Retha Spencer is a bridge builder.
She has spent much of the last decade facilitating pivotal connections across Arkansas geography, race, issues and levels of government. She serves on the Gould City Council, is a member of the grassroots Gould Citizens’ Advisory Council (GCAC), co-leads a SE Arkansas Citizens’ Climate Lobby Chapter, and is an active member of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel’s Board.
However, Retha said she this not how she had planned to spend her retirement.
She was born and raised in Gould, Arkansas but left the state in the early 1960’s. She first moved to Chicago and then spent over 40 years with her husband in California, where they raised their children.
Retha returned to Gould every year to check in on her folks and visit with friends from school, but she never considered moving back. Then, her husband passed away.
“I like quiet and nature. The city is so crowded and noisy: sirens going off every 20 or 30 minutes and helicopters flying over. So, I decided to go home, get a place and get a garden," Retha said. "Here you can see stars, watch the sunrise and see the moon. I didn’t have that in the city. When I first returned to Gould, I use to get up in the morning and just watch the sun come up and go down. As we get older we appreciate those things."
She came home to a town drastically altered in many ways. Segregation was still in place when Retha was a child, but she also recalls Gould having a vibrant downtown with two or three grocery stores, a theater, a hotel, and a bus station. Now, Gould is essentially a food desert, except for a Dollar General that Retha and other council members worked to get in place, she said.
“You have to drive to Dumas for groceries. That’s nine miles away. That takes gas. It use to be that people had large gardens and did a lot of canning,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of spraying... God has entrusted us with this Earth. We need to keep it beautiful."
Under the leadership of former Mayor Essie Mae Cableton, Retha and other city council members began working to get the city’s 100-year-old water tower and aging water lines replaced. These efforts continue to progress, as do efforts to improve street drainage.
“Gould use to have the best water around,” Ratha said. “Hopefully, with the new water lines and once the new tank is installed, the water will be better than store bought.”
Retha credits the Arkansas Citizens’ Climate League with helping these projects along.
It was while on League scholarships to a Citizens’ Climate Education conferences in Washington D.C. in June of 2016 and 2019 that she was also able to go to Capitol Hill. There, she has spoken with Representative Rick Crawford’s staff and Senator John Boozman about the challenges facing her community and to secure their help with the water tower issue. She also informed them about the increasing problems with flooding in Gould.
“If I am not praying for this town, I am working on ways to make this town better. I want the best for this town. We’re only on this Earth for a short time; we need to live,” Retha said.
Right now her biggest concern is the impact of Covid-19 on Gould and other Delta communities.
“Any way you look at this situation now [with Covid-19], it is bad. How are people going to maintain work and pay their rent? I am especially concerned for the children. For many of them, school is their most supportive place. And even if they are okay at home, they have the problem of not having adequate internet.
Despite her concerns, Retha said she believe we can come out the other side of this with a stronger sense of purpose.
“Once we’re through this current situation with Covid-19, I hope people will come out and get to know each other and rebuild this town together. It is possible to have a good life in the South. Let’s dream again.”
It may have not been her initial plan, but Retha said moving back to Gould was meant to be.
“It was meant for me to come here,” Retha said. “I have met so many wonderful people around Arkansas who have concern for this small town.”