The following is an interview with Janeé Jones Tisby, executive director of Together for Hope Arkansas, a faith-based community development organization with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. You can see more of Janeé’s work with Together for Hope Arkansas on their website, and you can follow them on Facebook.
[Progressive Southern Theologians] Janeé, thank you for sitting down with us. Can you start by telling our readers a little about yourself?
[Janeé Tisby] I grew up in Grandview, Missouri, which is south of Kansas City. I completed my bachelor’s degree at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. After college, I left and moved to the Mississippi Delta – particularly Indianola, Mississippi - where I taught 5th grade for three years with Teach For America (TFA).
[PST] And can you tell us about TFA?
[JT] The big goal for TFA is for all kids to have access to an equal and excellent education. They generally place teachers, new college graduates, or people in their careers who want to give back and work with kids directly, in under-resourced or low-income communities where teacher recruitment is often difficult.
So, in Mississippi, for instance, TFA works to bring people from inside and outside the state into public schools, people who share concerns about educational inequities and are committed to providing quality education to K-12 children in a culturally sensitive way. After my three years in the classroom, I stayed with TFA and worked as a coach for other incoming TFA teachers as they started their teaching commitments.
[PST] For the past three years, you’ve been with Together for Hope Arkansas, also in the Delta. What is the nature of your work with that organization?
[JT] Together for Hope was born out of a partnership within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with the idea of placing development workers and channeling resources into the 20 poorest counties in the country. Those counties of persistent poverty are in predominantly rural areas, and, with the exception of Appalachia, there’s usually a legacy of racial dominance that factors, at least partly, into the plight of the county. Other Together for Hope sites, for instance, are in the Rio Grande Valley, elsewhere in the Delta, throughout the Black Belt/Cotton Belt, and within Native American reservation systems.
I’m the executive director of one of those sites, which is located in Helena, Arkansas. Helena is right on the Mississippi River and thus part of the Mississippi Delta region. Our organization, Together for Hope Arkansas, is a 501(c)3, and we have our own board of directors. Our programs have changed over the years as we try to be flexible and adapt to the needs and opportunities that are present in the community.
Overall, though, we focus principally on youth leadership, literacy, and increasing opportunities for community members. We try to gear everything toward those three areas. For years, we’ve operated a summer swim camp, teaching children to swim and also giving older youth an opportunity to serve as leaders and volunteers. We also partner with congregations and other organizations to get additional, needed school supplies into our school district. Also, we partner with schools and preschools to increase opportunities for raising literacy levels and helping children access books and literature.
[PST] What should people know about life in the Delta? If Together for Hope is there because it’s a region with persistent poverty, what have you seen through your teaching and with your current work?
[JT] There’s a lot of need in the Delta, but there’s also a lot of opportunity, especially when you compare it to similar types of community development work that people do in cities. Sometimes, for instance, it’s a lot easier to get things off the ground in rural areas and smaller towns like Helena. Since there tend to be fewer resources and people, overall, in rural areas, there can be less red-tape or overlap involved if someone wants to launch a new program or try something out. Personally, I only intended to stay for three years in the Delta, but now my family has stayed for closer to 10 years, and it’s really started to feel like home.
The author Glennon Doyle coined the term – brutiful – a combination of brutal and beautiful. I feel like that describes life in the Delta. I really believe if you spend a year, two years, three years in the Delta, regardless of which state (e.g., Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana), if you’re in that environment, you’ll be a completely different person than who you were when you came. But it’s not even just about living here, it’s more than that. It’s about learning to truly be here.
Life here is truly brutal and beautiful. It’s a challenging context in which to work because of the high, persistent poverty levels and all that comes with that, but I’ve also never met people who give as much as people do in the Delta. I’ve never met people who are as resilient and as hopeful and who refuse to give up, and that’s the beautiful part of living life in community with folks in the Delta. It’s hard, and there’s no denying all of the challenges that are here, but it’s still worth it to live and do the work in this context.
As for the challenges, I think – speaking of Helena – they shift from season to season. People are navigating the difficulties of high poverty rates, affordable and quality housing, and a lack of jobs and educational opportunities, etc. But the first thing that comes to mind for this past year is crime. I feel like every time I’m online or on social media there’s something different that’s occurred. I think when people witness and read about local crime day in and day out, over and over again, it gets draining and demoralizing for community members who are trying to better their community. And there truly are so many local people working to do good things in the community, but those narratives can be overwritten, unfortunately, by those that get attached to crime. It can seem that while so many people are working to do good, there are others who are moving in the opposite direction.
