Southern Echo is a Mississippi based activist organization.
Southern Echo is a leadership development, education and training organization working to develop effective accountable grassroots leadership in the African-American communities in rural Mississippi and the surrounding region through comprehensive training and technical assistance programs.
This work has carried Echo staff into 12 other states in the south and southwest. The underlying goal is to empower local communities through effective community organizing work, in order to create a process through which community people can build the broad-based organizations necessary to hold the political, economic, educational, and environmental systems accountable to the needs and interests of the African-American community.
A special emphasis for Echo is the active inclusion of young people, in an inter-generational model of community organizing, on the same basis as adults. Young people are less dependent upon the past, have the least fear of change, and the best potential for creating a broad vision of a fair and just society.
Bringing younger and older together in the same training and work ensures that younger people become part of the evolving leadership process. When older leadership cannot carry on any more, younger people are already in place, with knowledge, experience and commitment to sustain the work. Younger people get hands-on experience that enables them to develop the vision, tools and skills necessary for effective leadership.
The development of new, accountable leadership and organizations to empower the community depends on the transformation of individuals who do the organizing work, and transformation of the communities in which they work.
Southern Echo was founded in 1989 to build the capacity of African American communities to form a network of new, accountable grassroots community organizations, on an inter-generational model. Southern Echo provided training, technical and legal assistance. The primary goal was to empower the community to impact the formation and implementation of public policy. These are some of the accomplishments:
- 1991-1992 — Echo helped build the Mississippi Redistricting Coalition at the state level and the Delta Redistricting Working Group at the county level. These coalitions provided training and legal assistance in connection with the redistricting of the Congressional, legislative, and numerous county boards of supervisors and helped to involved hundreds of grassroots citizens in the public hearings and drawing of redistricting plans.
- In 1991 African Americans won 30 percent of the County Board of Supervisor seats, the most powerful local office in Mississippi.
- In the 1992 election an historic turnout of black voters doubled the size of the Legislative Black Caucus from 21 to 42 in one election. In 2008 there are 50 Caucus members.
- In 1992 Southern Echo began to organize around the fight to create a quality first-rate public education accessible to all children.
- In 1995 the Mississippi Legislature ratified the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery, an important symbolic victory in a culture rooted in symbolism.
- From 1995-1997 grassroots community groups across the state and the Legislative Black Caucus defeated every statute, referendum and proposed constitutional amendment by conservatives who sought to undo the impact of the redistricting process at the state and county levels.
- In 1997 the Legislature adopted the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in an effort to bring equity to the funding of public education. The legislature appropriated $650 million dollars over 5 years, the largest education appropriation in the state’s history. The conservative anti-education Governor vetoed the bill. A united Legislative Black Caucus, with support from African American communities, led the fight to override the veto, which prevailed in the state Senate by one vote and in the state House by three votes.
- From 1998 to 2000 the Legislature appropriated major teacher pay raises and passed legislation to create state standards for student achievement and state accountability standards for school boards, superintendents, supervisors and teachers.
- In 2004 and 2005 the Legislature adopted two Juvenile Justice Reform Acts that were crafted by the recently-formed MS Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, a broad-based coalition in which Southern Echo and grassroots organizations from the Delta were integrally involved.
- In 2004 through 2006 Southern Echo and grassroots organizations in the newly-formed MS Delta Catalyst Roundtable built a broad-based education stakeholders alliance to defeat the conservative Governor’s education packages that were designed to drastically slash public education funding, supported public funding of private schools and privately-owned, privately-governed charter schools, and which sought to weaken the capacity of the MS Dept. of Education to hold local school districts accountable to state education standards.
- In 2006 the MS Dept. of Education created its Department of Dropout Prevention and in 2007 launched its statewide Dropout Prevention Program in which parents and students can participate at the local school district level on the dropout prevention teams.
- In 2007 the Legislature fully-funded the MS Adequate Education Program for the first time and did so again in 2008.
