EAST PRAIRIE -- Being active in the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus gives Southeast Missouri a voice that can be heard all the way to Capitol Hill.
"It is critical for our counties to have a voice and be part of the Delta Caucus," said Dr. Martha Ellen Black, executive director of the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center and Missouri coordinator for the Caucus. "I believe we have to do this."
Black has been a member of the Caucus since it was established three or four years ago but has been forging a relationship with the states in the lower Mississippi River Delta for well over a decade.
When East Prairie became an Enterprise Community in 1994, "we became really familiar with the people in the other Delta communities," she recalled. "A lower Mississippi economic development study made it clear that counties in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky were Mississippi Delta communities. Our states are as much part of the Delta as those other states."
Black said the southern states initially didn't consider this area as part of the Delta region but over the years the relationship has been built up.
"I realized how important it is that we in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky join ranks with those other states," Black said. "We have a collective voice."
Black said this area really doesn't have much in common with places like St. Louis and Kansas City, but joining with the Delta region for a "collective voice" can get the attention of Congress needed to bring resources to this area.
"I really think its important for our communities," Black said. "The Grassroots Caucus is a collective group of people representing the Delta -- it is a voice for the Delta."
And that voice has been heard.
"It has helped increase the Delta Regional Authority funding because the members of the Caucus have spoken up," Black said.
The Caucus is made up of "community members who believe in their communities," Black said, including mayors, county commissioners and business owners. "There were over 200 at the last meeting."
Black said the Caucus is bipartisan effort with both Democratic and Republican senators participating as well as governors from several of the participating states including Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas who will become one of the members of the eight-state DRA board.
This year's annual conference for the Caucus was Jan. 18-23 in Little Rock, Ark., during which leaders urged state and federal governments to do more for the region extending from southeast Missouri south to New Orleans.
"As always, Martha Ellen Black did a great job of advocating for our region, especially in the field of greater educational opportunities and the need to develop a well-trained, well-skilled workforce," said Lee Powell, Caucus director. "Many people feel that education is the key to a brighter future for Southeast Missouri and the rest of the region."
"He is really dedicated. He's tenacious," Black said of Powell, noting his passion for the job. "I believe in his leadership. It makes me more motivated to carry on forward."
Black said she intends to continue to participate in the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus "all my life -- till I die. That's how strongly I believe in it."