To Build a ‘Creative Economy,’ Fund Education | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

To Build a ‘Creative Economy,’ Fund Education


Amber Helsel

I started thinking a lot about the "creative economy" when we started our coverage of the 2014 TEDxJackson event. The whole idea behind Jackson's first TEDx event was big ideas, and many of them were incredible.

The big focus was the creativity and innovation in the state. It featured speakers such as Kermit the Frog and Kristi Henderson, who is the University of Mississippi Medical Center's chief telehealth and innovation officer. Some of the ideas included teaching kids about computer coding, the importance of creating a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city and the benefit of city-wide WiFi.

Of course, after all the fuss over that event, there was one question I and probably many others had: What now?

What happens to all these big ideas after people get on a stage and tell you why they should be part of reality? How do we make them happen so they don't just dissipate into thin air?

Near the end of 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant declared 2014 the "Year of the Creative Economy," a 12-month celebration of creative jobs that have propelled Mississippi's economy forward. So what exactly does a creative economy look like?

While it includes areas such as art, culinary arts, architecture and design—jobs that are part of a creative enterprise—it also includes creative jobs in sectors of the economy that aren't creative enterprises such as printing, media and construction, and even jobs like painting cars.

The Mississippi Creative Economy's executive summary says that in 2008, 9,580 creative workers worked in creative enterprises, 20,420 creative workers were employed in non-creative enterprises, and 30,704 non-creative workers worked in creative enterprises.

That's a total of 60,704 people employed in Mississippi's creative economy.

That same year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Health Resources and Services Administration estimated Mississippi's population to be 2,918,785. From 2009 to 2013, 22.7 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. In that time frame, the average income was $39,031, $14,015 below the national median.

While it does suck to have to talk about how we rank at the top of bad lists (though we have improved in a lot of areas) and the bottom of good lists, we have to talk about those areas, especially when you start talking about a creative economy.

Initiative 42 goes on the ballot this November, and Republican legislators, including Gov. Bryant, who heralded the idea of "Year of the Creative Economy," seem hell-bent to make sure it doesn't pass. But if you want to base a major part of the economy on creative industries, here's the problem with not passing legislation to fully fund education: If you don't fund public schools, those districts have to start cutting programs. And what classes are often among the first to go? Arts. Music. Culinary arts. The very classes that can create a base for a creative economy are under-funded in our state. That's not to blame public schools. They do what they can with they have, though they are not perfect entities.

What could happen if you don't expose kids to creative subjects? They may never realize their full potential. Some start getting into trouble because they don't have an outlet. They may drop out. They may end up living below the poverty line, and the cycle continues.

Creativity cannot fix every problem in life—but creative problem-solving is vital. So is the act of creation itself.

I've heard so many stories of kids who were getting into trouble and then were introduced to art, and guess what? They turned their lives around. Art, writing and other creative pursuits can be a therapeutic outlet for everyone. When I'm feeling particularly down, I listen to music, or I write, or I make art. I'm not great at art, but the fact that I can take something and make it beautiful (or at least fun) helps me out a great deal. If I'm particularly angry, I like to go and throw paint on a canvas.

It's crazy to me that legislators think in such a limited, illogical way. They want a creative economy, but they won't fund something that can help further it.

No, it may not help immediately, but in the long run, those kids who were exposed to art and creative pursuits will likely graduate from high school and then from college. They come back to Mississippi, or even stay in the first place, and they open up studios and community organizations. They mentor, they inspire, they lead. They help further others along on their paths.

That's what I like about the Jackson creative community. The city seems to have everything going against it. Funding. Education. Infrastructure. Negative perceptions. But the community looks past all of that and says, "We're going to help Jackson anyway." Creatives stay. They come back. They open studios. They start and volunteer for nonprofits. They see the neighborhoods that are falling apart, and they try to help those communities. They help expose kids in those neighborhoods to things they never thought possible.

To me, the key to bringing Mississippi off the bottom and to the top of any list begins with education. Only after you address that can you really begin to focus on the big ideas.

This year's TEDx Jackson centers around the idea of "moonshot ideas," meaning those that could have a significant and lasting positive impact on the state. The theme of the event is "liftoff." The website says the event will focus on Mississippi's contribution to space exploration and how to help the state improve its quality of life and opportunities.

Currently, TEDx Jackson is accepting applications, so the speakers have not been announced. Last year was inspiring and made me think about topics I had never addressed before. But my biggest hope is that last year's TEDx Jackson and the 2015 event don't just become a place where you can tell people your ideas, but no one ever does anything with them.

The only way we're ever going to have a creative economy is if we find solutions, especially creative ones, to help figure out some of those issues and make big ideas come to life. After all of that is said and done, we can talk about this idea of a creative economy.

Let's not let those big ideas go to waste.

Assistant Editor Amber Helsel received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi in 2011. She's not-so-secretly a superhero in training. Email her feature story ideas at [email protected].

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