The Delta Directions Consortium is an interdisciplinary network of individuals, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and foundations that work together to create positive social change in the Mississippi Delta Region by improving public health and promoting economic development. The Consortium is not an independent non-profit organization, but rather an alliance of partners committed to collaborative problem-solving.
We feel that the potential for growth in the Mississippi Delta is so multifaceted and complex that cultivating that potential requires contributions from a wide range of professions, disciplines, and institutions. The Delta Directions Consortium exists at the intersection of research and practice, providing a united front for creating joint proposals intended to implement innovative approaches and capitalize on human potential. The Consortium seeks to create a paradigm shift in the Delta through the institution of sustainable and transformational change, which focuses on building knowledge and implementing practices that improve the health and wealth of the region.
The Delta Directions Story
The Delta Directions Consortium originated over a decade ago as a way for organizations and academics engaged in Delta work to learn of one another’s work and seek ways to amplify impact. The Consortium first operated loosely with leadership from Dr. Arthur Cosby of Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center and Dr. David Mirvis of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. John Green, director of the University of Mississippi Center for Population Studies, explained the original structure as “a network of nonprofits, universities, and foundations committed to health and economic development in the Delta region” through an interdisciplinary approach. There was particular interest in linking academic researchers with nonprofits to develop programs and policy shaped by specific research findings. The Consortium focused on making those needed connections between researchers and practitioners in order to create and carry through sustainable and evidence-based change.
In 2002, the second stream of the Delta Directions narrative began with a Mississippi road trip taken by Pug Winokur and his mother, Marge Winokur. The two arrived for an announced barbecue festival in Clarksdale that never materialized. The Winokurs were taken, however, with the small town’s richness: genuine goodwill, along with its treasury of great music and—thanks to Abe’s on U.S. 61—ample barbecue, festival or not. The Winokurs were also struck by the diminished quality of life of many residents. Much of the adult population was poor and unhealthy. Youth faced sparse opportunity. Racial disparities remained.
For two nights running, the Winokurs visited the eatery Madidi. On the second night, they met co-owners Bill Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman. Mr. Freeman lives nearby on land that had once belonged to his parents. The actor invited the pair to the Ground Zero Blues Club, a downtown juke joint that he also co-owns with Luckett. Before long, Marge Winokur and the Oscar-winning Freeman were shooting pool while Pug Winokur sipped a Budweiser.
Moved by Clarksdale’s richness and challenges, Pug and his wife Dee began exploring how they might participate in efforts to improve Delta life. An admirer of the Gates Foundation’s mission to address health and extreme poverty in Africa with a seemingly bottomless endowment, Mr. Winokur wondered what a smaller-scale project might look like in the Delta. “We don’t have unlimited resources like the Gates Foundation, but the South is part of my roots,” said Mr. Winokur, born in Columbus, Georgia.
Mr. Winokur pictured partnering in a strategic, directed effort. “With modest resources, we could make a difference in the areas of economic development and public health,” Mr. Winokur said. “Possibly, if we come up with good ideas that work in the Delta, they could be tested and exported to other places.” The Winokurs’ initial endeavor was co-funding Delta programs with the Dreyfus Health Foundation. As time passed, the Winokurs decided that a representative on the ground in the Delta would enhance their impact. This idea ultimately resulted in the creation of The Delta Fellowship—a two-year fellowship for recent law school graduates. The first Delta Fellow began her tenure in 2008, and there has been a Fellow in residence in the Delta every year since then.
The Delta Fellows have since become an integral part of the Delta Directions Consortium, as members of the Consortium work to support the Fellow, and the Fellow in turn helps to strengthen connections between Consortium members and bring their efforts to bear on concrete projects. Today, the Consortium continues to seek ways promote collaboration and expand its impact by supporting The Delta Fellowship and a number of other initiatives, including the Delta Regional Forum (a conference for researchers and practitioners working in the Delta), the Harvard Law School Mississippi Delta Project (a student practice organization focused on researching law and policy solutions in the Delta), and the Delta Scholars program (a summer leadership program for Mississippi college students interested in contributing to innovative change in the Delta).
Leading institutions in the Delta Directions Consortium include the following:
- Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi
- Harvard Law School
- Harvard School of Public Health
- Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center
- University of Mississippi Center for Population Studies
- University of Mississippi School of Law
- University of Tennessee Health Science Center
- Winokur Family Foundation
In addition to the leading partners named above, a wide range of non-profits, community-based organizations, academic institutions, and individuals have served as partners and clients to the Consortium on specific projects.