When Southern Echo was formed in 1989 African American and low wealth white families remained effectively excluded from participation in policy formation and implementation at all levels of government, notwithstanding that many African American had been elected to public office. There was internalized fear of the white establishment, great distrust of the political process, and a clear distress that the political organizations African American families had built in the 1970s had deteriorated to such an extent that families did not see them as a vehicle through which to effect transformative changes in the Mississippi culture. Worst of all, families felt that many African American officials they had worked so hard to put in office often treated them with the same disrespect that white officials had, with a similar lack of accountability.
In response to this circumstance Southern Echo designed a training, technical and legal assistance strategy to build the capacity of African American families to utilize community organizing tools and skills to form a network of new, accountable grassroots community organizations, on an inter-generational model.
The primary goal was to empower the community. Only when the African-American, Latino and other communities of color are empowered and able to make the system accountable, can our communities begin to fight racism effectively.
Southern Echo works through its training, technical and legal assistance programs to provide the information which community people need to develop the skills to become effective community organizers, enable people in their respective communities to assume leadership roles, and work together for the empowerment of the African-American community.
Truthtelling is central to the empowerment process. In the training sessions and in the community, it is essential that community people develop the willingness and skills to overcome their fear and tell it like it is. Until people are willing to confront the real problems which their communities face, including who the gatekeepers are that hold back the community, it will be impossible to build a solid foundation within the community to fight for change.
At the same time, every community person has to deal with the fear which that person carries within as the result of generations of subjugation to the terror imposed on African-Americans. Learning to overcome that fear is an essential part of the Southern Echo training process.
Normally, at least one-third to one-half of the participants at each of the residential training schools are young people ranging from 6th grade middle school to college age. They work together with the adults in every phase of the training activities, which affords both the adults and younger people an opportunity to learn to work side-by-side, respect each other, and demonstrate that an inter-generational model can be effective.
Southern Echo establishes its programmatic goals each year. No matter where you travel in the state, African-American communities identify substantially the same issues. For example:
- lack of decent, affordable housing;
- lack of jobs, low-paying jobs, and job discrimination;
- lack of community organization or deterioration of existing organizations;
- lack of quality educational opportunities for children and the community;
- the pipeline from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse;
- indifference or hostility from educators and public officials;
- denial of access to information by county and municipal public officials;
- discriminatory, often violent, mistreatment by law enforcement officials;
- location of toxic waste disposal facilities in black residential areas;
- inferior recreational facilities for the black community or none at all;
- the out migration of young people because of lack of opportunity at home;
- the inability to borrow money to support black enterprises.
In some of these counties community people satirically refer to their county as the “Free State of (name of county)”, because they regard their county as isolated and unprotected by the rights, privileges and immunities of citizenship guaranteed in the United States and Mississippi Constitutions. In many communities the reality is that their rights are whatever local officials say they are.
As part of this phenomenon, many African-Americans across the state insist that conditions are “the worst” in their county, beyond what anyone else has to experience. People are often surprised to find that in other counties people like themselves have the same analysis about their respective counties, and identify the same goals, obstacles, and frustrations.
Unfortunately, one component of this attitude can be a degree of exasperation on the part of activists and public officials. The exasperation can pour over into hopelessness and disbelief in the ability of the community to overcome the obstacles to creating meaningful change in their communities. This can result in a cynicism about the possibility of change, and a fear of taking responsibility for reaching out to the broad base of the community to involve them in the fight to empower the community.
Another attitude that emerges in these discussions is the notion that the factions in the black community will not set aside their differences in order to struggle together for the common good of the community. This view explains away, in advance, all failures to win battles and focuses the blame on the black community for the long-standing oppressive conditions which burden the community.
This concept also takes the so-called community “leaders” off the hook for their failure to be effective, and blames grassroots people for the inability or unwillingness of the “leaders” to engage in effective community organizing to empower the community.
