2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
Mississippi Delta Town Makes Way for Hope—and Better Health
Hope is in the air. On a residential street in the rural small town of Drew, Miss., neighbors look on excitedly as a crane hangs over an abandoned house that has seen much better days. Soon, the machinery will leave behind a fresh slate.
After several minutes, shreds of the former house lie in piles on a parcel of land that’s destined for affordable housing. More than 40 properties in similar conditions have been demolished for the same purpose in Drew, a Delta town roughly one square mile in size and home to about 2,044 residents.
The demolition of the old to make way for the new is emblematic of a broader movement toward better health in Drew. People here know that the factors that impact health include housing and the physical environment, access to food and transportation, economic development, and community cohesion. And they’re embracing and actively promoting a new vision of what is possible in their town.
“Everyone has one goal in mind, and that is to work together and help bring about some of the changes we all want to see here in Drew,” said Betty Smith, vice president of Drew United for Progress, a group of residents helping to shape a healthier future for the community. The group helped to identify housing as a top priority.
Smith and her fellow community members are confronting a long history of institutional racism that resulted in segregation and discrimination. That legacy has fueled ongoing economic and racial disparities in the Mississippi Delta and given way to persistent poverty and limited opportunities for many Drew residents, about 80% of whom are Black. Now, after navigating years of disinvestment and other obstacles to well-being, residents are seeing real change take place in their backyards.
In fact, residents are driving all efforts to build hope for the future. Since 2015, the Drew Collaborative, led by local nonprofit We2gether Creating Change, has brought together a wide range of people—including teachers, librarians, business owners, elected officials, housing professionals, clergy, and community volunteers—to articulate their vision for Drew’s future and take action for change.
Community meetings and surveys of residents across age groups have helped the collaborative identify dreams and needs and define priorities. The town’s small size has also been a tremendous asset in building close-knit relationships and ensuring input from as many people as possible.
"We got together as a team, as a community, and moved the conversation from being about what we don’t have to being about what it is that we want,” said Drew resident Gloria Dickerson, CEO of We2gether Creating Change and a Drew resident.
Addressing the town’s aging and deteriorated housing stock was one of the first opportunities to improve well-being that the collaborative took on. Other resident-identified priorities include building recreational spaces for youth, such as a new playground that went up in 2018; increasing access to food by launching an online grocery ordering system; and improving the physical environment through community cleanup days, which take place frequently throughout the year.
Cultivating partnerships outside of Drew has been crucial to carrying out the town’s vision for the community and moving the needle on health. Many outside partners have joined the Drew Collaborative to help bring residents’ vision to life.
Everyone has one goal in mind, and that is to work together and help bring about some of the changes we all want to see.
For example, a partnership with Plan A Health, an organization that provides free healthcare services to communities in the Mississippi Delta, enabled the collaborative to make progress on its goal of improving access to healthcare in the community. Starting this year, Plan A Health’s mobile clinic has made regular visits, providing free reproductive health services, testing blood pressure and glucose levels, and offering other much-needed services identified by Drew residents. By coming to the community, this service has also helped overcome transportation barriers to care faced by many in the town.
Dickerson said winning the Culture of Health Prize is a testament to residents’ perseverance and work so far, giving them another reason to take pride in their success—and keep on going.
“We’re on the road to creating something great here, and we are going to run into some challenges and obstacles along the way,” Dickerson said. “But we’re not going to quit. We’re determined that we’re going to get to where we say we want to get. We are not going to quit.”