Healing Conversations Build Healthy Communities


In Indianola, a town of 12,000 in the Mississippi Delta region, tough conversations are taking place in the heart of city government.

Through the Well Community Project, a multi-year effort led by Samueli Institute to foster healing and wellness in communities in Detroit, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, leaders in Indianola are sharing their experiences, learning about each other’s perspectives and building consensus by developing trust. With the leadership of Mayor Steve Rosenthal, the Well Community Project helped build a new council of natural leaders in the city from across the spectrum of citizens.

“We brought together people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, and different religions who—while they all knew each other as you would expect in a town our size—they had never before sat at the same table and interacted on a social, community volunteering basis,” explained the Mayor, shown in the cover photo (right) with project organizer David Gibbs (left)

The leadership team was comprised of about 20 citizens representing a diverse cross section of the community, such as truck drivers, bank presidents, policemen, teachers and pastors. They met every month for three or four hours at a time to take on big topics: health, economics, education and race.

“In some of these conversations—say on race—we had a strong discussion.”

Facilitators challenged the group to share difficult and personal narratives, such as ‘When was the first time you realized there was a separation of the races in Mississippi—a true racist remark or event?’. The resulting stories were tearful and emotional recollections from when the civic leaders were just eight or nine years old.

“A lot of eyes opened up to ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize that—I didn’t understand that.’” The Mayor recalled.

The conversations triggered personal interactions that extended outside the meetings and across social, racial and religious dividing lines. They also helped focus effort across the group to a shared vision for the future of Indianola, and helped the group develop a strategic plan to replace Gentry High School, a worn, half-century-old campus with a 99 percent African-American student body and a 30 percent drop-out rate.

In April, Samueli Institute convened The two-day conference brought together local and national leaders in community wellness, including representatives of community organizations, non-profit organizations, government leader, investors and policy advocates in community wellness.

The program was designed to spark conversation among these diverse groups that have similar goals and aspirations, but rarely interact on an even playing field.  To foster conversation and expedite sharing experience and thoughts among the assembled leaders, Samueli Institute curated a series of short, focused talks from representatives of each of the communities and slated to have these engaging, spontaneous talks spring up throughout each day.

Mayor Rosenthal’s talk on the work his community has done to listen and learn about each other and how that helped them build consensus and trust is available to view on Samueli Institute’s You Tube channel.