Freddye Webb-Petett got out of the Delta when she went to college.
Now she’s back South, in Arkansas, bringing with her years of experience in helping needy communities she gained through her work with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Michigan, its Mid South Delta Initiative, and in her previous work heading up Oregon’s office for family services.
Clinton School of Public Service Associate Dean Dr. Tom Bruce — himself a former Kellogg Foundation administrator — persuaded Webb-Petett to come to Little Rock to teach part-time at the school. Now, he’s asked her to head up the school’s Center for Community Philanthropy, which with a $300,000 Kellogg Foundation grant can now move from the idea stage to something with form and substance. The grant will help the center recruit scholars and staff, create an advisory board, hold public workshops and assist communities who want to partner in projects.
The center promises to be a new resource for “side-to-side” rather than “top-down” philanthropy, helping communities to be their own best advocates and supporters, Bruce said.
“I grew up in Rayville, La.,” Webb-Petett said, “and I don’t remember our community getting federal dollars. But we always had things for young people. The community cared.” When federal poverty programs were begun in the 1960s, life for the young people improved — with more and better playground equipment, for example, and community centers — but the people began to rely on those dollars rather than their own commitment. “They didn’t feel the same sense of responsibility,” Webb-Petett said; their will to do for themselves dissipated. The common good requires a common effort; everybody has to buy in. Webb-Petett believes that can happen.
In the central Southern states — Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama — “per capita giving is some of the highest in the nation,” Bruce said. Part of the work of the center, he said, will be to explore successful community strategies — Bruce cited efforts in Brazil, South Africa and Chicago — and connecting people with experience to people with desires. Webb-Petett characterizes the center as a clearinghouse, a library of sorts where communities can find examples of projects that work and why, models of community philanthropy. She envisions creating a “philanthropy index,” an accounting of individual talents, as well as funding, in communities that have made various projects succeed. The center will also sponsor seminars on how to bring various players together to address social problems.
Webb-Petett’s goal is not to reinvent the wheel — that wheel has been turning for decades in the Delta, which some would characterize as a black hole for philanthropic dollars, and has created quite a rut.
“There’s good data” on some of the various health, education and economic projects that have been tried or are underway in the Delta — Webb-Petett noted the Kellogg Foundation’s demonstration projects that tracked outcomes — “but it hasn’t been packaged in a way that a community can find out about it,” she said. Feel-good news articles are good, but not enough to help people replicate a project they need.
If the Center can define what works in the Mississippi Delta, it may be able to apply those strategies elsewhere; Webb-Petett hopes to “ratchet up to take [the center’s work] nationally.” However, she may not be on board when it does; part of the grant will be used to hire an executive director. At that point, she’ll become a consultant and volunteer with the center.
The center’s partnership with the Clinton school, whose students must complete a practicum in spring with a community in need, is a natural.
In 2006, Clinton students worked with sweet potato growers in Helena and West Helena, family farmers who could sell their crops at harvest but, with access to storage, could sell their product all year. The impetus: The Gerber baby food factory in Fort Smith was buying its sweet potatoes from South Carolina because of its year-round supply. The students helped the growers research legal needs and other issues. Bruce — a medical doctor — likened them to “activator enzymes” that encouraged efforts. A storage facility is currently being built. Next spring’s practicum will focus again on Arkansas’s Delta, expanding into Forrest City.