Being of the Community: A Mindset & Practice
“We have a Delta diaspora that reaches beyond the borders of the Mississippi Delta into other parts of the country and into other parts of the world. The Robertson Scholars who come here are a part of that and it’s amazing,” Dr. Rolando Herts is the Director of The Delta Center for Culture & Learning and Executive Director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area (MS Delta NHA) at Delta State University. The Delta Center has been a community partner of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program for over a decade. “It’s got to be at least a decade, if not 15 years, that we’ve been working with The Robertsons,” said Dr. Herts.
Dr. Herts memorializes each class of Robertson Scholars who have served in the Delta during Community Summer with a group picture that is proudly displayed at The Delta Center, “We love to see those happy faces. And it’s not just The Delta Center. There are other organizations where Robertson Scholars are placed. They see the value of the Scholars as well in terms of the expertise that they bring and their brilliance and energy, and just their willingness to come in and dig in and learn.”
“I think people who live further up North may have a misconception about what it means to be from the Delta. Everyone we bump into has been here for generations. They know each other’s people, their families, and it’s a community that cares about each other – that’s what I’m looking for in my home community,” said Frank Mercer (Duke ’25).
Frank has spent his Community Summer working at the Delta Health Center, shadowing two Robertson Alumni Dr. Braveen Ragunanthan (Duke ’12) and Dr. Nina Ragunanthan (Duke ’12). The Ragunanthans moved back to the Mississippi Delta just over a year ago, to contribute their skills as doctors to the region. Both Braveen & Nina spent their Community Summer in the Mississippi Delta in 2009 and after completing medical school and practicing for several years, they felt compelled to return.
“They’ve really shown me how dynamic the work is that’s required for physicians and healthcare reform. They’ve shown how all-encompassing care is. A patient will come in with a health issue and it might be routine in any other community, but Dr. Ragu will go into the environmental issues that might be causing the problems,” Frank shared. “One time this baby came in and was having trouble breathing. The child was living in a hotel because their mother was homeless and the real issue was that the family needed affordable housing, not just a humidifier for the hotel room. So, Dr. Ragu connected the family with a social worker at the Delta Health Center, and got them into affordable housing. It’s been so impactful for me to learn from them. If I were to become a doctor or any solution-oriented role, I need to understand the needs of the community not just how to treat the symptoms that are presenting.”
Anna Seaman (UNC ’25) is also working at the Delta Health Center, shadowing other doctors and learning from the “Drs. Ragu” as they’re affectionately called. “I’ve been working on a grant for reproductive health and contraception services. It’s relevant and really impactful work trying to get free contraception to people in the Delta. I’m also working in a community garden growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables for folks with food insecurity. This is a food desert and the food we grow is free, you just need to come and pick it. But it’s 110 degrees here, so every morning I go with the WIC specialist and we pick the fruits and vegetables and put boxes out in front of the DHC with nutritional information for people. We’re trying now to create these “Blessing Boxes” in Mound Bayou and getting one in front of every clinic.”
At the Sunflower County Freedom Project, Jillian Vordick (UNC ’25) and Atharva Vispute (UNC’25) are working with Middle School students as Teaching Fellows. “Working at the SCFP has been a transformational period of unlearning for me; unlearning systems of harm, oppression, and violence. We’re pushed to think about how we can use education and love to empower our students to take charge of their futures, and my favorite part has been that we’re on the journey together. My classroom has been a space for all of us to learn from and teach one another, and I’m grateful for the community we’ve built,” said Jillian.
For Atharva, working at SFCP has been a lesson in creation, “I’ve been challenged to reimagine how I create practical knowledge, exercises in application-based learning, new games for students, and especially how I create relationships with my students. This creative process is one that has taught me so much about using love and kindness as a way to reach a student’s creativity and curiosity, and I’m continuously grateful to teach alongside a staff that cares about creating a culture of holistic student education.”
The Delta Arts Alliance celebrates the unique contributions of artists and connects diverse cultures, all with the goal of making the arts more prominent through the Mississippi Delta. Davina Boison (UNC ’25) has been involved in every aspect of the Delta Arts Alliance’s summer programming, including the production of “Heathers” and the public art DSU Piano Project.
At the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, Aisha Baiocchi (UNC ’25) and Patrick Li (UNC ’25) have been working on a variety of projects focusing on the power of music and culture. Aisha was asked to contribute to a new exhibit on “Women in Hip Hop,” and Patrick focused on data analysis and business development through his study of the museum’s store.
And back at The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, Durga Sreenivasan (Duke ’25) has been supporting several connected organizations by working on website audits of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, as well as the International Delta Blues Project. While scholars Vishal Jammulapati (Duke ’25) and Jenna Smith (Duke ’25) worked to create a historical archive, capturing the oral histories of civil rights culture-keepers in the Delta. “They’ve interviewed ten or eleven people from different parts of the Delta for this project. They’ve created a replicable methodology for their work, so even after their summer experience is over we can expand the work they’ve done and follow the same pattern and produce the same quality of work,” shared Wayne Dowdy, Program Manager for the MS Delta NHA.
“Through this experience, Vishal & Jenna have become the conduits for community storytelling, illuminating why this history is important. They’re the ones who can present it to the communities here and beyond, and share why this place is so important in the fabric of American history and culture,” Dr. Herts added. “They’re preserving the stories of those who did not have resources or privilege and that’s so important.” During the summer one of the culture-keepers Vishal & Jenna were able to meet and interview was Reena Evers-Everette, daughter of Civil Rights icons Medgar and Myrlie Evers. Her story is now added to the MS Delta NHA Civil Rights Heritage Archive.
“It is so apropos you all call this Community Summer, because that is what we’ve created together: a community of practice, of passion, of engagement,” Dr. Herts said. “Being ‘of the community’ is a mindset and practice that’s still very much alive here, the human connection that we have – and we know we have an ugly history with past and present racial and power dynamics in the South – but when you have those moments of human connection that transcend race and class it’s a precious thing. And that is what lives here in the Delta, people finding a way to live and work together.”