Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University
Executive Director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area
Finding Place and Authentic Life Purpose Through IRT
When people ask me where I am from, I tell them that I am not from anywhere in particular; that I am a placeless spirit traveling a serpentine path. Thankfully, IRT has guided my traveling spirit to places where it has been able to serve authentically and purposefully.
I wrote about place-seeking in “Sacred Ground, Traveling Light: Personal Reflections of University-Community Tourism Engagement,” which won the Best Treatise prize in IRT’s Impressions, Ruminations, Treatises: Essays on Intersectionality, Praxis, and the Educational Arena. The essay details how the serendipitous discovery of a historic black cemetery inspired meditations on my Rutgers doctoral research journey:
There are places where travelers go to renew their spirits, travelers like me who have stories and lessons of transformation to share. . . . we are fighting to tell the stories of spirits that came before us, stories that live on in places hidden and places found. At Lamington Black Cemetery, I found a reflection of my traveling spirit and the work that it must continue to do to give voice to communities that historically have not been heard. (pp. 65-66)
I did not realize, however, that “Sacred Ground” would transport me to the Mississippi Delta, a culturally rich yet economically impoverished region where heritage-based community empowerment is essential.
I owe much of who and where I am today to IRT. Indeed, IRT amplified my authentic life purpose through Impressions, Ruminations, Treatises. When “Sacred Ground” received the prize, I shared the news with mentors from Morehouse, The University of Chicago, and Rutgers. In addition to extending congratulations, external dissertation committee member, Dr. Luther Brown, confided that he was retiring from The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, an historically white institution in the Mississippi Delta that is now among the state’s most diverse.
The Delta Center is an interdisciplinary center of excellence that promotes greater understanding of the Mississippi Delta’s internationally significant cultural heritage contributions, including music, foodways, literature, and civil rights icons like Emmett Till and Fannie Lou Hamer. The Delta Center fulfills this mission through university-community tourism engagement, including the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area with the National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” Institute.
Then came the ultimate surprise: Dr. Brown encouraged me to apply for his job based on my dissertation research and “Sacred Ground.” Months later, I departed Rutgers to become the director of The Delta Center and executive director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.
By leading The Delta Center, I am fulfilling the authentic life purpose articulated in “Sacred Ground.” For example, we created the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele. This cultural heritage interpretation project has engaged over 1,000 residents and visitors in honoring unsung African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta who lived through the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement. Delta State and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area received National Park Service Centennial Awards for collaboratively implementing this project with regional, statewide, and national partners, like the Smithsonian.
During a recent Delta Regional Authority leadership program at Harvard, my traveling spirit was compelled to visit IRT. Though Kelly Wise is retired and Asabe Poloma is at Brown, their passion for and commitment to IRT’s mission remain intact. This was clear interacting with Kate Slater, who graciously welcomed me back to the source that has connected so many of us to communities where we are fulfilling our authentic life purposes. Congratulations, IRT, for continuing to renew traveling spirits that empower voices in places where we serve.