Sunflower County sounds like a happy place. But the rural Mississippi Delta county is one of the poorest in the nation. An alarming 54 percent of children live in poverty, and the high school graduation rate is just 59 percent.
When I moved back there in 2009 after a prosperous 35-year career in accounting, some people may have thought I was having a midlife crisis. But it was really a midlife awakening that led me to found the organization We2Gether Creating Change, to break the cycle of generational poverty in places like Sunflower County.
I grew up there, one of 13 children of sharecroppers. My parents were determined my siblings and I would escape our impoverished conditions through education. We were the first black students to integrate the local high school. We were harassed daily, but we graduated, went to college and achieved professional success.
Our parents always supported our goals. The sad reality is that many of the children in Sunflower County don’t receive that same support. That’s what fueled me to move back home to deliver the message of hope instilled in me by my parents.
We2Gether Creating Change offers a range of programs that inspire young people to love themselves and discover their innate ability to lift themselves out of poverty. Through workshops, community meetings, graduation ceremonies and extracurricular activities, we expose students to new possibilities, encourage them to set goals and work towards their dreams. We encourage them to take care of their bodies, and we’ve opened a food pantry to provide them with healthy food options. We take our students on trips out-of-state for a fun learning experience - but most importantly, to show them that there’s a whole world out there with endless possibilities.
In the past four years, our programs have reached more than 1,500 people. Since 2012, 98 percent of our student participants have graduated from high school and 97 percent have enrolled in college.
I definitely took a leap of faith when I returned to Sunflower County. But it was important for me to work with people in the community I came from because I understood from experience how hard it is to live in poverty. I now consider myself a servant leader. My life’s work is about leading individuals, but it also allows those individuals to be involved and help lead me as well.
(Gloria Dickerson was honored by Encore.org as a Purpose Prize Fellow in 2014. Read more about her work in this New York Times story.)