LENA MITCHELL: ARC’s Community Sparkplug program, Iuka Black Homecoming matched

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

Just Do It” is the slogan for a well-known company that sells athletic gear. It could also be the slogan for people in communities around our state and nation who see things they’d like to change and take action.
People with that attitude are ones the Appalachian Community Learning Project seeks out to support with $3,000 mini-grants as seed money to get their projects off the ground.
This spring 11 projects in some of the Mississippi Appalachian Regional Commission’s 24 counties were selected to receive these mini-grants.
Although the ARC has worked with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for more than 20 years, and identified more than 200 small towns and urban neighborhoods to receive this support, I only learned of the program last year when the end-of-project celebration was held in Burnsville.
Burnsville was one of the projects selected for Community Sparkplug grants in 2011. They successfully moved The Historic Burnsville One-Room Colored School to a new site on donated land, restored it and made it a museum to attract tourists. The museum will continue to provide an educational experience for local students and visitors while also keeping the volunteer spirit alive in the community.
The 2011 project in Starkville – Youth Employment Services Y.E.S. We Can! – trained 40 youths with job skills, helped 20 youths obtain jobs, attracted 83 volunteers and since then has won a grant of more than $40,000 to continue and sustain the program.
I am working with the project in Iuka to extend the usefulness of the Johnson-Ford-Mitchell Community Center by creating a learning resource center in one of the rooms with computer stations, video learning resources and books.
In addition to keeping the facility open during established times each week when anyone in the community is welcome to come in and use the resources, we have a retired business professional who will work to help individuals improve their job search skills. We also are scheduling wide-ranging programs to help families and individuals improve their quality of life in money management, parenting, health and more.
I have worked with the committee that helps plan the Iuka Black Homecoming for several years, an event held at the J-F-M Community Center, which once was the stereotypical two-room schoolhouse for black children in Iuka before integration.
We’ve been accused more than once of reverse racism by retaining the name “Iuka Black Homecoming.” However, those who feel that way likely are unfamiliar with Iuka’s population profile and history. Iuka is the county seat of Tishomingo County, also known as the second whitest county in Mississippi with a black population of less than 4 percent. Our largest class of black high school graduates ever was the class of 2011, and the combined total for Tishomingo County High School and Belmont High School together was less than 20, and that’s not because the county has a large dropout rate among black students.
The homecoming originated in 1976 with the United States Bicentennial celebrations. Several Iuka residents in the black community wanted to encourage many former Iuka residents who moved away, and others who never lived in Iuka but whose family roots were there, to return home. They wanted people who remained in Iuka to keep in touch with those who left, and people who relocated to retain their connection to their hometown, with an eye to possibly moving back in retirement.
Through the years the event has shown continued success with attendance ranging from 300 to 600 participants, and many retirees have indeed returned home.
As Iuka residents became more energized with the approach of each homecoming, the planning committee has said for several years that the pre-homecoming energy and enthusiasm should be harnessed to spark more civic activity in the community, starting with the J-F-M Center.
With its goal to identify and support Community Sparkplugs while creating economic benefit for the community and widening participation of community volunteers, the mini-grant program was exactly the incentive our planning committee needed to act.
The RPI looks for groups with an idea for a short project that can achieve results in six months. If the ARC funders believe the project meets their criteria, not only does the group receive the $3,000, but also ongoing technical assistance through biweekly phone calls, a mid-project site visit and general emotional support.
It’s a great program that I hope many others will seek out.
Keep your eyes and ears open. They’ll be casting about for new sparkplug groups next spring.
Lena Mitchell is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.