Member Highlight: Lewis Whitfield

Convening power is one of the greatest assets a foundation has -- by leveraging its reputational capital, funders can bring people from different sectors, and possessing different viewpoints, together for conversations that boost a sense of community and can even inspire collaborative action.

The CREATE Foundation in Tupelo, Mississippi, recently tapped into its convening power by holding a summit for educators and business leaders to discuss how schools in the region are addressing the needs of students and connecting them with jobs.

The foundation's senior vice president, Lewis Whitfield, spoke at the event. He said the summit aligned well with the foundation's mission.

"CREATE Foundation's Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi has been focused on lifting the personal incomes of the people of our region -- primarily by helping improve the educational attainment levels of our population," he said. "Community foundations are a great source of data on key issues. Moreover, they are uniquely positioned to provide a forum for nonthreatening discussion of these underlying data and the issues. We believe in being a convener and catalyst for these discussions, but we also realize that without cooperative community partners our effectiveness would be limited."

The summit has a long history. For more than a decade, the foundation has invited leaders from 32 public school districts in 17 counties to come together and examine the issue of drop-out rates while also spreading best practices. However, the foundation has also invited educators to bring along representatives of other sectors.

"While the audience is always filled with professional educators, we encourage each district to include in its delegation a school board member and an economic developer or business person," Lewis said. "Over the years, we have offered a wide variety of programs and speakers to help every interested person stay focused on solving this problem. It is a community issue -- not just a school issue."

The event is part of the foundation's broader strategy, which includes a public policy component -- in 2015, the foundation successfully advocated for the state's Districts of Innovation law, which establishes avenues for public school districts to plan and implement creative, innovative education solutions within their districts.

The foundation's Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi has been a partner in several initiatives designed to improve educational achievement and attainment, including three media alliance public service media campaigns to build awareness on dropout prevention and recovery, several early childhood initiatives and dropout recovery initiatives with area community colleges, which led to statewide public funding for adult basic education in all of the state's 15 community colleges.

There's evidence the work is paying off. Lewis informed attendees at this year's summit that the drop-out rate for Mississippi schools has been cut by nearly 50 percent from 2006.

Lewis's work for the foundation has proven to be the culmination of decades spent working with community organizations as a banker in Tupelo.

"I became deeply involved in several community organizations, primarily ones dealing with health and education," he said. "I served as a board member for CREATE for roughly 20 years. After retiring as a banker, foundation President Mike Clayborne asked me to work for the foundation. We are all enthusiastic about the future of our foundation and the region we serve."

Lewis, a Mississippi native, has also served as an Army intelligence officer, a management consultant and a U.S. Senate aide. He earned two business degrees from Mississippi State University and is a graduate of the School of Banking of the South at Louisiana State University.


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