Building (and bringing) a Delta family
For over two decades now, Beth Lewis (Mississippi ’10) has moved just about every two years. “For a long time, I struggled with where my roots are,” she says. As a child, the moves took her from a rural community in Washington State into a low-income neighborhood in Spokane. But the jarring nature of those moves taught her a lesson: “It made me wholly obsessed with my family,” she says. If you ask her hometown, she doesn’t have a place to name: she just says, “My family.”
Her latest move? She came back to Mississippi—where she first served as a corps member—two years ago, and now works as Teach For America’s Manager of Alumni Leadership. She knew that would only work if her family, came too.
She recently sat down to talk about what it took to convince her family—who had little knowledge of the Mississippi Delta—to come along. It’s all about opportunity, she says: they saw that this is a place where people are needed, and people can do good work.
You first came back to Mississippi to work with a school district. Was it a hard decision to move?
I had just moved home [to Washington State] to be closer to my family. That’s a huge priority for me; my family is a huge part of my life. The job sounded good, but I was thinking, ‘I just moved home to be with a family, I can’t leave now.’
Eventually there was a conversation [with Matty Bengloff (Mississippi ’07), who recruited me, about “what would it take for you to move down here?” I said, “I would move down to Mississippi if you can convince someone in my family to move down as well.” I was thinking there was no way. But Matty talked to a local principal, who needed a director of technology—they hopped on the phone, and the principal hired my brother Ben right away.
Was it hard to convince Ben?
He was really excited about it. He has his own successful computer consulting business, and that business had reached the point where he wanted to be part of something bigger. He was tired of working alone, and wanted to work towards a bigger goal. Ben and I grew up all over the world. We’ve realized there’s beauty in every place, and ugly in every place, and it just depends on what you focus on.
[Ben’s wife] Staci was pregnant at the time, and they had a three year old. It’s like, “Hey, you want to move to rural Mississippi, away from your family, while you’re pregnant, right?” But the conversation went to long-term goals—and it made sense to do it for a year or two, and then move back.
But they’ve stayed longer than that, right?
At this point, it’s looking indefinite. [The Delta] sucked them in. There’s this sense of community. It’s different than the Northwest; you find that sense of community there, too but it can take longer. Down here, if you join a church, you have people that will do anything for you. We moved down just before Thanksgiving two years ago, and people had already invited us to join them for Thanksgiving dinner.
By the second year, Staci said, “I see why you love this place—I can see myself falling in love.” Then they found their projects [Ben works with Griot Arts Inc., helping to start the Meraki Cooperative Job Training Program, and Stacey has a photography business that works with many local non-profits]. That was like, “Okay, I can see them being committed long-term now.”
Tell me about the work you do now.
My theory of change is that ‘One Day’ will only happen when we all work together for One Day. And everyone means everyone—everyone in the country, everyone in the world. We can’t have equal education until we realize that what happens in one neighborhood affects every other neighborhood. I see my role as a part of making those connections—connecting alumni teachers with excellent professional development, connecting alumni leaders with external organizations. I’m going be that person who brings people together. We have so many people in this work—now it’s about how to bring them together, and bring them together with the resources to make it happen.
And it seems like you’re bringing family together, too.
Yes. My brother and I care about education about because we come from an education family. We grew up with education issues, broadly speaking, being discussed at the dinner table. But we pursue it in different ways. The need is so great in here in Mississippi. There is a need for human capital, and for educational capital. It means you can start anything and you can do anything. I think it’s really powerful—to be here where I can join up with my brother and do something together with him, whatever it may be.