Delta Regional Forum
In 2011, Delta Directions began hosting a biennial symposium dedicated to Delta development. The Delta Regional Forum, as it is now called, provides an opportunity for those engaged in Delta work to network and create synergy. Each year that the Forum has been hosted, successful collaborations and advancements have grown out of connections made at the event. To give just a couple of examples:
- At the 2015 conference, author Ralph Eubanks attended the forum and wrote a November 2015 story for Wired magazine about the efforts of Mississippi State academic Roberto Gallardo to widen Internet access in the state. New awareness of Dr. Gallardo’s work after the Wired article led to his being recruited to do a TEDx talk, being featured on the digital series The Movement, and being covered in other national publications. “The Delta Forum was definitely critical for me to meet Mr. Eubanks, who would write the Wired article,” Dr. Gallardo said. “Ultimately I hope this exposure will bring some grant funding to the much needed project of reducing the digital divide.”
- The 2015 conference also helped connect breastfeeding advocates working to change the Delta’s low rate of infant breastfeeding. Sannie Snell, director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded “Right! From the Start” program learned about the overlapping work of Delta Fellow Desta Reff, as well as related projects of Dr. John Green, the director of the University of Mississippi Center for Population Studies. Ms. Snell stated that the contacts created synergy for components of her projects.
In 2017, Delta Directions decided to turn the Delta Regional Forum into an annual event. The 2018 Delta Regional Forum was held July 18-19, 2018, and the next Delta Regional Forum will be hosted in Clarksdale on July 18-19, 2019. Find out more about the upcoming Forum on our events page.
The Delta Fellow
Since 2008, Delta Directions has sponsored a two-year fellowship for recent Harvard Law School graduates. Each Delta Fellow is based in Clarksdale, Mississippi and works full-time to promote collaboration between Consortium members and to help turn research into effective, on-the-ground programming and policy that is responsive to community needs.
The Fellow’s principal responsibilities include:
- Coordinating Delta Directions Consortium members with each other and with other institutions;
- Providing human capital and support to local community-based organizations and projects;
- Researching, drafting, and editing comprehensive reports on selected issue areas;
- Planning and supervising research and clinical and pro bono projects for Harvard Law students who are engaged in the Food Law & Policy Clinic and the student-run Mississippi Delta Project;
- Supervising students from local universities interested in working on health and economic development in the Delta;
- Developing, evaluating, and promoting supportive public policy within the Delta;
- Managing existing projects and developing new projects, based on local needs and resources.
The Delta Fellow is employed through the University of Mississippi and supported by funding from the Winokur Family Foundation and the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi. The Fellow also receives mentoring and support from faculty at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center and Harvard Law School.
Delta Fellows: “They’re Part of the Community”
Since 2008, five Harvard-trained Delta advocates have settled into the small town of Clarksdale in a succession of typically two-year residencies. As a Delta Fellow, each took on the challenge of working as a one-person think tank in the interest of Delta progress. The new law graduates arrive charged to study Delta concerns from the stance of public policy, researching and proposing potential legal and regulatory change that would enhance Delta well-being. Besides their research efforts, fellows intiate specific projects. Through the tenures of the fellows, particular concerns have become the focus, ranging from food-supply issues to early-childhood development and infant nutrition.
“We have the ability to be on the ground and to start local institutions and bring to bear research policy capacity,” said Emily Broad Leib, the first Delta Fellow from 2008 until 2010, who now teaches at Harvard Law School. “Once started, we can have students research questions. It’s all about supporting local groups.”
Former Delta Fellow Desta Reff did just that: “The Fellow is boots on the ground,” said Ms. Reff. Interested in early-childhood development, she steered the passage of state legislation supporting breast feeding and launched Baby University, a course for new and expectant mothers servicing three Delta communities. Ms. Reff extended her two-year tenure to a third year to bring Baby University into full operation.
Tom Pittman, director of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, believes the post of Delta Fellow has proven a useful innovation in Delta development. “They’re able to come here and bring their research and their personal interest and bring their perspective and fresh ideas.”
Attorney Bill Luckett has had the opportunity to observe the Delta Directions representatives at close range; he opens his law office to the Fellows to use as their workspace. “Fresh eyes can be a good resource,” said the former Clarksdale mayor. The Fellows have had an impact while remaining low-key, respectful presences, he noted. “They’re part of the community. They are down here to be gentle and help without embarrassing anybody.”
