“Candace Williams.” Applause and cheer by family members and friends followed my name being called by my high school principal. I remember feeling so proud when I walked across the stage and received my diploma. Glee filled my heart as I carefully navigated that stage so I wouldn’t trip or fall. I’m so clumsy.

As I made it back to my seat and sat down, I was overwhelmed with sadness. It finally hit me that I was a part of the last graduating class from Elaine High School. That sadness turned into anger. Why were they closing our school? Sure we’d had issues, but the district had made strides overall. Our beloved alma mater was closing due to the infamous Act 60 in Arkansas. Our school was closing because there were under 350 students enrolled for two consecutive years.

“SOS! Save Our Schools! Save Our Schools!” A group of us chanted this while directing people to our carwash fundraiser at the WalMart in West Helena. We still had that hope. We washed a lot of cars on that hot summer day. We were ending the day when a girl that I knew from a neighboring town walked up. Her school had closed in 2004. I would remember this moment like yesterday for years. She liked one of my cousins so she MOSTLY came over to show off and let him see how she looked in her short shorts lol. She said, “SOS?! I hope that stands for Save Our Souls because y’all definitely won’t be saving that school.” I wanted to punch her in her face. Like, for real. See, she was indeed telling the truth, but I just couldn't believe it. I still had hope.

As the time drew near to May 12, 2006, I witnessed that hope fade away in the eyes of my peers, teachers, and community. I've always said in order to get to Elaine, you HAVE to be going to Elaine. It’s at the southern end of Phillips County. Infamously known for the Elaine Massacre of 1919, racial issues run deep. What started as black farmers standing up for themselves ended with bloodshed. That’s what our town was most known for.

See, the closure of Elaine School District happened long before 2006. In fact, there were enough children residing in the area to keep the school enrollment numbers well above 400. A number of families never gave the district a chance. Most white families chose to enroll their children in private schools in the area—private schools where enrollment was about 99.9 percent white. The closure was the ugly sore that bore its head after years of unspokens, administrations that had little to no interest in the town being viable, and general complacency.

A glimmer of hope settled upon me as I sat there remembering that day when a cool-looking, older black lady with a huge gray/white afro visited me at the high school and told me she worked for an organization called Advocates for Community and Rural Education. She drove to town in a red Pontiac van with personalized tags that read, “MIZZDB.” Dorothy Singleton was her name. Her organization wanted to feature me in their newsletter. I was intrigued.

In addition to my district being on the brink of consolidation with a neighboring district, I’d previously attended Presidential Classroom in January—a week-long learning experience at Georgetown University in DC—and Advocates for Community and Rural Education wanted to know about that experience. I was so nervous. She asked me a few questions about the Presidential Classroom experience before hitting the hard stuff. “How do all feel about consolidating? How do you think the students will transition?” I had the biggest knot in my throat when she was asking those questions. I could feel myself getting more emotional with each question. Yes, I was graduating, but this was MY school. Why was this happening to MY school?!

After the interview, Dorothy handed me a membership form and invited me to join Advocates for Community and Rural Education. “I understand what you may be feeling now. My school was closed, and let me tell you the hurt never goes away. But what we are trying to do is save other schools from going through what we have already.” That indescribably stirred me. I didn't want another community to feel this hurt. It stirred me so much that not only did I become a member of Advocates for Community and Rural Education, but my mom, dad, and younger brother also became members. I wanted to be involved. I wanted to be a part of the movement, but I had no idea about the plans that Dorothy had for me.

The next summer I became the organization’s first youth board member. Initially I was soooo afraid to say anything in meetings. They would have to pry a response out of me. I just didn't feel like I was smart enough or bold enough to be around all of those powerful people. The board president would ask me, “Candace, what do you think about this?" or, "Candace, what do you think about doing that?” My answer would always be, “Yeah that sounds good.” LOL At that time in my life I was sooo nonchalant. I didn’t like a lot of fuss, and I mostly just went with the flow, but they all saw something greater in me. The board members were all so embracing. I was going into my sophomore year at the University of Central Arkansas, literally just beginning to find my way in the world. I didn’t know much about the nonprofit sector and all that it entailed, but I knew it was something that I wanted to become engaged with and learn more about.

It all started with the number 350. That number has bound rural communities across this state, communities separated by geography and racial differences. That number, 350, took the most prized institution in our communities, but it did not take our will and hope to make our communities anew.

About the "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Collection

Organizers and Advocates are heroes. Every great hero has a story to tell. The "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Collection shares stories about challenge, triumph, great personal cost, and outright determination to love and serve Arkansas.

The Foundation put this collection together to share spoken-word narratives from our "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Story Slam, where we recognized "October is Advocacy and Organizing Month" (OAOM). Our Story Slam was hosted in partnership with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and The Yarn. Special thanks to Herstory Writers' Workshop for helping Arkansas Organizers and Advocates find their voices and tell their stories.

Click here to experience other powerful stories of Organizers and Advocates who have transformed Arkansas communities.