New Federal Co-Chair of the Delta Regional Authority
By becky gillette • Photography by Austin Britt Photography
New Federal Co-Chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, Dr Corey Wiggins grew up in Hazlehurst on land purchased by his great-grandfather in the 1930s. He grew up in a close-knit family and community with the church family, the family cemetery, the house of his grandparents and other relatives nearby. He and his two younger brothers played army in the woods.
“My father’s family had cows, chickens and goats on a farm near Hazlehurst,” says Wiggins. “My father graduated from high school in Hazlehurst in 1971. When I went to high school I had the same teachers who had taught my father. My mother’s family grew cotton and soybeans near Wolf Lake in Humphreys County and lived in Yazoo City. When I wasn’t in Hazlehurst, I spent my summers with them in the Mississippi Delta. We had a secure upbringing and a consistent faith in God. These ties to family and faith have given me a solid foundation for my life.
While he was more than ten miles from the homes of one of his friends, he felt blessed to live in a rural community where he could go anywhere in the world while reading a book.
“I was lucky enough to be able to use books to expose myself to the world,” he says. “I loved reading stories about different places and people. I still carry a lot of those today. You can never give me too much information.
His aunt Georgia Wiggins, a teacher at Hinds Community College in Utica, strongly influenced his passion for reading. She brought him books from the library and made him write reports.
“It really developed a ravenous mentality in me about consuming information,” says Wiggins. “I read it all because she instilled in me the importance of reading. In high school, I was a good student academically. I played football in high school. I started at Alcorn State on a football scholarship. After my freshman year, I moved on to a college scholarship.
In high school and college, his goal was to become a doctor or medical researcher. After earning a degree in biology at Alcorn, he completed an internship in immunology research and another in physiology research. He later received the Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholars Fellowship from the Kaiser Family Foundation. He worked in the office of Senator George Voinovich.
“After that experience, I decided I wanted to focus on health policy, how I could help improve the system,” says Wiggins. “I went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for my graduate studies where I obtained a master’s degree in health policy and a doctorate in health promotion and health education. While working on my doctorate, I moved from Alabama to Mississippi where my wife was finishing her dental studies. I was able to get a job with the Office of Performance and Expenditure Review (PEER) of the Mississippi State Legislature in 2008.”
It was an interesting time. The country was in recession, Barack Obama was entering his first term, and in 2009 Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Wiggins was the principal staff person at PEER who focused on the budget implications and implementation of the ARRA for Mississippi, a role he was selected for because of his previous experience in federal politics. . He relished the opportunity to use his talents to do good things for the people of Mississippi.
Now he has the opportunity to do more good things not only for Mississippi, but also for the other seven states included in the DRA, which oversees economic development, health and infrastructure services for a total of 252 counties and parishes in one of the poorest regions of the country.
“DRA is a unique agency because it touches on many core issues that are important to people,” says Wiggins. “In addition to quality of life issues, how can we create more jobs? How to develop more opportunities for people? We have the ability to engage and get directly involved in improving the quality of life in the areas we cover.
During his first months on the job, Wiggins focused on intentional listening in communities. Each community in the region has strengths and he sees DRA’s job as helping them achieve their goals.
“Local community leaders know what they want their communities to look, taste, smell and smell like,” he says. “It’s our job to help them accomplish this. One of the things that is close to my heart is to make a difference not only in so many small rural communities in our region, but also in our urban corridors. We can do a difference in big cities like New Orleans and small towns like Forest City, Ark., and Eutaw, Ala. A big part of DRA’s power is being able to partner with these local leaders to leverage DRA resources and resources from the federal government as they act to improve economic development, support basic infrastructure projects, help create a competitive workforce, and focus on maximizing opportunity.
DRA has released an equity action plan that Wiggins calls “a big deal. We review our processes, ensure we operate ethically, and review existing funding. We make sure this is an agency where we think about fairness in everything we do. For us, equity is not a one-time effort, but part of the DRA process.
“While the delta is replete with many assets, it also presents deep-rooted barriers that limit access to opportunity for some, including generational poverty and racial inequality, which are exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure, lack of access to quality education and health care and limited employment opportunities.. The DRA Equity Action Plan is only the first step to making appropriate programmatic and policy changes that will support our equity agenda focused on listening to all stakeholders, operationalizing equity in practice and policy, and increasing the participation of marginalized groups throughout the delta region.
Wiggins will continue his eight-state listening tour, reviewing programs to ensure they engage all of their stakeholders and hold themselves accountable.
“It brings me great joy and satisfaction to know that we can make a big impact in the region,” says Wiggins. “I am excited about the opportunities we have. Part of our job is to ensure that public money is used for good, which directly impacts the lives of people in our region.
His wife, Shenekia Wiggins, practiced as a public health dentist in Hinds County and for the past two years has worked part-time as a dental consultant around rural health issues and has also seen patients in nursing homes and clinics. The couple have three boys, ages thirteen, ten and seven, who attend Madison County Public Schools.
“They all lead active lives,” says Wiggins. “We are baseball and football heavy. On weekends when all the kids are playing football, we can have twelve ball games in one weekend. I love seeing them participate in sports.
Both he and his wife are involved in many different community and civic groups, but their main focus is raising their sons. In addition to sports, they are in advanced grades at school.
“It’s kind of like I’ve grown up,” Wiggins says. “As a family unit, quality time is very important to us. Often you will find us all together visiting his parents and my parents in the spring.
Wiggins says sport was an important part of his life. Part of team sports is running consistently. You are responsible to your teammates for doing your job.
“I learned so much about teamwork, perseverance and resilience,” he says. “You have to be resilient because things don’t always go your way. How do you think about that and go out there and do it again?
“From DRA’s perspective, there are challenges and obstacles facing the region. Every day we go there and continue to do our job. Our communities are resilient communities and we will be there every step of the way. When I talk to our team at DRA, I expect people to do their job because we need to be accountable to each other and to the public we serve.
In his spare time, he enjoys hunting and fishing. He looks forward to deer season when he can go sit in a deer stand.
“I have to find some fishing holes near the main office in Clarksdale for when I get off work,” says Wiggins, who also has an office in Washington, D.C.
Wiggins most recently served as executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP. Previously, he was Senior Vice President of Policy at Hope Enterprise Corporation and Hope Credit Union. He also served as executive director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center and director of the Hope Policy Institute, where he focused on building communities, building assets, and improving lives in economically challenged areas of the Mid -South. He has a nonprofit leadership certificate from Boston College and has continued his training through fellowships with the Kaiser Family Foundation, the WK Kellogg Foundation, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).