What Southern Echo has learned is that the underlying needs in each community are basically the same. Longtime activists and community leaders know how to mobilize the African-American community around a specific, defined crisis. But activists and leaders often acknowledge their frustration that they do not know how to engage in the kind of long-term community organizing which enables the community to change the basic power relationships within the African-American community and between the African-American and white communities.
In response, Southern Echo has made the development of a cadre of skilled community organizers a primary goal of its training and technical assistance programs. Central to the development and training process is the creation of a clear vision of the problems facing the community, the changes which are needed to rectify these problems, and effective strategies for building strong organizations to fight for change.
Fundamental to this process is training on how to broaden the base of people involved in the work in order to build networks within each community and in order to involve the whole community, especially the young people. When the organizational base in each community is sufficiently strong, the networks built across community lines to bring everyone together will be very powerful.
When the community organizations are strong they can build bridges across the traditional barriers of race, class, gender, political affiliation and geography to fight effectively for fair and just public policies that address the needs of all segments of society.
Partnerships, Alliances and Collaborations
Southern Echo networks with others in three primary ways:
Partnerships: Sustained integration of organizational programs of work among independent organizations rooted in fundamental agreement about long-term goals and the strategic paths to achieve them.
Alliances and Coalitions: Sustainable working relationships among independent individuals and organizations to achieve specific public policy objectives without fundamental agreement among the individuals and organizations as to long-term goals or common strategies.
Collaborations: Sustained associations with individuals and organizations for the purpose of exploring public policy needs and alternatives, but which have not reached fundamental agreement.
- Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable
- Education Stakeholders Alliance
- Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse
- South X Southwest Experiment
- Pushback Network
- Mississippi Demography Group
- Census and Redistricting
Southern Echo, Inc. Board Members
As of 2011;
- Ms. Joyce Parker, Chairperson, Greenville, MS
Ms. Parker is the founder and Director of Concerned Citizens for a Better Greenville, a grassroots organizing group in the largest city in the Mississippi Delta, and the fifth largest city in the state. Her work has focused on public education and civic engagement and the organization actively involves young people together with older people in the training process and the organizing work. Through her work the Greenville Public Schools initiated its first experiments with a student-led Conflict Resolution program in its high schools and other parent-initiated, parent-led programs to support the students. These programs were instituted as official policies of the school district. Ms. Parker is also actively involved at the national and state level in the Dignity in Schools Campaign, is a board member of the national Pushback Network, and is on the Steering Committee of the South x Southwest Experiment. Ms. Parker is African American.
- Dr. Marvin Haire, Vice-Chairperson, Itta Bena, MS
Dr. Haire is currently the Director of the Delta Research & Cultural Institute at MS Valley State University in Itta Bena, MS. He is a former Chairman and Associate Professor of Political Science at Clark Atlanta University, and a past President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. Dr. Haire is internationally recognized as an expert on the music history of Africans in America, and as a curriculum design specialist. He holds the distinction of having served as a Georgia, Ohio, and National Endowment of Humanities Scholar. He has been involved in public radio production and broadcasts in Atlanta, Dayton & Yellow Springs, OH, and Itta Bena, MS, and has been invited to lecture in Southern Africa, the Caribbean and nationally on a range of interdisciplinary issues including such topics as the political economy of Black music, and pedagogical issues confronting educators of multi-cultural students. Most notably within DRCI, he has designed a public-accessible on-line e-Forum, an in-house Delta Database - Civil Rights & Human Wrongs, a Blues Database – The Blues & Abstract Truth, a regional Delta Experience Blues Tour, as well as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution. Dr. Haire is African American.
