Several years ago, I started calling them Jackson Warriors. It was a take on the "urban warriors" I had heard people talk about in other cities. But until I moved back to Mississippi, after 18 years in exile, to a city 90 miles from where I grew up, I never knew what being a part of a passionate urban renaissance movement was really about.
Sure, I'd lived in New York City, both in the then-gritty East Village and then later on the tamer Upper West Side to be close to my graduate school. I loved New York then, and I still do. I discovered my calling in the East Village: hyper-local journalism as a forum for a community to make itself stronger.
Ironically, it took living in New York for me to fully appreciate being part of a smaller village. It was the first time I really got to know such a diversity of neighbors—from homeless people to police captains to famous musicians. I became part of a larger effort, then largely focused on the poverty of the Reagan '80s, when it really became chic to bash the American poor. National policies had led to rampant homelessness. It was also a time of violent gay bashing in Manhattan, with night riders coming from other boroughs to beat up gays and lesbians. (I couldn't help but recall that era when Rankin thugs came to Jackson to murder James Craig Anderson, who was black and gay.)
But here's the thing: New York City didn't need someone like me. Sure, I could've climbed the ladder to success in a corporate newspaper or magazine or other media outlet. I did that a little. But in New York, I was often, and still am, the most "conservative" person in a room where people often are way too smug about problems elsewhere.
I'll never forget how it felt to even consider coming back to Mississippi to live. It started out as a joke. I was about to graduate from Columbia, our rent was crazy high, and I had rediscovered Mississippi—and Jackson—when I came home to do my master's project on race relations. I thought I was moving back to write about the Mississippi of the past. If you had told me that barely a year after that, Todd and I would start a local newspaper here focusing as much on the present and the future as the past, I wouldn't have believed it. But that is what happened.
Why it happened is relevant to this insider's guide to Jackson. It's simple really: As soon as I started coming back to Jackson to interview people for my project, I was immediately drawn to a city with such remarkable people—phenomenal insiders, you could call them. Many of them had never lived outside Mississippi or they had left and come back. Some left deliberately to get an education and a wider frame of reference that they could bring home and use for the common good in their work and lives here.
For others, as in my case, the homing device suddenly went off, bringing us back to the place that had shaped us, the land where our families are buried and where we've shed so many tears on behalf of our state.
I found myself envying these insiders. They were all clearly driven to invest in their city and their state, to use their lives to make their home the best it can possibly be. Friends, this is when the phrase "Jackson Warrior" first came to me, 11 years ago when I was meeting so many of them on my journey back where I belonged.
These insiders knew the secret to a full life: They chose to live somewhere where they can make a difference every day just by showing up, embracing diversity, taking action. This was so real that it almost hurt to think about. And, of course, the humor, hospitality and quirky characters here cannot be matched anywhere. We all know that.
I also thought I was returning to Mississippi to live a romantically slower lifestyle than I had up north. I envisioned myself holed up writing books about the past and traveling a lot with Todd.
Ha! The simple truth is that my life has never been more fast-paced, interesting, dynamic, creative, packed and meaningful than it is right here in Jackson, Miss.
With due respect to the state's other towns and suburbs, Jackson is different because it is a real city. We have an enviable tossed-salad population: people with different experiences who are used to living in a challenged city together, fighting the good fight as a village, watching each other's backs and delighting in the wonders of life here. Jackson Warriors love our diversity. The reason we wanted to start this paper was to give a disparate readership a tool with which to find each other and to support each other's arts, local businesses, and efforts do good things for each other and our city and state.
Not long after starting the JFP, I read the results of a study about Jackson's creative potential. The authors called Jackson a "sleeping giant" and a potential creative powerhouse—if our citizenry would start believing in our potential and bridge our gaps. That possibility was exactly what we started to see when we moved here in June 2001. People needed to connect with each other, especially across socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. Many people were cynical about living here, especially young people who, as I had done, couldn't wait to get out of the state. But much of this "brain drain" problem was because these young people didn't have a way to be connected to a larger creative community that believed in progress, and who weren't mired in past negativity.
Thus, the Jackson Free Press and later BOOM Jackson magazine were born. Our publications unapologetically exist to help this city, and the state it leads, become a place where young people want to stay or move to, not run from. The Jackson Warriors were already here, and we wanted them to know each other and grow their ranks, increasing local creativity and gumption to stare down the naysayers and do remarkable things.
And it's happening. Nearly every day, I talk to someone who grew up in the country or in the suburbs and were told never to go into Jackson. And every time someone tells me that, it is with a bewildered look on their face because they now realize how absurd a notion it was and what they missed. Usually, it's one of those urban warriors who are busy as a local entrepreneur or dedicated artist or person of faith improving our city daily by blessing us with their gifts and passion.
Some folks might belittle them and call them crazy because they're so dedicated to Jackson's future. But these are the very insiders that this issue, and every copy of the JFP and BOOM, are dedicated to.
These warriors are everywhere, even in the suburbs, and they were here long before our U-Haul pulled into town.
Insiders, we salute you. Thanks for everything you do to increase your numbers, help our local businesses win the daily battle, and ensure that Jackson will long be a rockin' place to live and work. And to others: Please join our fight. It's a heap of fun.
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