When Impact Meets Reality
by Tommy Otterbine on Aug 24, 2023
When impact meets reality. That’s the best way to describe my recent site visit to the Mississippi Delta.
For the past several months, I’ve been fortunate to be part of the CAEL team that is contributing to “Advancing Delta Talent,” an initiative focused on improving equitable economic opportunity in seven persistent-poverty counties within Arkansas and Mississippi. While I’ve gotten to meet our partner institutions—Arkansas State University-Mid South (ASU Mid-South) and Coahoma Community College (Coahoma CC)—remotely and provided support from afar, I finally got the chance to step onto their campuses and interact with the communities surrounding them this past spring. And there is something to be said for seeing work in action.
The goals of the Advancing Delta Talent initiative are to offer training for adult learners and others in high-demand industry sectors. This entails providing employment and work-based learning opportunities, comprehensive support services, and implementation support to help colleges better serve adult learners. We are partnering with ASU Mid-South and Coahoma CC to achieve these goals by fostering skills development through “stackable” college-issued and industry-based credentials, along with employability skills training through the National Career Readiness Certificate. Each college is adding new training courses or enhancing current offerings, committed to evaluating their adult learner-centered plans and processes, and monitoring performance training while cultivating new and existing partnerships with community organizations and local workforce development boards.
While we are still at the beginning of this three-year journey with the colleges, and adult learners are beginning to enroll and engage in training, it was inspiring to hear from the staff and administrators about their goals, progress, and even challenges. My CAEL colleagues and I discussed credit for prior learning opportunities, support services, and equity-focused strategic plans. We even looked at a hole in the ground. No, really, a literal hole in the ground! As part of this initiative, ASU Mid-South is able to expand its truck driving program - offering a credential that will prepare students for in-demand careers in the region. During our visit, they had just broken ground on the new space to house the training. These are the things you don’t see over a video call. And the things that excite and inspire the work being done.
One of the more impactful and memorable experiences about my first visit to the Mississippi Delta didn’t occur on either campus though. The morning before going to meet our partners at Coahoma Community College, I decided to get up early and find a local coffee shop in Clarksdale, Miss. I love exploring coffee shops every time I am in a new town. I randomly picked one off a Google search and drove over to Meraki Roasting Company.
While waiting in line for my coffee, a young woman sitting at a nearby table struck up a conversation. She asked if I was visiting and what brought me to Clarksdale. At first, I chalked this up to small talk and gave vague answers. “Oh, I’m here for work.” She then asked what I did for work. “Partnering with Coahoma Community College on an initiative,” I replied. I assumed there was no need to go into detail about skills development and expanding economic opportunity; this is small talk, after all, with a complete stranger. But she asked more. “What are you doing with Coahoma?” So I gave a pretty broad overview of Advancing Delta Talent, now sipping my coffee and standing next to her table. Then more detail upon request. Finally, she handed me her business card and, with a big smile on her face, told me about Meraki.
As it turns out, my conversation was with Antris Parkins, the business coordinator at Meraki. She explained to me how much the area needs the work that we are here to do. Antris informed me how her coffee shop doesn’t just hire folks to fill a specific and narrow need but that they truly believe in investing in their employees' future and well-being beyond their work at Meraki. They teach them soft skills and want to prepare them not to stay at Meraki forever but rather grow and expand the workforce in the region. It wasn’t until after this encounter, and when I went back online to check out her business more, that I noticed this on their website: Our commitment is twofold: roast exceptional coffee and provide young adults in the Mississippi Delta with job opportunities that give them the skills, confidence, and economic power to pursue their God-given calling.
It was then that impact met reality. The work CAEL is doing isn’t all that different from this small-business owner in a community that is home to the college we are working with. We want the same thing and believe that training and upskilling lead to greater economic mobility. To hear the stories of the voices in these communities is inspiring and motivating. For me personally, it makes me even more committed and invested as we advance talent in the Delta region.