- Ms. Kimberly Galvin, Secretary, Indianola, MS
Ms. Galvin is a young staff person with the Sunflower County Parent & Student Organization, formerly known as the Indianola Parent Student Group. She first became involved in the organizing work through the Indianola Math Games League when she was in the 5th grade. She helped to create the Indianola Parent Student Group to address the health impact of agricultural chemicals applied to a cotton plantation located across the street from the middle school she attended and the neighborhood in which she lives. She helped IPSG successfully obtain science labs for the middle school and current textbooks for the science courses. She has worked diligently to bring new young people into the work and to hold school officials accountable to the grassroots community. Ms. Galvin is African American.
- Mr. Jerry Wilson , Treasurer, Redan, GA
Mr. Wilson is a renowned attorney in north Georgia who is one of the leading redistricting attorneys in the nation. 2011 is his 4th redistricting season in the past 30 years. He is engaged in private law practice, specializing in voting and election law, political redistricting and litigation. Mr. Wilson is an expert witness in federal voting rights cases and is a political redistricting consultant to local and state legislative officials in post-census redistricting projects in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, New York and North Carolina. He conducts public hearings and community education meetings. Mr. Wilson also drafts and submits district election plans to the US Dept. of Justice for preclearance pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. He also litigates voting rights cases. He has published numerous articles on reapportionment and testified in many redistricting litigation cases. Mr. Wilson is an African American.
- Ms. Kameisha Smith, Lexington, MS
Ms. Smith is a high school teenager who works with Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Lexington, Holmes County, MS. She began participating in youth leadership development workshops and community work as a small child. Ms. Smith is now a member of the South x Southwest Experiment Steering Committee, has a leadership role on the Youth Leadership Development Committee of the South x Southwest Experiment, and played a leadership role in 2010 in the organization of the multi-state youth caravans from New Mexico, Texas and Mississippi to the US Social Forum in Detroit. Ms. Smith’s passion is to become an attorney so that she can combine her organizing experience with legal skills to start her own organization to bring long overdue transformation to Mississippi culture. Ms. Smith is African American.
- Mr. Greg Johnson, Belzoni, MS
Mr. Johnson is attending George Washington University Law School in the District of Columbia. He is a 2004 graduate of Humphreys County High School who works with Citizens for Quality Education (Holmes County), a 2008 graduate of Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, and a mentor to high school students while in college. He has been a Southern Echo intern throughout his college years, an active participant in training workshops in Holmes County, and in the work of the Mississippi Education Working Group and the MS Delta Catalyst Roundtable at the state level. He is a volunteer with young children in CQE’s reading program in Holmes County, and is a frequent participant in the residential training schools and workshops conducted by Southern Echo. Mr. Johnson is African American.
- Ms. Joyce Parker, Greenville, MS
Ms. Parker is founder and Director of Citizens for a Better Greenville, a community organization that focuses on public education and civic engagement through the active involvement of younger and older people in the organizing work. Ms. Parker brought together students, administrators, Southern Echo and Delta Research and Cultural Institute to initiate a conflict resolution program at the city’s high school. Ms. Parker was Coordinator for the MS Education Working Group and is Network Weaver for the MS Delta Catalyst Roundtable collaboration with Rio Grande Valley, TX community organizations. Ms. Parker is African American.
- Mr. Alfonzo White, Duck Hill, MS
Mr. White is an elected member and former President of the Montgomery County School Board. He has been actively involved as a community organizer in the growth and development of several local organizations, including Action Communication and Education Reform, where he is now Director, Concerned Citizens of Montgomery County, and YIMS, and is an active participant in the work of the Mississippi Education Working Group. Mr. White formerly was a full time multi-media documentarian for the Algebra Project, based in Jackson, MS. In addition, he has worked with Southern Echo since its first redistricting work in 1991 documenting the public hearing negotiation process at the city, county and state level. Mr. White also has produced short videos for Southern Echo. Mr. White is African American.
Staff and interns
As of 2011;
- Hollis Watkins, President, Jackson, MS, is one of the co-founders of Southern Echo. He was the first Mississippi student to become involved in 1961 in the Mississippi Voting Rights Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Highlander Research and Education Center, the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network, and the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group. Mr. Watkins is a founder and member of the Civil Rights Veterans of Mississippi.
