Tangled within the threads of experience is an underlying river that runs towards a final destination, although the definition of finality will not be made known until one reaches the other side of heaven. In accordance with the nature of any stream, there are a number of bends that bear a sharp shift in direction — often leading to an abrupt stop on a shoreline or a prolonged stay on an embankment.
These pauses, however brief or long-lasting, bridge a path back to the river — back to the flow of life, which is often directed by a melting pot of experiences, people, choices, and, of course, divine intervention.
For Portia Ballard Espy, a resident of Madison, her direction, like many other people’s, was never specifically mapped out. However, she can confidently attest to the fact that every choice she made led to the life-changing decision of becoming the president of the newly established Mississippi Urban League.
Her destination was an unknown dream built by a medley of opportunities and southern hospitality. After graduating with a degree in mass communications/journalism from Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College at Baton Rouge, Portia began working in the energy sector. After marrying her husband, Mike, in 1999, she moved her Louisiana roots to the Magnolia State. To this day, the couple participates in various organizations throughout the community and are members of The Links, Incorporated and Jack and Jill of America. Their heart for giving back is reflected both in their extra-curricular activities and in the workforce.
Portia’s heart for service continued to grow as an employee at a handful of Fortune 500 companies where she contributed in a number of philanthropic events. She said, “I always gave back as an employee…to help the people in the community live a better quality of life.” While working as the human resource manager for Entergy Mississippi, Portia became the head of philanthropic affairs. This gave her the opportunity to oversee corporate giving and acquire additional insight into the nonprofit world.
Following her career at Entergy, Portia was appointed as the assistant director for the Kellogg Foundation’s Mid-South Delta Initiative in 2007. A few years later, she became the executive director for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. During this time, she began her Ph.D. studies at Jackson State University. In May of 2021, she received her PhD in public policy and administration.
In addition to gaining three letters behind her name, she acquired a number of management and leadership certificates from the Harvard Kennedy School of Executive Education.
However, even with an immense amount of education, Portia still had trouble answering the following question: “If all people had the opportunity to live in a house with doors, what would the world look like?”
The Mississippi Urban League, formerly known as Mississippi Road Map, was incorporated in 2019 and plays an essential role in answering this weighty question.
Located in Jackson as a branch of the National Urban League, the organization’s primary areas of focus are education, jobs, housing, health, and justice.
Founded in 1910, the Urban League typically focuses on the African American population due to their history of marginalization. However, the overarching goal of this organization is to help anyone who is a part of a distressed community by providing an array of opportunities to thrive.
Learning to thrive looks like working to create a world void of equity gaps. This is accomplished by offering a variety of community-based resources. The Mississippi Urban League proudly promotes heathy living by offering a fitness center for youth and adults. The organization uses their commercial kitchen to teach clients how to cook healthy meals, which can be prepared with fresh ingredients from the community garden. The neighboring literary garden helps children grow as readers. Other education-based initiatives include an after-school program and a learning lab. Mothers are invited to attend the baby cafe where they are taught proper breastfeeding techniques and learn how to raise their children in a holistically positive way.
Additionally, the organization works to help clients obtain meaningful and sustainable employment. According to Portia, the overall goal of The Mississippi Urban League is “to be part of a positive Mississippi that promotes people being good citizens who are engaged and healthy.”
A “positive Mississippi” ensures that every citizen lives in a safe, affordable, energy-efficient home on fair terms. It guarantees that every child is ready for college, work, and life. It upholds the value of democracy and the participatory nature of civil service. For the team at Mississippi Urban League, a “positive Mississippi” is not a dream but an obtainable goal, which can be achieved through hard work and determination. Portia’s hard work and determination coupled with her experiences in corporate America paved the path for success in the nonprofit realm. She said, “God put me in those positions to prepare me for this job. All of the things that I have learned in all of the places and spaces have been utilized to fulfill the missions of the Mississippi Urban League.”
Currently, the organization has three full-time staff members and one fellow. Food distribution efforts are run solely by volunteers, which the Mississippi Urban League largely depends upon. For those who are interested in volunteering or would like to learn more, call the office at 601-987-6783. Since the organization is primarily funded by grants, they rely heavily on the generosity of individual donors. For those who want to support The Mississippi Urban League, donations can be made on their website or mailed to their address.