'Believe It': Proud Mississippians Shun Stereotypes Mississippi has long been associated with a history of racial clashes and economic disparities. Three residents of the state, including Rick Looser, creator of the "Mississippi, Believe It" campaign, explain their frustration with age-old stereotypes and why they're proud to call Mississippi home.
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'Believe It': Proud Mississippians Shun Stereotypes

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'Believe It': Proud Mississippians Shun Stereotypes

'Believe It': Proud Mississippians Shun Stereotypes

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MARTIN: As we've mentioned, Mississippi holds its primary tomorrow. The state is getting more attention than usual. But we thought we'd spend a moment thinking more broadly about what it means to be from Mississippi. Let's just admit it. We've all heard the jokes. Maybe we've even told one our two. Visit Mississippi so you can feel better about your own state. I don't think it's a secret that some people still see Mississippi as almost a metaphor for lightly educated, racially divided and overrun with good old boys. But joining us today are Mississippians who want to both acknowledge their state's troubled past and also its accomplishments.

They are Mississippi and proud of it. From Mississippi Education Television in Jackson, we have Rick Looser. He's co-owner of Cirlot Ad Agency. Derrick Johnson, state president of the Mississippi NAACP. I think he's with us on the phone. And Janelle Jefferson, she's a student advisor at Jackson State University and an alumna. And we're please to have you all of us here with us today. Thank you so much.

Ms. JANELLE JEFFERSON (Student Advisor, Jackson State University): Good morning.

Mr. RICK LOOSER (Cirlot Ad Agency): Thank you.

Mr. DERRICK JOHNSON (State President, Mississippi NAACP): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now Rick if we could start with you and your ad campaign. I think a lot of people have seen these ads by now, Mississippi, Believe It! One of the ads caught our eye. Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write. And you've got pictures of some of the state's prominent - very prominent writers, both very famous names and some contemporary names. Kind of in your face. What made you want to do this campaign?

Mr. LOOSER: Well, it's what I call the look, where you travel pretty much north of Memphis and somebody asks, where are you from? And you say Mississippi, and they go, oh. And it is that kind of oh, you poor thing, or oh I'm sorry you can't get out. But it's somehow that I don't have a choice about where I live, and it's just kind of acknowledging the 800 pound gorilla in the room, which is kind of the joke you alluded to in the beginning, is that we tend to be first on every bad list and last on ever good list. And we just wanted - the rest of the country to see another side of Mississippi.

MARTIN: What kind of reaction are you getting?

Mr. LOOSER: Well, the reaction's been quite, frankly, overwhelming. We've had everything from New York Times, who sent a writer down here for a week. This time last year, we had a segment on "The Today Show." So we've generated probably about $20 million worth of positive publicity for the state of Mississippi. And, again, this was all done and it continues to be done pro bono. Nobody's paying our ad agency to do any of this. This is just something we wanted to do.

MARTIN: Derrick Johnson, give us your take on this. On the one hand, you're obviously working in service to the state as head of the state's NAACP. But obviously, that also implies that you think that there's work yet left to be done. When you think about being a Mississippian, what do you feel? Do you feel - what? Pride? What is it, mainly?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think Mississippi has come a long way, African—Americans specifically, the constituency base in which I represent and work with, have achieved a lot in the state of Mississippi. Perhaps more progress has been made in this state before it was made in most other states in the country. However, there's still a lot of work to be done. You know, referring to the ad agency campaign, you look - you know, you have the one ad talking about the accomplished writers in the state, but yet Mississippi still has the poorest education - public education system in the country. There's a battle every year to get it fully funded.

We talk about the accomplishments of athletes in the state. However, historically black colleges are grossly under funded. The athletic programs are grossly under funded. Their academic programs are grossly under funded. We have more black elected officials than any other state, a tremendous accomplishment. But that only happened as African—Americans are speaking up and fighting to create opportunities for that to happen. And even though we have more black elected officials than any other state, there's always attempts to undermine the efforts of African—Americans from casting an effective ballot to elect candidates of their choice. So where we've come a long way, we still have a lot of work to do.

MARTIN: Janelle, one of the things that some of the states, many states have experienced is a brain drain. Once people get their college educations they leave for greener pastures elsewhere. You've elected to stay in Mississippi. Why is that?