- Leroy Johnson, Executive Director, Holmes County, MS, is one of the co-founders of Southern Echo in 1989. Mr. Johnson also serves as Chief Financial Officer and principal resource developer for Southern Echo. Mr. Johnson is a founder of the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network and the Southern Partners Fund, of which he is a past President and current member of the Board. Mr. Johnson served on the Board of New World Foundation and Rural Schools and Community Trust.
- Brenda Hyde, Assistant Director, Jackson, MS, provides training and technical assistance to numerous grassroots organizations in Mississippi and manages the training and technical assistance components of two foundation-funded intermediate support programs for community organizations in eight states in the southern region. Ms. Hyde serves as the president of the Board of Directors of the Southern Organizing Cooperative located in Birmingham, AL, as president of the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network, located in Durham, NC., and is a member of the Board of New World Foundation.
- Mike Sayer, Senior Organizer & Training Coordinator, and Staff Counsel, Jackson, MS, is one of the co-founders of Southern Echo in 1989. Mr. Sayer helps develop Echo training programs and materials on community organizing, strategic planning, public education, environmental racism, civic engagement, redistricting and organizational development. He also creates popular education materials on public policy issues and participates directly in training, technical and legal assistance. He is one of the founders and past Board of the Progressive Technology Project.
- Helen Johnson, Education Coordinator, Holmes County, MS, assists in designing and implementing Echo’s education programs at the state and local school district levels. Ms. Johnson is an elected member of the Holmes County School Board and serves on the Board of Nollie Citizens for Quality Education in Holmes County. Ms. Johnson is the Parent Representative on the State Board of Education Practitioner’s Committee on Standards, member of the Special Education Advisory Panel to the MS Dept. of Education, and is on the state Board of the Parents Teachers Association.
- Rachel Mayes, Finance Coordinator and Office Administrator, Jackson, MS, manages both Southern Echo’s financial structure, coordinates office operations at the central office in Jackson, MS, and maintains communications and scheduling links among Echo staff members. She is a former comptroller for the McRae’s Department Store chain, a former Finance Director for a Jackson, MS community development corporation, and formerly an accountant with the Jackson, MS accounting firm of Wells & Associates.
- Betty Petty, Senior Organizer, Indianola, MS, is Director of Sunflower Parents and Students Organization, formerly known as the Indianola Parent Student Group, and was the principal organizer of the Indianola Math Games League. She is also an appointed member of the Indianola School Board of Trustees. Ms. Petty also provides training and technical assistance to community groups that are organizing around public education issues in several counties in the Mississippi Delta. Ms. Petty is Board Chair of the Special Education Advisory Panel to the MS Dept. of Education.
- Janas Saulsberry, Field Staff Intern, Tallahatchie County, MS, has long been involved in Tallahatchie County as an outspoken volunteer activist in connection with education, redistricting, access to the political process, and other issues of concern to the African American communities within the county. Prior to joining the Southern Echo staff Ms. Saulsberry had also been involved with Southern Echo training and technical assistance work in the county
- Dianna Freelon-Foster, Field Staff, Grenada, MS, is founder and Director of Activists With A Purpose, a grassroots community organization based in Grenada County that works with students and adults to impact education policy formation and implementation in the local school district. Ms. Foster, who has been actively involved in the political process in Grenada for more than twenty years, was elected the first African American and first woman Mayor of the City of Grenada.
- Constance Harvey-Burwell, Education Organizer & Policy Development Liaison, is from Scott County, MS. She is a 2007 National New Voices Fellow. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Tougaloo College, an historically black university near Jackson, MS. She is both a Fellow of the New Voices Program of AED and on the staff of Southern Echo. She served for three years as a Communications Director for Mississippi Congressperson Bennie Thompson in Washington, DC, and has worked for the Mississippi State Branch of the NAACP in Jackson, MS on housing opportunities for community people. She also worked for the Blum Neighborhood Community Center in Chicago, IL to get large grocery chains to open stores in low-wealth neighborhoods to increase the opportunities for community people to obtain healthier foods, lower prices and increased employment.
