Update from "Neighborhoods" by Ryan Parsons


Early in the summer I introduced my students to Jane Jacob’s concept of the public character – a person who makes it their business to know what’s going on around the neighborhood and keeps tabs on how people are getting along. I asked my students to think of examples of the type of people in their neighborhood who might be considered public characters - the mail delivery person stops by everyone’s house every day, the clerk at the corner store knows the regulars and what they buy, cops working their beats. Then a couple students suggested their “candy lady,” a term I had never heard. My students found my confusion hilarious - I quickly learned that in small Delta towns, every neighborhood has a candy lady or two that sells snacks and candy out of their living rooms. They’re cheaper than corner stores and more convenient that Walmart – stopping by the candy lady is a universal afterschool experience for Delta children. 

The candy lady was one of many things that my students and I have learned together as we’ve explored the neighborhoods of Sunflower this month. Early on in the class, we had a chance to sit with Trenton Little, Fannie Lou Hamer’s grandson, to hear about the different neighborhoods he’s lived in and the lessons he had to offer. We took those interview skills to the streets of Sunflower and met local civil rights workers, the woman whose family use to own the building that is now the Sunflower County Freedom Project center, and others who had stories to share. We’ve sifted through Census data about Sunflower and nearby towns and even took an impromptu trip to Rosedale to visit colleagues at the Rosedale Freedom Project, check out one of the Delta’s Chinese grocery stores, and walk the streets of a new town to hone our observation skills. All of this work was preparation to start asking big questions about the neighborhoods we live in. Does my neighborhood encourage health? Education? Who are the public characters in a county that’s lost half of its population? How is the legacy of neighborhood segregation inscribed into the streets, pipes, and wires that structure Sunflower? 

We started to tackle these questions this week as students formed groups and spread out over Sunflower to find answers. Seeing the Collegiate Fellows in my class engage with big ideas in their hometown has been invigorating – our students have been developing a “sociological imagination” and learning to see their own stories as part of a bigger story about this country and its past. And – to invoke a common cliché – I’ve learned just as much from my students as they’ve learned from me. I ended today by chaperoning a couple students to an interview with their candy lady – we sat in her living room as she talked about the relationships she had with the kids in her neighborhood and the small ways she found to help them. She was telling us about the small part she played in making her neighborhood work – a story that I was happy to share with the Fellows.  

Jordan Malone