Okmulgee FATE event finds rural class systems stifling community, entrepreneurship growth
(OKMULGEE, Okla.) VNN and Big If True's second "From Adversity To Entrepreneurship" in-person learning session was held at the Rowe Family Life Center in Okmulgee on July 16.
Attendees included Okmulgee Mayor Mickey Baldwin, local entrepreneurs, and community activists.
Village Six Reformation Foundation owner Ismael King kicked off the conversation with details of the adversity he has overcome, including growing up with two drug-addicted parents, joining a gang at a young age, and dealing drugs.
After spending 15 years in prison, King now mentors children through an empowering entrepreneurship curriculum he developed himself.
He said his past experiences make him more relatable to kids going down the wrong path, allowing him to get through to them and help them more effectively than others who don’t share that similar background.
“I’m the one who led them there,” King said. “Whether I was in Okmulgee, Louisiana, Tulsa. It’s guys like me that led those children down those roads. We may not physically have called them out there but they seen us riding in nice cars. They never saw us go to a 9 to 5 but we were subject to have nice clothes and look nice and they wanted to be that.”
But, King said, despite serving his time, he still finds more doors to be closed than open to him within society.
“You tell us, well, we want y’all to reintegrate into society the right way,” King said. “And we come back and we reintegrate into society. We do things like this and we have doors shut in our faces due to a background. We were supposed to gave our debt to society. By going in and doing our time.”
King’s problems include not being able to lease a storage facility for his equipment because he is a felon.
Attendees said treatment of felons like King is not the only class issue that stifles community and entrepreneurship growth in rural areas like Okmulgee. The attitude that people living in poverty are lower class is also problematic.
Community activist Rose Lynch said she realized just how poor some of the local areas were when she began growing vegetables to counteract a lack of fresh produce in the area, but no one was taking them.
“Somebody finally said, ‘Can I tell you why we won’t?” Lynch said. “And I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to know.’ And they said, ‘We don’t have the teeth to eat the skin.’”
So Lynn started growing other things.
It was one small example of why receiving community feedback is a necessary step in developing plans to best solve community problems.
Baldwin offered a bigger example, observed during his time living amongst the Kuna Indians in Panama.
He said a group of people from the US dug out a pond and installed a transportation system for fresh water, but all the spickets were soon broken off.
A stalemate among the island chiefs about who would pay for the replacement spickets, estimated at $1.25 a piece, rendered the transportation aspect useless.
“People in America thought, they need fresh water,” Baldwin said. “They spent lots of money. But yet it’s not being used at all. There are other issues on the islands than just fresh water. For me it was a real learning experience, that even though we can create things, doesn’t mean its going to necessarily be the best thing for that community. If it’s not really what the community needs.”
Baldwin estimates about 70 percent of their community is subsidized.
Still, multiple attendees said basic needs are still not being met for many, a necessary step before any other kinds of growth can occur.
Attendees said despite certain forms of community assistance being available, there aren’t enough local jobs to help people become truly self-sustainable.
We also heard local hiring tends to be more about who you know than what you know, and opportunities for felons, homeless people, and those dealing with substance use disorder are even less attainable.
“History is written by the winner, not by the one who’s oppressed,” Lynch said. “So, that sort of voice is necessary to be heard. When you’re part of that minority, people don’t tend to want to hear it. Because it messes with the system. But the system needs to be ruffled.”
The rural hierarchy was described as a power system, in which homeless people have the least.
Lynch said until the community can effectively lift up people living in adversity, community members must take up the work, one person at a time.
“You may not need a village,” Lynch said. “You may not have a village. But you just need one person who says, hey, I believe in you. Check up on you. Whatever. And thankfully during my growing up years I had that person.”
Attendees also emphasized the importance of leaving communities where success cannot be achieved, and then coming back to help once success has been achieved elsewhere.
(VNN’s Tulsa event also found that people feel guilty for leaving their communities behind and will often stay in that community despite of better opportunities for education and careers elsewhere.)
The Muscogee Creek Nation was recognized as a great help to the area.
But attendees said without more equity, diversity, and inclusion in the overall community, they did not feel entrepreneurship, and people in general, will ever be able to truly thrive.
Local entrepreneur Dawn Carter said there would be no easy solutions.
“It requires nothing of me to say, ‘You ain’t going to change. You ain’t going to be no different.’” Carter said. “And I’m going to treat you as such and puts things in place to keep you in that way because it’s easy. When I have to accept the fact that maybe I don’t know as much as I thought I knew, and the reason why I feel this particular way is because I’m only going off of the little information that I have.”
In spite of years of adversity, King said his past struggles actually equipped him to deal with his struggles today.
“I feel like the things I went through built me for this,” King said. “Because I don’t crack under pressure.”
This story is part of VNN's Community Voices series, dedicated to reporting diverse perspectives of social issues.
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