For State's Next Leaders, Look to the Delta

Kim Davis Commentary

For State's Next Leaders, Look to the Delta
Thomas Williams' Delta Dirt Distillery in downtown Helena-West Helena. (Karen E. Segrave)

Along the left bank of the Mississippi River, something exciting is brewing. The river itself is a marvel, a supercharged vehicle for commerce, transportation and agriculture. And the land surrounding it? Some of the richest soil in the world.

The Arkansas Delta is also fertile ground for another resource — young, emerging leaders who are reshaping the region’s economic, educational and creative landscape.

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Like so many rural places, the Delta holds incredible potential that has been largely overlooked by the outside world. That might explain why no young Delta leaders made Arkansas Business’ 20 In Their 20s list this year. Look more closely, and you’ll find a region ripe with talent that — with the right resources and support — is making an inclusive, equitable and thriving Delta a reality. 

Look no further than Thomas Williams, master distiller at Helena’s Delta Dirt, the country’s only Black-owned farm-to-bottle distillery. Descended from sharecroppers, four generations of Thomas’ family have made a living from this land. Now, they are drawing new business and tourism in the form of Sweet Blend Vodka, Tall Cotton Gin and Delta Blues Bourbon.

Or Tykeena Watson, an eighth-grade algebra teacher at KIPP Delta. Born and raised in Helena, Tykeena was recruited to become an Aspen Young Leaders Fellow, a program co-created with underserved communities that develops the next generation of purpose-driven leaders. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Takeena has returned home, helping strengthen the pipeline of high-quality educators who are needed as the region works to improve its quality of life.

Look to filmmaker Nolan Dean, whose Cherry Street Productions illuminates and empowers his overlooked community through storytelling. Or Tyler Yarbrough, another Aspen Fellow and Clarksdale, Mississippi, native who builds the sustainable systems that ensure food, environmental and economic justice in the Delta for his employer, Partnership for a Healthier America.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe the long-term success of the Delta depends on acknowledging and supporting emerging local leaders like Thomas, Tykeena, Nolan and Tyler. Why? Because when it comes to the work of transforming communities, proximity matters.

Young leaders in the Delta have not only been raised alongside the challenges they seek to overcome, they have the energy and innovative thinking to see it through. But for young leaders to execute their vision, they need the tools and training to activate it. Through partnerships with community organizations and nonprofits, our foundation is building on 30 years of work in the Delta to create lasting access to opportunity.

These include national leaders like the Aspen Young Leadership Fellows and Educators Rising, who are helping the Delta “grow their own” highly skilled leaders and teachers.

Or Go Forward Pine Bluff, where wide-ranging programming includes entrepreneurship classes and maker spaces open to anyone looking to build skills for the modern economy. 

We support the efforts of local economic justice advocates at Kiva Hub Mississippi Delta, Higher Purpose and Rural LISC to develop creative access to capital for small-business owners.

As young leaders finish school and decide where to start and raise a family, we are also beginning conversations with local partners and national housing institutions to thoughtfully address pathways to affordable home ownership and financial literacy.

To the Arkansas business community: We can’t do this work alone. We encourage you to support emerging talent in the Delta with internships, mentoring opportunities and pathways to careers through local colleges and universities. 

In the Delta, there is a deep bench of talent. Young leaders are reimagining — in real time — what the future of their workforce and economy can look like. 

Here, we see a generation molding a community in their image, looking to their parents and peers and saying, “Wait, don’t leave. This is a place for you. This is a place where your family and your children can thrive.”

This year, we salute the young leaders from larger towns and cities across Arkansas. Next year we say: Don’t sleep on the Delta.

Kim Davis is a senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region Program. He also leads the foundation’s work in the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta.