Monday, July 22, 2013

Teach for America alums get hooked on the Mississippi Delta

Well, at least some of them do.  That's the gist of Bret Schulte's story for today's New York Times, "Down in the Delta, Outsiders who Arrived to Teach Now Find a Home." Schulte's story is about Teach for America corps members who came to the Mississippi Delta--mostly to towns and schools in Arkansas and Mississippi--to teach for a couple of years--but then stayed (or left to pursue other careers and then returned).

Among them is Doug Friedlander, now the director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce, who came here in 2004 to teach science at Central High School in Helena.  Freidlander grew up on Long Island and has a degree in physics from Duke.  He left his job with a software company in the Raleigh-Durham area and took a two-thirds pay cut to relocate to Helena-West Helena, population 15,012. He explains he did it to "make a bigger difference" and says he is thrilled to be here, calling it "the most fertile soil on earth."
If I were in New York, I would be a leaf at the end of a brach at the end of a tree--in a forest.
Other TFA alums similarly wax poetic, not only about what they are doing, but about the Delta. Among them are Michelle Johansen, 37, who arrived in 1997 as a University of Michigan graduate.  Since then she has managed the farmers’ market in Cleveland, Miss. She also works part time for Habitat for Humanity and is an adjunct instructor at Delta State University.  Like Mr. Friedlander, Ms. Johansen is now raising her family in the Delta.  She says, "The work I've been able to do in the Delta is fulfilling."

Another is Matty Bengloff, 28, who grew up in an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side.  Now he is a homeowner in Cleveland, where he and his fiancée, Suzette Matthews, have opened a yogurt shop.  He talks about the opportunities to be entrepreneurial in a place like the Delta:
The barriers here are low. You can be really entrepreneurial. Everyone is eager to help.
Both Johansen and Bengloff say "the quirks and complexity of the Delta" are appealing.
Schulte describes the socio-economic landscape of the Delta:
The mechanization of agriculture, lost manufacturing and a legacy of poverty and racism have taken their toll on the Delta.   
* * *  
Here, in towns like Helena, a former agricultural hub and river port, they find some of the most devastating poverty in the country: shacks on cinder blocks, schools with nearly all students on subsidized lunch programs.
What Schulte doesn't mention in painting this picture is that most counties in the Delta are persistent poverty counties, meaning that poverty rates there have been high (more than 20%) in each of the last four decennial censuses.  These are places marked by entrenched, inter-generational poverty.  

The story is chock full of anecdotes and phrases that reflect the culture clash between the mostly citi-fied TFA corp members from the north and the mostly rural (and, of course, Southern) places they have settled.  Don't miss Bengloff's discussion of his "church family," for example, and how he now uses "ma'am." I also especially like this quote from a "local," Helena lawyer Chuck Roscopf:  
It’s good having highly educated folks coming back. My kids, my friends’ kids — they’re all gone. They’re in Dallas or just about anywhere else, but they won’t come back.

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