I surprised no one more than myself when I flippantly wrote a prediction of where I'd be in 10 years for the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's 2000-2001 yearbook: "At some southern state university helping non-Ivy journalism students, especially African Americans, figure out how to infiltrate the media elite."
Wait ... what? Up until I decided to get a mid-career master's degree, I had no idea that I would ever return to Mississippi to live, much less be focused on helping young southerners infiltrate the elite of anything. Most of you know I had run from the South the day after graduating from State, thinking I would only return for holiday dinner.
But graduate school in the Ivy League did something unexpected to me: It brought all the pieces of my past together into a puzzle I wanted to complete, in no small part due to frustration with elitism and out-of-touch journalists who had no real sense of what the South and Middle America were like or even that very smart people are born and grow up here, many of whom never leave.
With my self-designed "social-justice journalism" studies at Columbia—focusing on the rights and potential of children, especially non-whites, by drawing on great minds in Columbia Law School, Teachers College, the Institute for Research in African American Studies and the j-school—I brought myself back full circle to what I now realize is the driving force of my life and work.
I want young Mississippians to have a shot at their full potential—and not have to leave their own damn state to do it. Our history may have stunted our growth as a state, but this riddle is solved from within, by our people pursuing our passions, thinking big, striving to learn, and using the knowledge to lift our state and each other up.
If we all have a purpose in life, pre-ordained or not, this one is mine. I'm sick of brain drain; tired of young people growing up believing they must leave if they don't conform with meanness and prejudice; and worn slap out over non-Mississippians assuming the worst about us, while knowing full well that this state's residents are responsible for what others think of us. We can change that reputation, but first we must focus hard on our state and its educational opportunities, not to mention our personal desires to learn and keep growing.
We must believe in ourselves and our potential, and that of our neighbors. But I don't know a Mississippian who denies that most of us share a sort of inferiority complex. It's not hard to figure out why, but my quest is to help myself and others overcome it.
That inherited self-esteem problem hit me between the eyes at Columbia. I was nearly 40 and already an outspoken writer and journalist. But among so many students who seemed to grow up knowing how to speak up and out confidently, and to walk up to remarkable speakers like Henry Louis Gates and Jimmy Breslin and ask for career advice, I was suddenly tongue-tied. I may be known for being outspoken and confident these days—and I am—but I spent agonizing time at Columbia watching, listening and thinking about my upbringing.
You see, as the child of uneducated, blue-collar parents, I wasn't taught the same "soft skills" as many of my fellow students. It hit me hard to see how, despite my writing talent and thinking ability, my confidence could dwindle and shrivel in the "nursery school of the media elite," as I heard Randall Rothenberg call it one time in my opinion-writing class (taught by the great Victor Navasky, who quietly taught me much).
At first, I struggled with whether I was "good enough" to be there. I even saw a therapist for the first and only (so far) time in my life—she was an art therapist with an apartment filled with amazing paintings, and she just listened as I finally faced my destiny.
Sitting in her Upper West Side home office, I started to see what my life just might be about: coming home and doing my part, bringing what I had learned. Challenging fellow southerners to energetic greatness, sharing and teasing out huge ideas. And, most vitally, trying to catch our young people soon enough to help them believe in themselves and our state's potential, before they ran, leaving Mississippi without their brilliance. Or stayed behind, mired in self-doubt.
I write now about that quiet, deep-listening therapist publicly for the first time because, I'm guessing, getting a Kellogg Foundation leadership fellowship is opening me up to so many truths about myself. The fellowship's strong focus on self-development is forcing me to see that to help "lead" our community to take better care of its vulnerable children requires me giving up, and challenging, more of myself than I ever have. It requires admitting my weaknesses and allowing others to help me strengthen them.
My driving personal goal for starting the JFP (and BOOM Jackson), was to fight the forces that run smart Mississippians off. I simply cannot express how important it is to me that our state become a place where it is expected that we're intelligent, and that we leverage those smarts in loving, compassionate actions that bring progress here and weaken the stranglehold that mean people have had here for a long, long time.
That potential lies in our young people. All of them. Not just those at St. Andrews or Jackson Prep; I'm talking about the remarkable spirits with nimble brains who are hungry for knowledge and inspiration in every Jackson public school, who live on every street in our city and suburbs, who dream of more than many think is possible for young Mississippians. Not a single one of them should believe they must leave to be great and change their world, or that they're lesser due to their family circumstances.
Not a one.
This obsession is why we welcome so many young people to the JFP offices, especially during the summer when they often outnumber the staff. Parents send us middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, and college students find their way here in droves.
The JFP-U experience we give them, in our better moments, is a real-world dose of what life and work are really like. At the JFP, we glorify hard work, and we worship teamwork, which includes helping each other and not getting in each other's way of doing a good job or completing tasks.
I think of my younger self when I see interns, job applicants and even staffers who struggle with the "soft skills" of planning, staying positive rather than complaining, problem solving, good communication and improving their work ethic (all of which I literally work on every day of my life).
In many cases, no one has told them that these soft skills will make or break their careers, or help them stay happy and balanced even in tough times, but I get that not every parent knows these things, either. Mine didn't; neither did many of my teachers.
We owe young people these life lessons as early and as often as we can facilitate them. We also owe it to our state and its future.
Not to mention to ourselves.