I recently gave a talk at the LISC National Leadership Conference in Houston, Texas, alongside community development leaders from across the country to inspire, motivate, and energize practitioners in the field–stories about people who are activists, advocates, and ambassadors for positive transformation in their communities. I shared a story about how Mississippi County, Arkansas, Economic Opportunity Commission (MCAEOC), led by a visionary man named Sam Scruggs, increased prosperity for residents committed to creating a brighter future for themselves.
Do you know what Mississippi County, Arkansas, and Washington, DC, have in common? Believe it or not, a community leader from this small, rural county named Sam Scruggs is a White House insider. But more on that later.
Sam runs an agency called Mississippi County Arkansas Economic Opportunity Commission (MCAEOC). Its mission, like that of many other nonprofit agencies, is to alleviate poverty. And, like so many other economic opportunity commissions, MCAEOC helps families by offering early childhood programs, adult training, and education and housing services.
Keeping programs running well–with their various funding sources, rules, staff, and success metrics–is hard enough for any agency. But Sam recognizes that while all of his programs can meet their goals, and each has some meaningful success stories, they will not do enough to improve the lives of clients unless he takes a whole-family approach. Adults in MCAEOC's job training program improve, but their kids may not or their gains may only be short lived. Students lack out-of-school learning opportunities, and many go home every day to a household where parents are out of work and have no clear path to employment.
These problems exist against a backdrop of profound social and economic challenges in Mississippi County. Blytheville, the county’s largest city, ranks among the most dangerous cities in Arkansas. Racial and income inequality add to the already substantial tension in the community, which has a 25.5 percent poverty rate.
But Blytheville has significant assets, too: it is a principle supplier of steel to the rest of the country, and agribusiness is strong. I also argue that Blytheville’s people, and Sam Scruggs chief among them, are the city’s greatest assets of all.
Sam knows his community, and he is an innovator. He understands that if the lives of parents improve, then their kids will have a brighter future.
Together with parents and community leaders, MCAEOC is mapping out and implementing a two-generational strategy to address the needs of both vulnerable children and their parents with the goal of increasing parents' employment and education while improving the health and wellbeing of children and families.
And it’s working. So well, in fact, that the White House is listening to Sam and MCAEOC. Mississippi County is now a White House Rural Council Demonstration Site so national leaders in economic development can learn how Sam's organization is empowering people to take the reins of their future–in spite of the odds. And at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, we’re proud to fund this visionary strategy.
To find out how this incredible story traveled all the way to the White House, watch my LISC Talk.