Cooperation key to reviving historic Marks, Mississippi

By Helen Godfrey-Smith, President and CEO of Shreveport Federal Credit Union

This post was originally featured on Huffington Post's Impact Blog.

During the civil rights movement in 1968, Marks, Miss., became nationally recognized as the epitome of what the nation's most underserved and poor communities looked like. During a visit to Marks in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the many hardships the community was facing and selected it as the starting point for one of several mule trains to Washington, D.C., as part of the Poor People's Campaign. More than 40 years have passed since that movement and, unfortunately, not much has changed. Marks has consistently struggled with poverty and has become notorious as a food and cultural desert.

Though the city is rich in history, poverty persists and too many members of the Marks community find themselves unemployed or under-employed. Jobs are almost non-existent in the 10-15 mile radius of the community and residents are forced to drive over 30 miles to find work at the casinos in Tunica, MS. When individuals do find employment, wages are lower than average and many become dependent upon the support they receive from Social Security or Supplemental Security Income. As a result of these financial hurdles, the quality of food consumed is of little consideration.

I could see the sheer hopelessness in the eyes of Marks residents and community leaders, but as CEO of the Shreveport Federal Credit Union, I knew there was an opportunity for us to do some good in the area. We opened the doors to our Marks branch about seven years ago and immediately began to ally with other cooperative organizations to consolidate our resources to address the many needs of the region. There lacked a stable platform to generate income for the community and we began to work with area farmers to encourage small crop farming as a means to improve the outlook for their future. The options for marketing the produce, however, were not reliable. After unsuccessful attempts at road side stalls, or driving long distances to find consumers, it was clear that the community needed a base for economic development.

In consultation with local officials and in partnership with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the primary cooperative development expert in the rural south, the decision was made to launch what is now known as the Delta Regional Mule Train Market.

The Market provides a means to overcome economic challenges by providing the venue for farmers, artisans, and others to bring items to market inexpensively, allowing them to realize the financial benefits resulting from their labors and creativity. The Market, which officially launched a few months ago, has also become a food hub for the entire community providing reasonably priced, fresh, locally-grown foods; creating jobs for some and for others an entertainment and a gathering place. It also serves as a showcase for the community's cultural roots. In addition to being a food hub with sales of fresh farm products, the Market houses a small museum called "The Mule Train Museum and Gift Store," a Kidz Zone, and a small food court.

Coinciding with the launch of the Delta Regional Mule Train Market, Amtrak has also recently announced its plans to add a flag stop in Marks, providing a much needed avenue to attract new customers for local businesses. In addition to its potential to draw visitors in from key cities like New Orleans and Chicago, the new flag stop will also provide a critical avenue for residents of the Mississippi Delta region to connect with other metro hubs and expand job opportunities.

Between the new market and the addition of Amtrak's latest flag stop, Marks, Mississippi has the potential to dig itself out of poverty and flourish as a stronger more self-sufficient community. This has been 40 years in the making, but together, the community is confident that we have found a sustainable economic development plan to ensure that our days of need may soon end.

Helen Godfrey-Smith is the President and CEO of the Shreveport Federal Credit Union and serves as Treasurer of the Board of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA.