Sister Liz Brown Reflects on Work in Mississippi

by Patti Eischen

It’s been 32 years since Sister Liz Brown first drove into the small town of Okolona, Mississippi. And, as executive director of Excel Commons, she has been at the heart of the community, with steadfast dedication to community building and racial inclusiveness. What began as a summer youth program in 1988 in three borrowed classrooms has grown into Excel’s Main Street hub open to all in need, with children’s enrichment, senior wellness, GED classes, a resale shop and a coffee shop, just to name a few. With programs still going strong, we interviewed Sister Liz about her time in Okolona—past, present and future.

What was your initial goal?
We wanted to set up an organization, an effort that would assist people with whatever their needs were in the community, to set up an organization that had no racial dominance. We knew people from the National Council of Negro Women and we asked them to partner with us. We didn’t want outsiders doing work for the community that they could do for themselves.

What was Excel’s first program?
They asked us to start an educational after school program, but they had no space to hold it in. My philosophy is different than the normal, “Raise money, then start a program.” We do the work first and then the money will come. That’s always worked for me. We started with six kids. Now we have 48.

How has Excel developed?
People in town call it the “Excel Mall” now. We just kept acquiring space next to spaces we were already in. As a result, we offer several wellness programs, multiple learning programs and shared space for the community to use. We have developed satellite locations in nearby communities that are offering the same services.

What’s the biggest change you have seen?
The biggest systemic change is a melting away of racial divides. We have seen a comfortable change of whites and blacks working together. There is still a lot of racism that goes both ways. But I see friendships that have grown across racial lines that would have never seen had we not come here 32 years ago. There is definitely greater ease across the racial divide.

What’s the “why” of it?
It’s always been to build the community from within. It won’t ever be 100%, ever, but to bring people together, to build relationships, and to facilitate that, that’s the “why” of it. We are a stable organization. People know us, trust us, come to us, and they engage and give back to us.

What are some plans for the program’s future?
We are developing a food pantry that is open once a month, creating blessing boxes for those who need food to get them through, and we have developed a “Kindness of Strangers” fund that helps people with one-time funding. These are smaller programs, but they are still important. It’s a beautiful thing to see people come together around need.

And for your future?
One part of the plan is to share the executive director position so that I can go half time and prolong the work that I am doing. When I first arrived here, I was 45 years old. Something went through my mind, maybe the Holy Spirit speaking to me, “This is going to be my last mission.” I had a very warm sense of home—that this is where I belonged. You just do what needs to be done. I follow the need where ever it leads me.

10/17 (originally posted 7/17)