Financial Services Team Travels to the Delta

By: Ben Jackson.  Written in May 2012.  I just returned from a trip down to the Delta with my fellow Financial Services Team members Andrew Stecker ’13 and Esther Mulder ’14.  It was an incredible journey — we had eye-opening meetings and tours of the area, gut-busting and delicious Southern food, and more than our fair share of live blues, glasses of Southern Pecan, and great conversation.

Our main reason for traveling down to the Delta was to present the findings of our research on the legal risks of microlending in six states in the Delta region, which we have been working on all year, to our local partners, microlender ACCION and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).  On Thursday, May 10, we had a meeting at the Helena, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce with ACCION, SBA, and representatives from alt.Consulting (another microlender operating in the Delta region), Southern Bancorp, the Helena Entrepreneur Center, and the Helena Chamber of Commerce to discuss the findings of our study as well as broader issues relating to economic development in the Delta.  Generally, the feedback on the report was quite positive — it was great to hear that our work is appreciated and useful to those working on-the-ground in the region.  We also had a discussion about the many challenges surrounding economic development in the Delta that was, at least to me, quite eye-opening.

After the meeting, Helena Chamber of Commerce Director Doug Friedlander gave us a tour of Helena and all of the development and revitalization work that is going on in and around the town — the progress that has been made in the area in just the last few years alone is quite inspiring.  Helena is a fascinating place, and it is a true shame that it has been overlooked by tourists to the region for so long.  Hopefully its many music festivals, its new KIPP school, and its restaurants will draw more tourists to the area in the coming years.

On Friday, May 11, we met with Desiree Hensley and Cameron Abel from Ole Miss’s Civil Legal Clinic to hear about the work they are doing and to discuss ways to collaborate in the future.  A few years ago the Delta Project and HLS Prof. Brian Price helped Ole Miss to first get their Transactional Law Clinic, a program within the Civil Legal Clinic, off the ground, and it’s now been up and running for a while and still going strong.  Afterward, we were treated to a tour of Insight Park, a business incubator at Ole Miss that helps start-ups to get access to low-cost working space, accounting services from the School of Business Administration, and legal services from the School of Law.  We also met with John Green, the Director of Ole Miss’s Center for Population Studies, and had a great conversation over breakfast for lunch about the Delta and life in general.

But no blog entry can truly capture the sights, sounds, and smells of the Delta that more than any meeting defined our trip.  We saw a 15-year-old guitar prodigy lay down the blues like someone twice his age at Reds in Clarksdale; we smelled the sticky sweet aroma of barbecue sauce and smoked meat at Abe’s, and the savory smell of shrimp and grits at Rust; and most importantly, we heard that our work is appreciated.  Sometimes it can be hard to see just what kind of an impact our work has on the Delta — after all, we work almost entirely in Cambridge, and we try to keep our projects at a manageable size and scope.  But over time lots of small, concrete projects can add up to a meaningful whole, and people in Mississippi actually use our reports and will consider and sometimes pass our proposed legislation.  Hearing that people are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, and that they genuinely appreciate the work that we are doing, was something that I will never forget.

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