A mid-September sun is rising over Jackson as I write this. So much comes to mind about the past several months- new staff members added, a new campaign launched on food security, disaster response trainings in Texas and Puerto Rico- that it can be hard to find the through-line for it all. And that is the challenge: how do you encapsulate the vision of an organization whose work spreads across so many aspects of peoples’ lives?
Last month our staff traveled to Montgomery, Alabama for a retreat where we took stock on our 15th anniversary. Before sitting down to our own work, we toured the extraordinary Legacy Museum and Memorial created by Equal Justice Initiative to bring people face to face with the history of enslavement to mass incarceration in the United States. Like Mississippi’s new Civil Rights Museum, the Legacy Museum effectively draws people in with historical newsreels, interactive explorations, and unique displays to bring to life a searing phase of American history. A short distance away, we walked through the Memorial for Peace and Justice where sculpture, inscriptions from writers, and over 800 steel monuments provide a powerful setting to reflect on racial terror in America.
Some of our staff comments were “Overwhelming… outstanding… profoundly re-energizing…ideologically rehabilitating… amazing job of personalizing the stories into real peoples’ experiences… courageous to have this memorial out in public in the middle of Montgomery, a bold statement - ‘this is America too,’ I admire that… once I got in, I understood why they have security in the place. … I looked for our counties, and saw what had happened, and it brought tears to my eyes… we’re doing things to stop this history from repeating … we used the map to see which county in Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings… I’m from Leflore County but I had never heard of the Leflore County massacre.”
As we turned to reflect upon our own work, the reminders of this history helped to sharpen our insight into the distinct qualities of Mississippi Center for Justice. We understood more deeply what is at stake in our commitment to advance racial and economic justice in our state. We recognized how we have made the most of what we have had over the past 15 years. We saw how collaboration with volunteers and partners has strengthened our efforts. We reflected on how our inclusive homegrown platform is necessary to attract and keep talented public interest advocates in our state. As fresh challenges have arisen, we realized how valuable our flexibility has been to seize opportunities.
When I am pressed to distill what we do into something short, I say that so many Mississipians whom we serve have multiple legal maladies, and it does no good to treat only one set of symptoms. A stable home, decent food, access to health care and fair credit, are all vital to a child’s success in school and to the parents’ success in the workplace. We have to eliminate racial disparities across all these areas if Mississippi is to realize its true potential.
I sense a fresh optimism at our organization as we celebrate our 15th anniversary. We are finding ways to grown our teams and offer more types of support and advocacy to more parts of the state. As always, however, the need dramatically outstrips our capacity. In Mississippi there is one-quarter of a lawyer per 10,000 legal aid eligible Mississippians, compared to 23 lawyers per 10,000 Mississippians generally. Thus, we depend for success upon volunteer pro bono support from attorneys in Mississippi and across the nation.
If you would like to learn more about ways in which you could partner with us to advance racial and economic justice in Mississippi, please contact our advocacy director, Beth Orlansky at email@example.com.
Reilly Morse is the President and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice.