Tupelo Trip Teaches Poverty Lessons To Students

Eight Vanderbilt students setting out to learn from successful poverty alleviation efforts didn’t expect to receive one of their best lessons on economic development during a recent 36-hour trip to Tupelo, Miss. They were pleasantly surprised.

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Amy Wolf
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Vanderbilt University
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Apr 28, 2008

Eight Vanderbilt students setting out to learn from successful poverty alleviation efforts didn’t expect to receive one of their best lessons on economic development during a recent 36-hour trip to Tupelo, Miss. They were pleasantly surprised.
“The community of Tupelo is the best example that any developing community can use as a model for progress – a micro-pole with no natural resources, just good people and solid commitment.” That statement was enthusiastically posted on the Owen Bloggers website by Sait Mboob, a student in Vanderbilt’s Graduate Program in Economic Development (GPED).
Students from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management and Vanderbilt Divinity School joined GPED students on the trip this month. They are part of a Project Pyramid class taught by Bart Victor, the Cal Turner Professor of Moral Leadership at the Owen School.
"Tupelo is a community that has done wonders,” said Sharran Srivatsaa, a member of Owen’s class of 2008 and a trip organizer. Project Pyramid students traveled to Bangladesh over spring break to study poverty alleviation methods there, but they also wanted to learn about successful U.S. models that might translate internationally. The success of the Community Development Foundation (CDF) in Tupelo fit the bill.
"Fifty or 60 years ago, Tupelo was one of the poorest places in Mississippi,” Srivatsaa said. “But now they are very developed. It is the perfect integration of public and private interests.”
Tupelo’s CDF was organized in 1948 by community leaders, who saw the need for a unified effort to coordinate economic and community development, according to the organization’s Web site. Srivatsaa was impressed with, among other things, the CDF’s vision in working with government to establish nine industrial parks throughout the area. While about 40,000 people live in the area, more than three times that amount commute into the area each day for jobs created through CDF, which has consistently been recognized as a top development foundation for the past decade.
Srivatsaa, who is president of the Owen School’s student body, knew about Tupelo’s efforts through his studies of economic development as part of Victor’s class. It was through a chance phone call that he learned there was a Vanderbilt connection.
“I was calling donors to thank them for contributing to the Owen School,” he said. “One of the alums I called, Scott Reed, was from Tupelo, so I asked him about the CDF. He told me his brother - Jack Reed Jr. - was chair of the foundation.” The brothers’ father, Jack Reed Sr., is a former CDF chair and has been instrumental in many program initiatives over the years.
Srivatsaa learned that most of the Reed family had attended Vanderbilt but returned to Tupelo because of their commitment to the community. He was moved to learn that the Reed family had championed the development of “big box” stores in the area, like Wal-Mart and Target, even though their arrival negatively impacted the family store, Reed’s.
Calling it one of the best things he’s ever done, Srivatsaa said he asked himself prior to the trip, “what can a little county do?”
“But to see each person making a commitment and setting aside personal interests – it was just fascinating,” he said. “And this is a model that can easily be replicated.”
Mboob, writing again on the Owen Bloggers website, agreed, “The thing that struck me the most about Tupelo was the collective foresight that virtually each and every citizen of the big small town exhibited in their quest for success,” he said.
“There is no serious local government effort to galvanize all the efforts of the private citizens, only the ingenuity, hard work, and resourcefulness of the Community Development Foundation, which is run, shockingly, by only 22 employees. Their industry-fostering capabilities have attracted industry giants from across the globe, such as Toyota, to what was once the poorest county in the country.
“The most memorable time of the trip for me was during a meeting with some of the founders of the Community Development Foundation, when Henry Dodge Jr., a local businessman, said, ‘The best way forward is to do good and do well.’ This incorporates one of the most important lessons I have learned on this trip – that the best way to give is to create a job, which is the best welfare system,” Mboob said.
Project Pyramid is a student-founded group that brings together students from all of the graduate programs at Vanderbilt and seeks to develop financially sustainable ways to alleviate poverty. Project Pyramid is based on three pillars – education, action and collaboration – and has a national and local focus as well as an international one. 

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