Ms. JEFFERSON: I can say that I'm a Mississippi girl born and raised. I love the South. I'm just - I was so fortunate to — I received a public education you know, from the state of Mississippi as well as my higher education and just my pride. I had the opportunity to leave. My husband and I, we're both Mississippi students and, you know, we decided to stay here, you know, to show that hey, we're here. We love it. You know, it's no better place to be as far as the opportunities right now that we're being afforded. You know, I can just say that the community, you know, that I live in, as well as the community that I grew up in, I get the support base. You're nurtured, you know…

MARTIN: And speaking of nurturing, I think we hear your 19 month old in the background. So we're happy. But I think part of, though, what I think you were telling us earlier, is that you think it's a very family-oriented environment. It's a great place to raise a family.

Ms. JEFFERSON: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. JEFFERSON: Like I was just saying before, you know, the community, we still have, you know, neighbors where you can go out and say, okay, hey neighbor, can I borrow a cup of sugar? You know, I think that you know, that is still important to a lot of people. And I do know for a fact a lot of my friends who are from other states, once they come here, you know, they feel the camaraderie, you know, and then they're very hesitant to leave. So, you know, people I went to college with, you know, end up coming back here to raise their families because of the community that we have and that we share with each other. You can't beat Southern hospitality, and Mississippi is full of it.

MARTIN: Okay. We're going to pause here for a short break. But when we come back, we're going to continue our discussion about being Mississippi and proud. We're also going to hear about how one man is trying to battle North Korea's notorious bureaucracy to bring relief to tuberculosis sufferers in North Korea. That's all next on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In just a few minutes, fighting tuberculosis in one of the world's most closed countries. That's a little later. But first, we're going to continue with our guests from Mississippi who are talking about overcoming stigma of racial hatred attached to the state and the state's reputation and working to foster a new legacy. With us are Rick Looser, co-owner of Cirlot Ad Agency, Derrick Johnson, state president of the Mississippi NAACP, and Janelle Jefferson, a student advisor at Jackson State University. Rick, I understand you actually grew up in Alabama.

Mr. LOOSER: I did. I lived there until I was 27 years old, and love brought me to Mississippi.

MARTIN: So you've, you've fallen love not just with, I assume, your partner, but with your state. So what is it that you think still needs to happen to make people see Mississippi in a new light?

Mr. LOOSER: Well, I think Mississippi - don't get me wrong, I've said over and over that we're are our own worse enemy, and that these stereotypes just didn't appear out of nowhere. I think we've done a lot of work to hopefully get rid of some of the stereotypes. But really, until you get to know us, you can't really know where we are today. Hurricane Katrina did a lot towards that - terrible disaster, but one of the best PR things that ever happened to Mississippi in that people from all over the country who would never have come to Mississippi, actually came to help out, and they learned about the people. They learned about the things that are going on here today, and are now back in their communities all over the country, telling - hopefully - what I think is a different story about how Mississippians think and how we are.

MARTIN: Derrick, you wanted to make the point that all is still not well, that you feel that the state still sort of suffers some of the educational inadequacies. You still feel that sort of the political system doesn't fully, as I hear you say it, recognize the contributions of everyone equally. What do you think needs to happen to change things?

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, Mississippi is a story of contradictions and ironies. I mean, the people are great. The policies that politicians advance are not always equitable. We could talk about Katrina. We have probably the highest, the most volunteers, both from in state and out state, that come and help and assist. And it was a beautiful thing if you went out to Mississippi Gulf Coast. But at the same time, we're close to $5.1 billion that was appropriated by the federal government for the recovery efforts. Home renters were completely left out of the governor's plan. Low income workers were virtually left out of government's plan.

So here we are over two-and-a-half years after the Katrina hurricane, and individuals who were most vulnerable before the hurricane, working every day, have not received any support to recover.

MARTIN: I understand. I understand. I understand where you're coming from, but I'd like to ask you what you think needs to happen for it to change some of the dynamics that you're talking about.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right, well, I was getting to that. But the unfortunate part is, when we begin to tap only the positive and don't deal with the with the current day realities, then we will brush over what currently exists as problems, so people will be lulled to sleep thinking that everything is okay. So we have to talk about the good stories, but we also must recognize that there's still much work to be done.

MARTIN: What happens when you travel and you tell people you're from Mississippi? What reaction do you get, and how do you feel about it, Derrick?

