By Sarah Allin, MPP ‘15
Mississippi and the Deep South have been on the minds of many Americans as we remember key moments in the Civil Rights Movement. The 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer, the Freedom Rides, and Selma in recent years lifted up the powerful history of the region and focused attention on how it has changed during the last half century.
In January, twenty students from across Harvard’s graduate programs traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to immerse themselves in the region’s persistent challenges in education, health, and racial justice.
Having lived in Jackson before coming to the Kennedy School, I know that these challenges are very real for Mississippi’s leaders and people. One in three Mississippi children grow up in the stress of poverty, while only one in five adults has a college degree. Seventeen percent of residents did not have health insurance in 2013.
The obstacles Mississippi faces are very visible. Less visible are the bright, persistent, and innovative leaders in the state that are tackling these issues day after day after day. Our trip, funded by the Center for Public Leadership, focused on getting to know these leaders and their strategies for raising the quality of life for all Mississippi residents.
We spent our time meeting with HKS alumni like Rachel Hicks Canter (TK ‘TK), founder of Mississippi First. Rachel walked us through her team’s efforts to bring pre-kindergarten, charter schools, and comprehensive sex education to the state. Babak Mostaghimi (TK ‘TK) taught the group about koolicles (think Kool-Aid + pickles), raising chickens and, most importantly, organizing communities of parents to bring about education reform in the Mississippi Delta.
We met with the state’s NAACP chapter president, a MacArthur Fellow, and a St. Patrick’s Day Parade founder. We ate breakfast with local pastors and drank coffee with the Director of the Mississippi Division of Medicaid. The twenty students who traveled with us tolerated our insistence that they try pig ear sandwiches and went back for second helpings of fried chicken and okra from Two Sister’s Kitchen.
Students shared powerful reflections from our week:
“The first day in Mississippi someone told me, ‘Nothing will ever change unless someone steps up to change it.’ How true that is. I admired the people I met, and I will remember their commitment to change across their different fields. I hope to emulate their passion for the work they do in my own work, and I thank them for that gift.”
– Fatema Dariani, M.Ed. ‘15
“Again and again, we heard about the importance of storytelling – figuring out how to frame facts in a way that is understandable and relatable within a given cultural or political context. This is a critical lesson for anyone’s work – particularly my own work on climate change. I’m grateful that the leaders we met with this week that highlighted this issue.”
– Carolyn DuPont, MPA/MBA ‘16
“Mississippi is a place of hope, inspiration, and mystery. There is so much potential to make change.”
– May Samali, MPP ‘16
May Samali’s reflection – “There is so much potential to make change” – is the reason that my husband and I plan to return to Jackson and build our lives there. Few of us get the opportunity to spend a week learning from the leaders in our own communities, hearing their successes and failures and their vision for a better future. Through this trip, I was lucky enough to have that experience. And it left me feeling more confident than ever that greater prosperity is possible in our Jackson community and in the state overall. I have the Center for Public Leadership and the students that traveled with us to thank for that.