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Chicago Arkie expats remember their ‘sweet home’ 

New non-profit program channels big-city ideas, money.

SWEET HOMIES: Janis Kearney and Bob Nash (center) with William Winter and his wife Elise in Chicago.
  • SWEET HOMIES: Janis Kearney and Bob Nash (center) with William Winter and his wife Elise in Chicago.
For at least the last 75 years, one of Arkansas’s primary exports has been its people, whose talents and ambitions proved too large for this small state to contain. Now the Mid-South Foundation is reaching out to Arkansas natives in Chicago and elsewhere to enlist their ideas and financial support for projects to help their home state. The foundation hosted a Dec. 9 event at the Chicago House of Blues to launch its “Raised Up Right Fund,” which will focus on improving the lives of children in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. “It is a fantastic concept,” said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a Chicago congressman who grew up in Parkdale, Ark. “It provides a platform to make use of philosophical constructs, ideas, and concepts from people who, in circumstances that were not ideal, have done quite well.” According to Mid-South Foundation officials, their new initiative is based on a model pioneered by the Brazil Foundation, which raises several million dollars a year from Brazilian expatriates in the U.S. for social and economic reform efforts in their native country. The Raised Up Right Fund will eventually include a permanent endowment of $10-15 million, and grants will be distributed annually to programs focusing on early childhood development, family home ownership, and K-12 education. “Chicago is the obvious place to start,” said Liz Brister, development director for the Mid-South Foundation, based in Jackson, Miss. “There is a huge historical tie between people in Chicago and the huge migration from the mid-South.” For that reason, the program will be centered on building relationships in that city in the months to come. About 200 people attended the kick-off event this month, and they will comprise the inaugural members of the Up South Expatriates and Friends Network, which will be called upon to contribute their ideas about how the Raised Up Right Fund can be used most effectively. Janis Kearney, a Chicago resident who grew up in Gould, Ark., believes that her fellow expatriates still feel a strong connection to their original communities, and many even have plans to move back. “They don’t forget the positive aspects of the South – the people and their families – and they still have good feelings about it,” said Kearney, an author who was President Bill Clinton’s White House diarist. “Many of them left the South for a reason. In the pre-civil rights era, a lot of needs were not being taken care of. Now things are more equal in the South, and they are in a position to make a difference.” Bolstering Kearney’s contention is the presence of many Southern expatriate organizations in Chicago, which made it easier for the Mid-South Foundation to locate potential recruits for its network. Besides college alumni groups, Rep. Davis said there are quite a few Arkansas “hometown clubs,” including ones for natives of Dermott, Cotton Plant, and Eudora. (According to Davis, the annual Eudora club reunion draws 500-600 people every year.) Although African-Americans who left Arkansas before 1970 represent a significant portion of the population that migrated to Chicago and other urban centers, the Raised Up Right Fund is drawing from a donor and volunteer base that is diverse in terms of race and age. The Dec. 9 event raised about $50,000, most of which came in the form of small gifts that ranged from $20-100. All of that money will be distributed as grants in 2005, and everyone who donated will be eligible to serve on a committee that decides where the funds will be directed. “We are trying to redefine philanthropy to be inclusive,” Brister said. “Anyone can have a role in improving the mid-South, not just the wealthy.” Nevertheless, the Raised Up Right Fund also attracted some big financial backers, underscoring the success many expatriates have had in Chicago. John Bryan, for instance, is a native of West Point, Miss., who founded Bryan Foods and ultimately sold it to Sara Lee. He became the first major donor to Raised Up Right with a $100,000 gift that will be used to start the endowment, and Clinton will headline a gala Chicago fund-raiser in late 2005 that will bring more national money and attention to the program. With this in mind, the Mid-South Foundation is tapping into a feeling among many former Arkansans that their upbringing, as deprived as it may have been in terms of material wealth and opportunity, gave them a foundation that allowed them to achieve and prosper. “I talk about the woman who taught me in a one-room school, and the man in my community who made a school bus from an old pickup because we didn’t have one,” Davis said. “This program gives recognition to the kind of value systems and impact our parents had without any formal education.” That sentiment was echoed by Bob Nash, the vice-chairman of Shorebank Corp., originally from Texarkana, who previously was director of presidential personnel in the Clinton White House and one of the founders of the Mid-South Foundation. “So many people left the South as part of the group of African-Americans who had no opportunities,” Nash said. “Now we are able to live our childhood over again, by making sure we provide the kind of education and housing for young people that we didn’t have.”
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