By Grayson Hester
The coronavirus is novel. Oppression is not.
In the wake of Ohio’s most populated county having declared racism a public health crisis; in the shadow of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting; and in the face of endless barrages of statistics revealing that COVID-19 is disproportionately infecting, hospitalizing and killing black and brown people, the underlying inequalities that define American life are becoming exposed. And this was written before the murder of George Floyd.
And it is in this cross-section of racism, classism and pandemic that Delta Hands for Hope (DHH) has set out to do something about it.
“When it gets down to it, we create our own hope. It is really up to us,” said Jason Coker, national director of Together for Hope, DHH’s parent organization. “Hope is not some kind of intangible thing. It’s not ethereal; it’s what we make it.”
In the middle of one of America’s poorest areas—the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt, so named for the color and fertility of its soil—it might seem that hope, like most other resources, is in short supply.
Because, even among the reporting of the racist implications of the coronavirus, what gets overshadowed is its disproportionate impact on rural communities like those in the Delta.
For example, cities get first dibs on resources; rural areas get what’s left over—which is to say, not much.
Access to essential services is limited. Some folks might live as far as 15 miles away from a grocery store. Even in one of the most fertile areas of the country, many live in food or banking deserts. Industries have either abandoned these communities or had never shown up in the first place. Work ranges from nonexistent to wage slavery; politics runs the gamut from passive neglect to active exploitation. If one were to exist at the intersection of race, gender, class and rural inequality, they would bear a quadruple-burden of invisibility. “Per capita, it is disproportionately a rural issue rather than urban,” said Coker. “Indianola, Cleveland, Miss.—the mid-delta is in the top 10 worst case areas per capita.”
In short, Delta Hands for Hope, located squarely in the middle of the Delta in Shaw, Miss., has its work cut out for it. But it, along with the community, has risen to the challenge. Chiquikta Fountain, executive director of Delta Hands for Hope, has seen beauty, even in the midst of food shortages, generational poverty, shut-down schools and infections. “Even though we understand we’re in a very unpredictable and trying time right now, we’re trying hard to be positive and trying to see the silver lining in all of this,” she said. “One thing I have seen from adversity is you can look at it as an obstacle or as an opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity, for one, to bring a community together. Young people, primarily, have volunteered their time and resources to help the organization in its food distribution. Others have given of their time to help tutor children who lack the resources to engage in distance learning.
Churches and neighboring nonprofits have coalesced to meet the persistent needs of a community, predominantly African American, which typically receives little in the way of assistance and much in the way of societal neglect. It’s also an opportunity to display, on a larger and more urgent scale, the value of the work Delta Hands for Hope is doing—and the inherent worth of the people they serve.
“Even though we’re serving disenfranchised populations, those that have such low income and where there have been generations of poverty, these people still have pride in where they come from,” Fountain said.
Whereas classist and/or racist portrayals of rural poverty might cast the people it impacts in simplistic and negative lights, Delta Hands for Hope, as an asset-based community development organization, sees instead the more nuanced truth. There is hope and pride and opportunity in even the most disenfranchised of places. There is the possibility of brighter tomorrows, provided those who are privileged work in partnership with those experiencing oppression, towards the creation of that reality.
And every food box delivered in lieu of schools’ providing lunches; every lesson taught in the absence of schools being open for teaching; every positive influence demonstrated; every hour volunteered; every person empowered and dignified; every corrupt power and principality toppled—each is a step closer to something like shalom.
“When you are a struggling parent, or a single parent, who’s already unemployed or underemployed—when an organization opens up and says, ‘We have food for you,’ that’s hope,” said Coker. “That’s a hope you can eat and swallow and put in your kids’ bodies. We make that hope happen.”
If you would like to assist Delta Hands for Hope or Together for Hope in making this hope a reality, you can visit their websites or contribute via CashApp at DeltaHandsForHope.