- Amelia E. Hunter, J.D., Director of Resource Development, now of Jackson, MS, is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. She received her B.S. Degree in Political Science from Fisk University and a Juris Doctorate Degree from Texas Southern University School of Law. Before joining the staff of Southern Echo Ms. Hunter was employed as Assistant Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Most of her work experience has been in the non-profit sector, where she was involved in resource development and fundraising. She served as a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer for three years with the Center for the Study of Student Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities and subsequently as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. After completing her three year fellowship she took a position with the national staff of the program where she recruited, trained, selected and placed law school graduates as fellows in national legal services programs throughout the country.
Student interns As of 2011;
- Keith French, Jackson, MS, is a student at the University of Virginia Law School. He graduated from Tougaloo College in May 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude, degree in English, where he had the honor of being a Mellon-Mays Fellow. Mr. French is doing research, writing, community outreach and technology development as part of his program of work for Southern Echo. He will be part of the training and technical assistance team on census and redistricting, the MS Demography Group and the team managing the Southern Echo website
- Kahlil Johnson, Holmes County, MS, is a student at Tougaloo College. Mr. Johnson has been a youth organizer with Nollie Citizens for Quality Education in Holmes County since his early teens. He was first a student and is now a trainer in the MS Demography Group. Mr. Johnson has also provided training to school administrators on how to use student performance outcomes on standardized tests to adjust curriculum strategies. Mr. Johnson is doing writing, community outreach and technology development as part of his program of work for Southern Echo.
- Greg Johnson, a law student at George Washington University in D.C., worked as a youth organizer for Nollie Citizens for Quality Education in Holmes County while attending Humphreys County high school and Tougaloo College. At the same time he worked as an Echo Staff Intern, served as manager and troubleshooter of Southern Echo’s technology, and became a trainer in the MS Demography Group. While in college he also served as a mentor to many high school students to ensure they finished high school and attended college.
South X Southwest Experiment
South X Southwest Experiment is an inter-generational partnership initiated in 2006 by established grassroots social justice organizations: Southern Echo and the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable in Mississippi, the Southwest Workers Union in Texas, and the SouthWest Organizing Project in New Mexico.
"Building Bridges to Empower a true majority" conference
Louis Head October 24, 2015:
Leroy Johnson, Curtis Hill, Diana Lopez, Julian Mendez, Janelle Astorga-Ramos, Javier Benavidez and Brenda Hyde: Southern Echo, Inc., Southwest Workers Union and SouthWest Organizing Project discuss Accountable Governance and the relationship between organizing, electoral work, and the building of relationships of accountability between communities and public officials. — in Madison, Mississippi.
- Chair: Robby Rodriguez, SouthWest Organizing Project, NM
- Vice Chair: Sondra Youdelman, Community Voices Heard, NY
- Secretary: Rudy Gonzalves, California Alliance, CA
- Treasurer: Leroy Johnson, Southern Echo, MS
- Hill Carmichael, Greater Birmingham Ministries, AL
- Scott Douglas, Greater Birmingham Ministries, AL
- Kimble Forrister, Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, AL
- Darnell Johnson, Kentucky Jobs with Justice, KY
- Burt Lauderdale, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, KY
- Mike Sayer, Southern Echo, MS
- Anthony Thigpenn, Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, CA
- William Weahkee, Director, SAGE Council, NM
- Lisa Abbott, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, KY
- Bineshi Albert, SouthWest Organizing Project, SAGE NM
- Presdelane Harris, Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, AL
- Attica Scott, Kentucky Jobs with Justice, KY
- Henry Serrano, New York Jobs with Justice, NY
- Karla Zombro, Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, CA