In just five years, Mississippi First has grown into one of the most influential and accomplished policy and advocacy organizations in the state of Mississippi, largely thanks to the efforts of co-founders Rachel Canter (Mississippi ’04) and Sanford Johnson (Mississippi ’03). Native Mississippians and childhood friends, Canter and Sanford Johnson are working to realize the promise in Mississippi First’s name: making Mississippi first instead of last in the nation’s most important markers of education and wellness. In 2013, after years of research and campaigning, Mississippi First proved instrumental in the passage of the Mississippi Charter Schools Act—a charter school law that the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools considers among the strongest in the nation. That same year Mississippi First impacted thousands of young students by creating the framework for the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013—the law that brought state-funded pre-kindergarten to Mississippi for the first time. Mississippi First also convinced more than 30 of the state’s highest-need districts to adopt comprehensive, medically accurate sexual education programs—another first for Mississippi.
Canter earned an undergraduate degree in English and history from the University of Pennsylvania before teaching seventh grade English in Greenville, Miss. In 2008, she earned a master’s degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Johnson earned an undergraduate degree in political science at Auburn University before teaching high school social studies in Clarksdale, Miss., and Helena, Ark. In 2009, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service.