I vividly remember ripping off my hat and gown and tossing them into a big, open truck outside the Mississippi State coliseum in 1983. It was hot as hell, and I was wearing shorts underneath unlike most of the women around me who had dresses, stockings and even high heels under their gowns. As the heavy cloth went hurling up into the air, I remember thinking that I was free at last.
I was leaving this state the next day for more exciting pastures, and I was never, ever living here again. Ever.
I craved excitement. I craved social diversity. I craved progressive thought. I craved non-conformity instead of the blind devotion to outdated ideas, especially about women and race, that I had grown up around.
So I took my passion, my determination, my intellectual curiosity, my open mind, and I left the state. I didn't leave because I despised my state; I left it because I believed it had contempt for me. I didn't choose to become a quiet wife who deferred to my husband's political beliefs (conservative, of course), turned my back on racism around me, moved to the suburbs to get away from "those people" and condemned those who made different choices from me, religious and otherwise.
Those stereotypes weren't me, and my state (or its loudest mouthpieces) had told me that I didn't belong here. So I became part of the brain drain of creative and intelligent young people who left the state looking for what we didn't think we could have here.
We were wrong, of course. There are many, many people who defy every stereotype of Mississippians, and women, that I listed above. This state is filled with progressives—the majority if they'd all vote—and people who stayed to defy the status quo and made a difference in real lives and attitudes here, even as I was running around up north and out west looking for my place in the world.
My place was here, and I say prayers of gratitude constantly that I finally figured it out when I was 40 and came on back home to be a part of a very exciting community—a movement, really—in my own state.
My favorite part of being back, and of putting out this paper, is meeting and working with all the young people who decided not to leave, or who came back quickly to their state, or their city. These young, influential people are changing our city and our state—they are finding each other, they are networking, they are investing, they are creating, they are toasting each other, they are developing, they are brainstorming. They don't all agree politically, but they are all progressive—meaning they believe in making progress, building coalitions, defying the odds, bucking the stereotypes about our city and our state.
I love them.
We started our annual "Young Influentials" issue soon after we launched the JFP in 2002. In fact, we came up with this JFP idea in the first place because we started meeting so many of them soon after moving back here. They had spirit, they had passion, they had ideas—but they needed a forum to talk about their excitement, and they needed networking opportunities. We started Lounge gatherings in the city before we started the paper. We've used the e-mail Lounge List to invite them to get together and meet each other for years now, and to party together, especially at the yearly Best of Jackson party, which is always filled with our best and brightest and most determined. We've now even started a social network so that young influential Jacksonians (meaning anyone with "young influential" ideas) can really interact. (Look for an invitation to join in an e-mail box near you.)
It could be tempting to be cynical about this celebration of "young influentials." In the media world, and business in general, there are constant naked ploys to attract younger consumers. The daily newspaper business is tanking because it can't figure out how to be real enough to keep its audience from graying into oblivion. There is constant industry hand-wringing about the need for "young readers."
But little changes. Media still vilify and stereotype "young" people and their interests, or they do stupid corporate things to try to rope in younger readers, like using the word "stuff" a lot ("you can blog about cool stuff here now!"), run lots of pictures of people drinking martinis, or write about Britney Spears ad nauseum.
That all misses the point, and makes the people they're trying to reach dislike old-guard, corporate businesses even more. It's not as if intelligent, younger people don't know when people just want their money. The "millennial generation" (born 1980 to 2000) is the most marketed-to ever, and the most cynical and astute about it.
That's where the "real" part comes in.
What isn't real is ignoring changing demographics and attitudes among younger people based on real-life challenges like health care and education. When The Clarion-Ledger took two days to understand and report that young people had turned out in record numbers in this year's Democratic primaries, they showed how out of touch they are. When media and businesses don't bother to really cover emerging markets in a substantive way, they show they don't know how to.
I dare say that what the JFP has always done is more authentic than slick marketing (although we do pride ourselves on our guerrilla marketing, thanks to our readers). We started out determined to be a voice of a different Jackson and a different Mississippi—at least different from the stereotypes about us. We started the JFP to promote a place where young people want to stay—not the place that drove me away back in the 1980s. We started it because we met so many Jacksonians in their 20s, of all races, who didn't want to live anywhere else (at least not for long), and who wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They were willing to roll up their sleeves and build a city and state we can all be proud of—not because we deny our past, but because we use it as a building block and inspiration for future greatness.
We could not, and would not, do this newspaper (or the Web site, or the social network, or all the events, etc.) if all of you weren't out there inspiring us every single day. The Jackson Free Press exists because of the incredible people in Mississippi who have energy to face down the odds, to defy stankin-thankin teaching and to join with others unlike them to invest their efforts into our home.
They are young, they are energetic, they are influential ... and they are staying.
Cheers to them all.
Thank you, Donna! You are so on target. So So So on target. Jackie T.
Thank ya, girlfriend!