Structurally, in Helena, our water system is many years away from being brought up to date, and there are constantly infrastructure items that are broken and need to be fixed. It feels like things are constantly crumbling down around us and all of that can add up to feel like there are always negative things happening. Even when there are positive events occurring, and they do, there’s still this heightened sense of a back and forth struggle.
There’s also the challenge of rural isolation. Helena is about 1.5 hours from Memphis, Tennessee, and 2 hours from Little Rock, Arkansas. There aren’t any major cities in between. Both for my family and, of course, for others in the community, if you need any type of specialized medical care, it takes a significant amount of time to make those trips and access the care and any other related resources that aren’t going to be found in smaller communities. This geographical isolation just compounds the typical challenges of poverty in a city, where, at least, there are some resources that are a bit more easily accessible in terms of distance and time.
[PST] What were some of the formative influences that led you both to Teach For America and your current work with Together for Hope Arkansas?
[JT] For me, there wasn’t one particular light bulb moment. I had family in Vidalia, Louisiana, which is a smaller town on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River (also in the Delta). I would drive down through the broader Delta region every summer and at holidays to visit my family there. That started to open my eyes to the differences in access to resources between larger towns or cities and smaller rural towns.
For instance, I loved to read and spent a lot of time at my local public library in Grandview. I had access to just about any book that I wanted. The library in Vidalia, on the other hand, was in an old house and had a much smaller collection. That led me to begin to notice that there was a major difference between what I had access to and what my cousins had access to, in terms of the library but also to other resources and opportunities.
In college, I did research on educational attainment and outcomes. I realized that if it was hard for kids to thrive in their educational institutions from pre-K to 12th grade, then why should we expect that to change once they got to college? In other words, if children weren’t receiving quality educations at a young age - if our systems weren’t providing them with excellent educations - then it just made it more difficult for those same children to succeed later in high school and college. I realized if you wanted to truly make a difference in a child’s path into adulthood, and, for instance, getting out of poverty, then you really had to go all the way back and start working to ensure that kids had better access to a quality education starting at very young age.
[PST] In light of all you see and experience, the challenges and also the opportunities, what do you hold onto when things are hard? What gets you through the harder seasons of the work?
[JT] I think there are a few things. On the individual level, when I’ve worked with someone or know a person in the Delta, and something hard has happened to them, I have to go back to the memories of the things that formed our relationship in the first place. A few weeks ago, for example, I got some really hard news about a person I’ve known for a number of years and who has been a wonderful guy. Unfortunately, he did something really bad. That sticks with you, and, of course, to him, also.
I could see the future I would want for him, and then I see where he is now. I can still feel a lot of that same love and desire for that other future, but then I have to step back and say, “Okay. Here’s where we are. Now how do we move forward?” The challenge then is to figure out how to pivot and to work with people exactly where they are, even when they’re in hard places that are not the situations we’d want for them. To not give up on that person and to stick by them, to continue loving them through the hard times that have come into their lives or that they brought into their lives, that’s the challenge.
The second thing that sustains me is a good support system. That can be people who are around me in Helena, or others who volunteer with Together for Hope, or friends, family members or colleagues. It’s helpful to have people who say they are thinking about me or the work I’m doing, and it’s also helpful to have people who have some insight into what life and work are really like in the Delta.
The third thing is that I sometimes just have to get away. Recently, I was working on a big project, and at about 7:00 AM, there was a huge boom outside my house. The city was working on a water issue, and one of their trucks backed into and snapped the electrical pole right in front of our house. We had no water, no air conditioning, and no power. Things were ultimately okay, and there was nothing we could really do, but I knew that I just needed to get in my car and get away from the situation, to grab some breakfast, and to come back later in the day when things had settled down a bit. That’s a microcosm of how living in a place where the infrastructure is less reliable can be challenging. Sometimes you really do just have to get out and clear your head.
[PST] What would you say to seminarians or younger ministers who are considering this type of non-profit work as their form of calling? Or even folks who are interested in TFA or volunteering with organizations like Together for Hope?
[JT] Be open to knowing that you have just as much to learn as you have to give. Be authentic. If you’re engaging missions, don’t just do it in a “drive by” or “in and out” way. To really impact a community, you have to come here and share meals with people, go to church with them, and really form relationships. In other words, even if you can’t pick up and live here, be consistent with your presence. This very consistency is the thing that gives Together for Hope credibility. If you want to come and work or volunteer in communities like Helena, or other communities in the Delta, find your people and your project and then come back every year if not more. Let people get to know you, and you get to know them, and people will remember you and be excited to see you come back.
Also, understand that you are a visitor here. You have to push aside everything you thought you knew about the community and what you thought you knew about the people. Be willing to learn as much as you want to serve. You have to coming in being authentically you, but make sure that the ‘you’ you bring is in the right frame of mind to learn from the folks in our communities.