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Mississippi rural leaders feel a 'sense of urgency'
By Ned Browning
JACKSON -- Mississippi's predominantly rural communities must respond to a new economy with redoubled educational efforts, according to a just-released report "Mississippi: A Sense of Urgency."
Gov. William Winter and other state leaders discussed the Southern Rural Development Center white paper at the Stennis Institute Capitol Press Luncheon on June 10 in Jackson.
In November 2001, three forums brought together several hundred rural community leaders to react to Mississippi trends described in "The State of the South 2000." The white paper is the result of the discussions generated by these forums.
"The business and civic leaders at these forums sent a clear message that a global, high-tech society won't wait for a Mississippi that allows thousands of its citizens to drop out of the educational system," Winter said.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life and one of the authors, said the report's title says it all.
"This paper's title reflects the single, blunt phrase repeatedly used by forum participants -- 'Mississippi needs a sense of urgency in its search for leadership'," Guillory said.
Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University, said the forum participants stressed the need to prevent old mindsets from developing in younger generations.
"Our government officials and opinion leaders need more and better information on framing the issues faced by rural people in their communities," Beaulieu said. "Our citizens and leaders must view the decisions they make in light of a new economy and new social realities."
He explained that five specific strategies developed from the forums. First, old political, cultural and racial divisions must be removed. Second, the state cannot just exchange low wage farm and factory jobs for low wage retail and service ones. Third, workers and rural communities must be retooled for higher skilled jobs. Fourth, old mindsets that affect the work ethic of Mississippians must be overcome, and fifth, rural leadership must be more inclusive and dynamic.
"The report was excellent, yet held no surprises. It showed the need for a definitive plan of action," said Joe McGilberry, interim MSU Extension Service director. "A coalition is needed to bring significant resources to bear on these long-term problems."
"We can't expect a payback in three to four years," McGilberry said. "We must be willing to invest now and see the benefits for our grandchildren's generation."
Winter said forum participants emphasized that Mississippi must prepare its workforce through education for an improved mix of jobs. The state needs knowledge workers to lift the economy and make opportunities for service workers.
"Mississippi: A Sense of Urgency" highlights the ongoing need for sweeping change addressed in the 1982 Education Reform Act.
The forums were conducted in Hattiesburg, Greenville and Meridian. Dubbed "Mississippi Leaders: Building Tomorrow...Today," the sessions were designed by the Southern Rural Development Center and MDC Inc., a nonprofit research firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Cosponsored by the MidSouth Partnership for Rural Community Colleges, the Stennis Institute and the MSU Extension Service, the forums were financed by the Phil Hardin, Lower Pearl River Valley and Maddox Foundations.
The full report can be found on the World Wide Web at http://srdc.msstate.edu/publications/ms_urgency.pdf.