No one in my family is actually from Mississippi.
While my father grew up in Jackson, he was born in Alaska thanks to my grandfather’s Army posting there. My mother is from Atlanta. I was born in New Orleans. My brother was born in Virginia.
Like so many others, I’m one of those “not from Mississippi but got here as fast as I could” folks. Life is funny like that.
Over the years, I have watched many friends leave Mississippi for “greener pastures.” Their joke was that Mississippi’s chief export is people.
Well the joke’s on them, ladies and gentlemen.
A new group coordinated by the Mississippi Development Authority called Mississippi Young Professionals (MSYP) held its inaugural state summit at the historic MSU Riley Center last week in enchanting downtown Meridian. I was privileged to attend along with more than 300 other young professionals from across the Magnolia State.
Organizer Fredie Carmichael told me he would have been happy with half that number and the high attendance was proof of the appetite my generation has for wanting our state to be the best it can be.
“Our age group is at a pivotal place where you can flourish or you can flounder,” Carmichael said, “I feel like this state is also at that pivotal moment.” Carmichael and others like him from Tupelo to Biloxi have a real world burden and calling for young people in Mississippi to affect actionable change not just by staying in this state but by making their communities a better place.
It was refreshing to marinate in some positive ideas with others like myself who have chosen to make Mississippi our home and invest in the state in various ways.
Tray Hairston is a legal counselor and policy adviser for Gov. Phil Bryant and was recently named an MBJ “Top 40 Under 40” honoree.
“We’re at this crossroads,” Hairston said. “We have to address and understand the perceptions we are up against.”
He mentioned a Facebook user who wrote, “People leave Mississippi for thousands of reasons. They are probably all right.’’
Hairston said young people need to see Mississippi as a place of opportunity not a place to escape from. One way to retain and attract them is for Mississippi to push a utilitarian economy that includes technology, film, healthcare, tourism, and creative endeavors.
“About 40 years ago what we call Silicon Valley was full of apple trees,” Mask said. “We need our Silicon Delta. Let’s make sure our educators, mentors, the people that are forming opinions get across the idea that it can be done here.”
The summit wasn’t just another economic development meeting or pep rally. It was both fun and inspiring. There were V-neck T-shirts with Twitter hashtag logos shouting #RethinkMississippi. There was live music. There was crawfish.
But most importantly there was hope. Hope for a new Mississippi borne on the backs of a generation that chose to give it a chance in spite of the put-downs, jokes, bottom-of-the-list statistics and funky weather.
“We’re fertilizing their grass that’s why its greener,” Carmichael said of other states. “Its time to fertilize our own grass. We don’t want to wait till we’re 50 and a torch is passed to us. We’re ready now.”
Meridian has two downtown landmarks. The MSU Riley Center was a historic grand opera house that the community renovated into a fantastic conference center and performance hall that fields star-studded shows by Jewel and Vince Gill.
Across the street is the so-called Three-Foot Building, an abandoned office tower complete with chain link fencing, broken windows, rusty trim, and a seemingly bleak future.
Both buildings are metaphors of our state. With young people behind-the-wheel that have the courage to face the past and the wisdom and grit to navigate the future, we can restore what needs restoring and share one of the South’s best-kept secrets. We can rethink Mississippi.
Young professionals interested in learning more can visit facebook.com/MississippiYoungProfessionals or read the weekly MBJ column “Keeping Our Eye On” which highlights the careers of YPs living throughout Mississippi.