Vaughn Grisham is a fixture in the area of community development. The founding director of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at The University of Mississippi, Grisham is a key partner for the Institute’s Uncommon Communities initiative.
“I grew up a citizen of the poor South. I always recognized the intelligence in the people I lived amongst but there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity,” Grisham said when I asked him about what got him interested in community development. “As a young person I wanted to leave the South, leave Mississippi. But my mother told me that we needed people who wanted to make the South a better place to stay. They were the ones who were going to transform the South. She pointed out that we had to work together to solve our most important problems.”
Grisham has helped community groups and activist citizens work together for decades. His most recognizable work is “The Tupelo Model of Community and Economic Development,” which tracks the evolution of the poorest county in the poorest state in America to a community that eventually produces more jobs than they have citizens. If that kind of transformation can happen in a place like Tupelo, Miss., it can happen anywhere. It’s that kind of track record and commitment to citizen-led growth that brought him to Arkansas.
“I’ve long been familiar with Gov. Rockefeller. I admired his approach of pulling together people who have done extraordinary work and then determining how that can be applied to his beloved state. My connection to Arkansas goes back to that,” he said. “I eventually ended up working with the city of Morrilton in the early-to-mid-1990s when Barry McKuin called asking if I would help develop a leadership program for the city [Vision 2020/Conway County]. The timing turned out to be extremely fortuitous. In 1999, two factories closed within 10 days of each other. These closures cost the city approximately 1,300 jobs in a town of just over 6,500 and a county of just over 20,000 at the time. But because the community was already in the midst of proactive leadership and community development, and because they were developing leaders, they were able to mobilize quickly.” Within 60 days the Conway County Economic Development Corporation had two major job announcements. Recruitment and relocations continued to the point where the turnaround was dubbed the "Morrilton Miracle."
The Uncommon Communities initiative builds on these earlier efforts and what Grisham has done since then.
“We bring these teams [leaders from Conway, Perry, Pope, Yell and Van Buren counties] the best resources from all across the nation, but they have to do the work! They have to organize themselves and prioritize what’s important to their community,” he said. “I have to convince them they can do important things. I’ll tell them stories about communities in Appalachia, in small-town Michigan and other places that are doing tremendous things. They were able to transform their communities out of tragic circumstances ranging from underperforming education systems to countywide economic peril.”
The key, Grisham said, is that participants take all these great ideas and adapt them to fit their communities.
“What it takes is for someone to stand up and say, ‘This is intolerable. This will no longer stand,’ and then they have to be willing to do something about the problem.”
When it comes to community development, Grisham knows it’s all about people who want to make a difference coming together and making the commitment to make things better. Just like his mother said.