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We Are the Bridge: Rural Development Carries Forward Civil Rights Legacy

Posted by Lisa Mensah, Under Secretary for Rural Development in Rural
Feb 21, 2017
Under Secretary for Rural Development Lisa Mensah stands at the head of the historical trail where marchers began their trek across the Edmund Pettus bridge enroute to Montgomery, Alabama seeking voting rights for African-Americans.
Under Secretary for Rural Development Lisa Mensah stands at the head of the historical trail where marchers began their trek across the Edmund Pettus bridge enroute to Montgomery, Alabama seeking voting rights for African-Americans.

On my first trip as the Under Secretary for Rural Development, I visited Alabama and Mississippi. It seemed fitting for me to begin my trip in Selma, Alabama given the historical significance of the location. The march from Selma, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., embodied our most human desires: to be treated fairly, to be heard, to be treated with decency-to not be denied access and opportunities due to the color of our skin, our gender identity, our gender expression or our political identity.

I was raised in Oregon by my father, an immigrant from Ghana and my mother, an Iowa farm girl. Standing there in Selma, the sacrifices made by those before me came into focus. As an African-American woman, I'm now very honored to be at an agency that plays an important role in bringing new investments to rural America.

Here at USDA, we play a role in rebuilding communities when we provide help to a first-time homebuyer, or provide safe and sanitary housing for a renter. When a revolving loan fund helps expand a business and bring new jobs to town, or critical water and wastewater systems are installed, or high-speed internet connection comes online to a remote community. This is how we build on a continued pursuit of equality-striving for inclusion of all Americans.

I was heartened to have a tour of the Southern Classic Food Group, a condiment manufacturer in Brundidge, Alabama that is expanding their business and their market share with support from Rural Development. The Economic Development Center in Pike County, Alabama works in partnership with us to invest in local small businesses and create jobs.

In Winona, Mississippi I announced our investment of $600,000 to seed a revolving loan fund for north central Mississippi small businesses, and I learned about a mental health center in Greenwood, Mississippi funded by our Community Facilities program that is touching thousands of lives every year. Improvements that strengthen and enhance the quality of life in rural communities often subject to great poverty.

As I stood on the edge of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I was struck by the fear and bravery it took for those marchers to cross it on that day in 1965. Though our nation is faced with challenges of the past and more subtle discrimination today, those who marched over the bridge made it possible for us to be the bridge-to rebuild trust and to challenge practices of exclusivity that have limited the extent to which we serve communities across our nation. Now, fifty years later, I know that we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us as we work to develop and sustain our rural communities.

Category/Topic: Rural