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What It Means To Put Mississippi First

The Mississippi First team is a group of individuals who work tirelessly to promote the mission of moving our state from bottom of the list to first. Here we profile this amazing alumni organization and ask how far Mississippi has come.

What It Means To Put Mississippi First

By The TFA Editorial Team

May 12, 2017

In a state which has long-appeared last on so many important lists – ranked 50th in nearly every education or health statistic that comes to mind – what does it take to move up to first? For non-profit Mississippi First, it means a full-court press on state-level reform, improving those factors which will change the course of Mississippi’s future from the ground up. It means starting with access to quality pre-K programs for Mississippi’s youngest, equitable and effectual options for their k-12 experience, and comprehensive sex-education by the time they graduate – so that the cycle of illiteracy and inequity doesn’t just stop, but also begins to right itself. It means making assets and allies out of parents, students, educators, and administrators, not just lawmakers and lobbyists.

But the story of Mississippi First started long before its near decade-long fight for this state, which has included such major wins as a state-mandated “abstinence-plus” sex education policy and key legislation bringing charter schools to Mississippi. It started, as one might expect, on a school bus, where elementary-aged Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson first became friends in Starkville, Mississippi. Their formative years in public education marked them as not only lifelong friends but also advocates for the transformative power of the classroom. As to how to get started in this work, that decision was made independently. After graduating from high school and going their separate ways in college, Canter and Johnson learned about Teach For America, made the choice to join the corps, and were placed in Mississippi before ever talking to each other. “It was a decision we made on our own,” Canter says. “But the experience of teaching in the classroom has been invaluable. Not a day goes by that I don’t think from the perspective of the classroom, and that gives us real insight in this work.”

After their commitment, Canter (Delta 04) and Johnson (Delta 03) went on to the Harvard Kennedy School and the Clinton School for Public Service respectively, only to later reunite for the formation of Mississippi First in 2008. Since then, the seed of their childhood friendship has grown into a powerful force for education reform, which approaches the work of policy as an “all-in” project for every Mississippian –  from one end of its continuum, in research and policy-building, to the other, in implementation and improvement. Angela Bass (Delta 08), Mississippi First’s Deputy Director of Policy, is just one example of the organization’s orientation towards building the capacity for leadership and activism in every Mississippian. She first joined the nonprofit as a summer intern before her second year in the corps. “I didn’t know much about policy coming in,” Bass recounts. “I started working on a research project, and when I finished my internship I realized how important it was to improve k-12 education in Mississippi, and how I could be good at this, at helping to get there.” After her corps experience, Bass continued her education in policy work and returned to Mississippi First ready for action. “Building a leadership and talent pipeline for this state has become the most important next step,” Bass says, based on her own experience as well as the untapped potential she sees in Mississippi. “We want to build that up as much as possible, but we need help.”

Josh McCawley (Delta 06), Director of Teen Health Policy, paints a similar picture in terms of improving and standardizing health services and sex education across Mississippi’s disparate districts. Abstinence-plus, though a tremendous step forward for Mississippi’s public education curriculum, is admittedly the first step. The work of building on this momentum, however, “takes going out and talking to people, investing in students with the skills and mobility to inform themselves, their families, their peers,” McCawley says. He and his team are working to build a leadership pipeline within schools, with initiatives such as the Mississippi Youth Council (MYC), a cohort of youth activists who apply to undertake professional development in order to train other activists and develop a health-focused research project which will propose a solution for endemic issues. Courtney McKee, the oldest member of the MYC, describes her membership as pivotal for her career and laments that she didn’t apply sooner. “I never, ever considered going into education,” McKee says, thinking back to her first semesters in college. “My parents, my whole family is in education so I wanted none of it. But now I think maybe I am doing it.” McKee’s experience with the MYC redefined education for her, and gave her the chance to do what she enjoys: “getting into those important offices and talking with people about the tough stuff. It’s what I love to do and I’m only getting better at it.”

Canter, Johnson, Bass, and McCawley – as well as the rest of the growing Mississippi First staff – are always thinking about the future of Mississippi, so when asked where they see their state in three, five, even ten more years, the answers are ready. “Over 60 percent in quality pre-K seats,” answers Bass. “Every student having access to quality health services,” McCawley joins. Canter and Johnson agree: raising the bar for health and education in Mississippi is going to mean continuing to target pre-K services, more and better charter schools for rural and urban areas alike, and diverse, local health training. The target is a moving one – as Johnson puts it, “Policy work is never done.”


As Mississippi First has grown in its near 10-year tenure, so too has its constituents. Johnson and Canter, who met when they were children, now have children of their own. So, as they and their coworkers approach education in our state, they can’t help but measure its effectiveness by asking, “Is this condition good enough for my child?” Like teaching in the Delta, parenting is a pivotal experience that motivates the work that Mississippi First does; but it can become maddening to think in those terms, Johnson explains. “When I think about the quality of pre-K in Mississippi, the standards in our schools, the standards of sex education and so on, compared to what I want our children to know by the time they graduate from high school, what I want to be true for them, it does get frustrating. I almost need to separate that part of myself,” he says. The status of Mississippi – “always last on the list” – is the reality that precipitated this non-profit’s existence, as well as its determinedly hopeful name. If anything, the tenure of Mississippi First proves that education reform is complex, gradual, and requires as much man- and womanpower as they can muster – but they’ve also proved that they’re in for the long haul. Anything to make Mississippi first.