Opinion: Seizing the narrative

Syndicated editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey (left) shakes hands with Mississippi State University professor and Head of the Department of Communications John Forde at the 2018 New Narrative Festival at The Mill on Sunday

I feel like it’s become cliche to say there is more to Mississippi than statistics will let on, because most of the folks living here don’t pay much mind to the data and I don’t blame them.

I concede that our state still has its fair share of social troubles to work through. But amid the tidal forces pushing Mississippi into the future and holding it back in the past, new voices are emerging to tell our story.

The Mississippi State New Narrative Festival over the weekend gathered some of the leading personalities who have become the voice of the state to the outside world.

The voices are many and the story of where Mississippi is today is one to be proud of. But in the heavy digital static of the social media age, the points of pride in this state can easily get overshadowed by the information vacuum of the national news cycle.

Maybe it’s an identity crisis that has taken Mississippi years to overcome, but I think the state is just now finding the voice to tell its story on its own terms in the 21st century.

In the course of two days, those attending the event had the opportunity to hear the stories behind Mississippi’s successes in business, academia, culture, athletics and more.

Syndicated editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey told of making a career by making people laugh and think, while music producer Norbert Putnam discussed his legendary career in music.

It is this ability to craft something wonderful out of life in Mississippi that I think is often overlooked, the result of which leads to an exodus of the state’s best and brightest, primarily because their perception of the narrative they are living in has not been a favorable one.

But that is where Mississippi State has stepped in to help set the record straight.

MSU and the benefactors who made the event possible should be commended for gathering so many of these stories into one event, because it is eye-opening to consider the scope of Mississippi’s impact.

But when stacked up with statistics, the narrative, again, is skewed.

For example, Mississippi is consistently ranked as one of the worst states for education by big city data firms who do nothing but compile lists.

Am I wrong to say this narrative tends to overlook the contribution to academia from state institutions like MSU and innovative workforce development education from places like East Mississippi Community College?

It seems like MSU is pioneering something new every week and I would know, because we have to write about it.

EMCC also seems miles ahead of other institutions in how it continually finds new ways to marry formal education with professional development for local businesses.

Attendees also got to hear the story of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library on the MSU campus. It’s a distinction only Starkville, Mississippi can claim and one that will help to change the perception of academia in the state for years to come. Scholars will come from all around to visit the library and the Lincoln collection, and there’s no telling what else they may stay and do, just because Mississippi lured them here.

In athletics, Mississippi may not be next in line to host the Super Bowl, but in the Golden Triangle alone, we have a SEC institution whose teams consistently play on national television and a wildly-successful junior college football program turned into the subject of a Netflix series.

These stories, told by the personalities that lived them, underscore the grit and determination of the people that live here.

A common thread speaks to me from all of these stories, which is the humility and willingness to be overlooked at times, but a tenacity to do something about it. That’s Mississippi.

The athletic accomplishments at Mississippi State and EMCC are uniquely southern in what they are doing for the state. It’s showing Mississippi is a competitor.

I know it is just a game, but in 50 years, who are we more likely to remember: a football coach that won a handful of national championship rings or a politician who said something appalling?

In my home state of Alabama, the legacy of Bear Bryant outlasted many-a volatile policymaker. I’m not saying athletics is the most important thing, but one can’t deny how our identities are shaped by it and what it does for our own personal narratives.

We have an ocean of stories to tell in Mississippi, but those voices can easily be taken for granted in a world where news moves so fast. It is important we turn inward and look to build up our successes, instead of laboring under the false narrative that the rest of the world is passing us by.

The state’s identity has evolved into an even more complex form and we must work now to take control of our own narrative, with the hope that we will thrive in our own southern way and broadcast to the world that Mississippi is ready for the future.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newspaper or its staff.