February 24, 2021

Maintaining Cultural Heritage while Creating Economic Opportunity

Beginning in the year 2000 the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI), which is led by Black women and young women, came together across the Black Belt of Alabama, Georgia and the Mississippi Delta, with a mission to eradicate historical barriers resulting from systemic racism. Over the years the program has grown to include 2,500 women and young women working on programs and initiatives that span a 77-county region, counties that are categorized by USDA as areas of persistent poverty. “Work in this region for economic and social justice is challenging but we are hopeful about this new administration and its focus on rural America. The work that SRBWI has done for the last 19 years will be beneficial to their agenda,” says Ms. Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, SRBWI Regional Administrator.

Rather than relying on traditional economic development practices, SRBWI’s Asset and Finance Development strategies seek to lift women out of poverty through skills building, cooperative networks, and small local and regional businesses. “We have focused on specific sectors that have growth potential that can add value to the human, natural and cultural assets in these communities, and agriculture seems to be our biggest focus,” says Sarah Bobrow-Williams, Senior Asset and Finance Development Consultant with SRBWI. As part of that work, SRBWI created the first African American women’s cooperative in the Mississippi Delta, called the Mississippi Delta Southern Rural Black Women in Agriculture Cooperative (MSSRBWIA) that’s been active now for ten years. 

The co-op is partnering with the Mississippi Delta Council for Farm Workers Opportunities Inc, to develop a commercial kitchen/food hub and farmers markets across the Mississippi Delta. This partnership helps to sustain value-added products by assisting members with production needs, certifications, and help identifying markets to sell their produce. One of the main specialty crops members focused on are sweet potatoes. The program has sought to get oven bakeable sweet potato fries to schools, through farm to school partnerships. “Sweet potatoes have become a staple food not only in the South, but across the country. Our farmers are constantly experimenting with new crops and recipes, guided by generations of agricultural expertise,” continues Ms. Bobrow Williams.

As a recent grantee under Enterprise’s newly aligned platforms, focused on resilience and upward mobility, SRBWI will be able to expand their assistance with co-op members by hiring a full time Agricultural and Food Systems Outreach Coordinator. This Coordinator will help with both production and value-added product development through their food hub and commercial kitchen work. An additional impact for the work is to decrease food security in their targeted, persistently poor communities. This role will also help to increase their strategic partnership with the Mississippi Delta Council for Farm Workers Opportunities Inc, in efforts to build intergenerational pipelines for this work.  SRBWI promotes economic mobility through not only job creation and job security, but also advances career opportunities that are sustainable and allow for the preservation of cultural traditions and heritage. “This Enterprise grant is very timely because we needed these resources to get that designated staff person to assist new and existing members, so, this relationship with Enterprise is very important for us,” says Oleta Fitzgerald.

Other components of SRBWI’s programmatic work include their Human Rights Commissions, led by Black women and minority elected officials across the three-state region. The Human Rights Commissions lead their advocacy work by providing training and guidance to help women change policies and systems in their fight for social and economic justice. SRBWI’s work is intergenerational.  A critical component of that work is the Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute for young women ages 14-19. This program was named after Mississippi’s first female African American Mayor of Mayersville. The program works across the three states providing mentors, and program activities to deconstruct and address social justice issues at the intersection of gender, race, and poverty in rural communities. 

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