Mr. JOHNSON: I get both reactions. I get both negative and positive, and if it's overly negative I say, well you know, slow down. You know, Mississippi is better off than Washington, D.C. in many ways for African—Americans.

MARTIN: Now hold on. Hold on. Step light now. We're Washington, okay, but…

Mr. JOHNSON: Well at the same time I also say that we're still working to get better. So it's a balance discussion that we always must have.

MARTIN: Okay. Janelle what do you see in your future? Do you see yourself here? You are a member of a young family and opportunities ahead. What do you see in your future? Do you see yourself staying in Mississippi? And if so, why? And what would you say to those who would say look, girl, you know, you need to go where the grass is greener. What would you tell them?

Ms. JEFFERSON: Well, I will stay that, you know, our grass is pretty green right now as far as my economic future is concerned here in the state. I believe that what I'm doing, what I love to do, you know, in working in the university, in Jackson State University, I'm just, I believe that I will be able to succeed a little bit better here. You know, we, of course, my husband and I, we talked about you know, moving and, you know, looking at some other places. But when we both sit down and look at you know, a lot of the factors including cost of living and you know, I believe we can be here and do you know, pretty well for ourselves. And right now, you know, we don't really know what the future holds. If we do leave, you know, I'm definitely - you know, we're coming back, you know, to live. But I don't see right now in our future, we won't be going anywhere just because of the opportunities that, you know, that I've been afforded. I believe we're doing pretty good right here.

MARTIN: I don't know whether you even care what other people think, but if you've ever had the reaction that Derrick's reported, that Rick has reported where people go oh, you're from Mississippi. You know, do you all have shoes down there? That kind of thing. How do you respond to that?

Ms. JEFFERSON: Yes, somebody asked me one time, you know, do you have paved roads? Is it 100 degrees in the shade? You know, and I can only, you know, I'm - like I said, a strong advocate. Of course, you know, I agree with Derrick that, you know, we must recognize our, you know, our past, our history and our mistakes in order to rectify them. But, you know, we are moving forward, and like, you know, if you're not from here, you haven't been here, then you're ignorant to the fact, you know, of the things that we have going on here, the positive things as well as you know, the negative things, just like any other place in the United States.

So just because we have this stigma attached to us, you know, I don't always agree with the way people, you know, portray Mississippi in movies with the dirt roads, and, you know, like we don't have civilization here. But, you know, I could just say, you know, that I am proud of where I'm from and I know that we have a long ways to go. But, you know, I just - it's important for me to you know, instill pride in my son, let him know, you know, don't let anybody tell you that, you know, that because you're from Mississippi that you're slow, or you're from - or you're this or you're that.

MARTIN: I understand. All right. Well, thanks. Rick Looser, finally, I understand that you have a new series of ads. Can you give us a sneak peak, little preview?

Mr. LOOSER: Yes. Yes, we actually are highlighting a couple new things. One where we've highlighted in the past, being poor and being - not having the best education system is kind of a - it is a victim of circumstance for some people, but we also see what is a decision of the heart is how much we give. And Mississippi, for eight out of the last 10 years, have given more than any other state, based on our income, to charitable causes.

And so one of the ads will actually highlight that. And Ms. Osceola McCarthy who is now deceased, but a washerwoman from Hattiesburg who saved up nickels and dimes, over $150,000, who funded a scholarship for those who can't afford to go to college. So that's one of the new ads that will actually be debuting here in the next couple of weeks, along with another three or four.

MARTIN: And where will we see them? Where can we see them?

Mr. LOOSER: Well you'll actually see them on our Web site, Mississippibelieveit.com, and then I imagine there will be, if the past is any indication, then there'll be a number of news stories that feature those ads and feature the continuing story on our effort to change the hearts and minds of the rest of the country about Mississippi.

MARTIN: Ah, the coveted free media. All right.

Mr. LOOSER: That's right. You better believe it. That's our whole budget, is free media. So it better do that.

MARTIN: All right, Rick Looser is co-owner of Cirlot Ad Agency. He's the brains behind the Mississippi, Believe It! ad campaign. He joined us from Mississippi Educational Television. We were also joined by Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP and Janelle Jefferson, an advisor at Jackson State University. They were on the phone. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. JEFFERSON: Thank you.

Mr. LOOSER: Thank you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you Michel.

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