here. They said, no, and showed me the side door where you entered the building. A woman operating a site where you could enroll in pre-TSA airport screening, helped me find the station and called up for folks to come visit with me. We then had a productive session that finally had to end after three hours so I could get on to Little Rock.

Visiting with them and with one of the original founders, Spencer Nash, who was on his way to retirement and had come back to Delta and Greenville from McComb where he had been a judge to run the organization. There had been some problems and a significant debt had to be retired, but in talking with him, it was clear the challenges were deeper than that for Delta. Their strategy had been to buy small manufacturing plants to create jobs in the Mississippi delta region. I asked him about a plant that I remembered they had bought in Memphis that made window fans. Long gone. Nash told me they had also recently sold their plant in Little Rock where they made retractable attic stairways. They had one small manufacturing operation still in the Greenville area. What happened? Nash said that competitors had moved to Mexico, and the Delta couldn’t compete on the labor costs. They provided loans and other small services now in addition to operating the radio station. In some ways their highly touted economic development strategy had been collateral damage swept up by the tidal wave of globalization that has exacerbated inequity by obliterating decently waged manufacturing jobs.

Seems like for this strategy to have continued to work, we would have needed a policy that “sheltered” job development projects like those owned by Delta from NAFTA and the backwash of globalization. We didn’t. And, we won’t, and it’s too late now. AM/FM, KABF, and WAMF, will help WDSV become a community force for our friends in the Delta, but there needs to be a broader and more effective strategy that works for today. Nash told me that my friends and comrades had now all passed away as well, but the problems remain and the banner has to be carried forward!

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Please enjoy Dwight Yoakam’s Purple Rain. Thanks to KABF.

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Unfair Fairtrade

 New Orleans               ACORN International released a hard-hitting report that was the result of extensive research during the summer, largely conducted by Melanie Craxton, an economics major at the University of Edinburg, interning in the New Orleans headquarters.   Because of our partnership with COMUCAP, the women’s coffee and aloe vera growing cooperative in Marcala, Honduras, and our new relationship with Fair Grinds Coffeehouse (www.fairgrinds.com), the oldest fair-trade only establishment in New Orleans, which has made support of ACORN International’s Central and South American organizing a major priority, we have become increasingly knowledgeable of the curious and contradictory world of fair trade certification by the global agency formed for this purpose, Fairtrade (FLO), based in Germany.

The report, “Unfair Fairtrade,” was released yesterday on the ACORN International website (www.acorninternational.org) and asks some tough questions about the contradictions and inconsistencies involved in the Fairtrade organization.  The mission and purpose of Fairtrade were exemplary.  Founders came together to unite cooperatives of developing world producers in a process that would yield them a better market price for their crops by allowing consumers to know that common standards and guarantees existed.

Over the years though the costs have grown and in many cases neither consumers nor producers seem to have ended up where either one of them hoped to be in these transactions.  ACORN International in a meeting last summer with the best of the national Fairtrade affiliates in Canada found that our own partners, COMUCAP, both could become the first or one of the first aloe vera certified organizations and were somehow suspended.  In the burgeoning bureaucracy that many now believe characterizes, the Fairtrade organization, even with the intervention of our Canadian friends, COMUCAP has been stuck in this stalemate status, likely because of delay in paying the significant fees required to maintain their status.  Is their coffee somehow less fair trade now?  Less organic?  Are the members of the cooperative less dependent on the sales through COMUCAP?  The answer is “no,” to all of those questions, but stuck they remain.  Our research found that they are not alone, and in fact this is a common problem. Continue reading

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