Delta Fellows become locals who experience the rewards and challenges of living in the region. Mr. Pittman said, “The Fellows get the rhythm of life. They identify with the people.”
Ms. Broad Leib had no expertise in food supply before she settled into Clarksdale in 2008. “The issue became a priority for me because of community members coming to me and asking for help with these issues.” During her residency, Ms. Broad Leib helped found the Mississippi Food Policy Council, a statewide group of food-supply stakeholders. The council went on to push the Mississippi Legislature to pass seven bills in four years to widen the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables and to ease sales procedures for small farmers.
Today, by drawing on her Delta work, Ms. Broad Leib is considered a national authority on food law. She founded and now directs the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the first of its kind in the nation. The clinic researches legal and policy solutions to the health, economic, and environmental challenges to the nation’s food system.
Nathan Rosenberg took on the Clarksdale post after being Ms. Broad Leib’s student at Harvard. The Harvard connection is strong and ongoing. Each year, the Delta Fellow supervises about fifty Harvard Law students who do pro-bono legal and policy research for local Mississippi clients. The Mississippi Delta Project also includes an annual spring break service trip to the Delta for a handful of students to provide assistance on a variety of issues, from community food access to to small business development, to legal needs of artists and musicians. Students do field research and interviews toward producing policy papers in four general fields: food systems, economic development, child and youth, and public health.
During Mr. Rosenberg’s Clarksdale years he focused on expanding Farm to School programs in the Delta as well as statewide. His work involved three avenues. There was, of course, the legal research into applicable laws in Mississippi and other states involving Farm to School operations. Following the research came formulating proposed legislation changes to foster Farm to School programs in the state. In addition, the Fellow extended a hand to “give people support on anything related to Farm to School” as the need arose. As a result, Mr. Rosenberg organized the first two statewide conferences for Farm to School programs.
As a Delta resident, Ms. Reff was moved to witness how issues of public policy were represented in the lives of people she came to know. “I’ve come in contact with poverty in a way I never would have ever expected or experienced, have such a better understanding of the daily struggles of individuals in the Delta and the systems and systemic deficits that often fail to address their needs.”
Besides Baby University, Ms. Reff also helped start a diaper bank, the first Mississippi member of the National Diaper Bank Network. The projects have allowed Ms. Reff to see growth close up. “They’re ways I get to see individual change.”
In the case of Baby University, Ms. Reff watched over 100 local families complete the course, some returning a second time. “To see the babies that have risen up through the program and watch them hit all their developmental milestones, and surpass them, it’s amazing,” she said. “And to see the parents interact with their kids in ways that we’ve taught them, to see them fostering their child’s development in ways that they would have never thought to do is heartwarming.”
As Ms. Reff engaged in child development issues, she was also raising two young daughters in the Delta. Being a mother in the Delta was a heart-warming experience, Ms. Reff said. “People here are so child-oriented. I’d go to the state Capitol on an issue, and the legislators I know would ask me why I didn’t bring my daughters with me.”
“The warmth of people in the Delta, they are literally the most welcoming, hospitable people I’ve ever met,” said Ms. Reff.
The Current Fellow
The current Fellow has yet to be appointed. More information will be posted as it becomes available.
Susana Cervantes, 2017-2018
Desta Reff, 2013-2017
Nathan Rosenberg, 2012-2013
Alexis Chernak, 2010-2011
Emily Broad Leib, 2008-2010
The Harvard Mississippi Delta Project:
The Mississippi Delta Project (MDP) is a student practice organization at Harvard Law School that was created in 2009 by then Delta Fellow, Emily Broad Leib. MDP students work closely with the Delta Fellow to provide valuable legal and policy research for their organizational clients, who are typically non-profits, community groups, and academic researchers working to improve public health and socioeconomic opportunities in the Delta and the state of Mississippi. Each year, around 30-50 students dedicate their time and talents to promoting change in the region under the umbrella of different issue-based teams, including the Food Law and Policy Team, the Economic Development Team, and the Child and Youth Team. In addition to conducting long-distance research and sending down students from each of the teams, the group works with the Delta Fellow and Harvard’s Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs to sponsor an annual spring break trip service trip to the Delta.
“Bringing student energy to bear in the Delta has been one of [Delta Directions’s] biggest successes. . . . It is about taking young, bright, energetic students and giving them the chance to serve this needy community while learning more about law, policy, community development, and the issues of poverty and rural America.”—Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School and former Delta Fellow