Students Volunteer to Revitalize, Redevelop Mississippi Neighborhood

April 7, 2009
By Lindsay Hodges Anderson

Baptist Town, a neighborhood of Greenwood, Miss., is surrounded on all sides by train lines and a bayou. But the borders are more than physical, they are psychological – keeping long-term residents in and others out. Once home to blues legend Robert Johnson, actor Morgan Freeman and Civil Rights leader Arance Williamson, Baptist Town is no longer the prosperous place it once was. Like many neighborhoods in the Delta, gun violence, tension with police and extreme poverty is now the norm. One young resident described life in Baptist Town as a place of fatherless families, men in jail and youths without hope.

Thanks, in part to a two-year commitment from a group of Harvard Kennedy School students in the Community Development Project (CDP), and also to the energy the community already had to make changes, this same resident said he now has hope for his future: “The [CDP] was a great inspiration to me, because it is not often that a young black man is exposed to things outside his familiar surroundings… The CDP heard our dreams and they saw our vision.”

The volunteer group’s vision for Baptist Town is to have a community that “works together to develop better homes, clean and safe streets, youth programming, and access to good jobs.” The group, funded by donations from the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation and KSSG, is comprised of eleven members of the Harvard Kennedy School community – all students, all from varied backgrounds and all volunteering their time and expertise.

"For a lot of the members in our group there is both that personal and professional connection,” said Jayant Kairam MPP 2010, CDP member, of the Baptist Town project. “A few of the volunteers were Teach for America volunteers in the Mississippi Delta and spent two years working in these communities and have a very strong attachment and relationship to the struggles that people go through there.”

In the CDP’s first visit to Baptist Town in January 2009, students held workshops and brainstorming sessions, conducted surveys and raised community awareness of their presence. In the second and third phase of the plan, which will take place over the next two years, the CDP aims to partner with the Baptist Town Organization and plans to coordinate a comprehensive community and economic development plan and support neighborhood-enhancing projects. Some of the projects the CDP hopes to develop include mentoring systems for youth, housing improvements, an adult and teen education center, and improved public works and facilities.

After the group’s January visit, the Mayor of Greenwood, Sheriel F. Perkins, praised their efforts and plans to help one of her city’s neighborhoods. In a letter, she writes: “CDP did not just enter into the homes of our residents and offer solutions to their problems; CDP listened and helped the residents realize their own potential to make a difference within their community.”

Indeed, Alice Abrokwa MPP 2010, CDP member, said the community welcomed the students in to their homes with openness.

“When we got down there it was really remarkable and really striking,” said Abrokwa. “Not only would they open the door, but they would sit down, they would cook for us, they’d tell us about their children, tell us about their families. And their willingness to be open and honest with complete strangers I think is a reflection of the pride that those people have.”

The students developed strong relationships with people in the neighborhood in part through the McKinney Baptist Church – the oldest church in Baptist Town – and noted that the Mayor Perkins’ office was a crucial entry-point in to the wider community. They also found that matriarchs of local families were a gateway to the Baptist Town community. Abrokwa said that one woman, who they came to know as “Granny”, is more than 80 years old and traveled from Minnesota back home to Baptist Town just to meet the group on their visit. Granny, the mother of 13 children and adoptive mother to another five, took the group in to her home and through her actions, it allowed the CDP to become invested members of the community.

Previously, outside groups and local residents have worked on improvement projects, though many never came to fruition. Kairam said the CDP aims to bridge connections with some of the remaining groups in the CDP’s trips later this year. Part of the group’s mission is to help connect Baptist Town to resources in Greenwood and beyond, so they have linked the community with Southern Echo, a leadership development, education and training organization based in Mississippi.

For residents of the 150 to 200 household, African-American neighborhood, the input offered by Harvard Kennedy School students may make hopes and dreams of revitalizing Baptist Town a reality which the entire community can take pride in.

Baptist Town, Miss.

Baptist Town was once home to blues legend Robert Johnson, actor Morgan Freeman and Civil Rights leader Arance Williamson. Photo provided.

“When we got down there it was really remarkable and really striking. Not only would they open the door, but they would sit down, they would cook for us, they’d tell us about their children, tell us about their families. And their willingness to be open and honest with complete strangers I think is a reflection of the pride that those people have.” - Alice Abrokwa MPP 2010

Baptist Town, Miss.

The volunteer group’s vision for Baptist Town is to have a community that “works together to develop better homes, clean and safe streets, youth programming, and access to good jobs.” Photo provided.


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