Melvin Priester Jr. is an attorney in Jackson, MS, and serves as a city council representative. Having gone to college in the Northeast, he felt he needed to move back to his hometown to help it. Our conversation covered the challenges facing Jackson and the ways all citizens can address issues nationwide.

What he’s done to contribute:

I have chosen to volunteer a lot of my time and energies to work in government as a city councilman. I spend a lot of time trying to build community. I had a choice to live anywhere in the world, but I chose to live in Mississippi. If we want to strengthen the country, not every liberal person can run to the coasts. I’ve scarficied and worked to make the community better. It’s the small ways that add up.

On living in a “blue dot”:

Jackson always been a little blue dot. It’s really rewarding. It’s harder than being somewhere like San Francisco or New York because people don’t share your same views. But it’s really rewarding when you find people who are fighting the good fight. It’s also really fulfilling because I can see change happening. Things that got done in California or New York are only beginning to happen here. But you’re beginning to see positive change. That’s what is so frightening to me about the current president. I feel like he’s pushing this current divisiveness that we were getting passed in America.

Gender and race in Jackson:

Jackson is 80% African-American in a state that is only 30% African-American. While race is important in the relationship with the state governments, the real issues are classicism, religion, and sexism. We’re so focused on racism and religion, but we just miss the sexism. There’s still a lot of hesitance to having women in charge in professional and political circles. There’s a real shortage of women in positions of power in Mississippi, and that leads us to not advance. That leads us to the assumption that women will take the back seat. It accelerates our brain drain. Places thrive when women thrive, and I don’t think women have been given the full opportunity to succeed here.

He knows some great citizens:

My mother and wife are exemplary citizens. They vote in every election. They help their neighborhood and communities.

The folks that I really think are exemplary citizens are people like Ms. Francis Morris and Dr. Drake, who run neighborhood organizations. They make sure before any one even builds a dog house that it’s good for the whole community. Robert Putnam talks about how these institutions that bring us together are fading away. The people I point to who are really great citizens build neighborhood organizations and block clubs that create block-by-block cohesiveness.

Take Porter Ross. He runs a neighborhood organization in Berwood. It’s not a rich neighborhood. Every month, I as a city councilman and other city leaders are there every month at the Azalea Lane Berwood meeting. Because Mr. Ross makes sure people are there! These people are the ideal citizens, and they’re a throwback.

His thoughts on political division:

The way you phrase the question can create opposite answers, so I don’t trust polling. But I do think that there are more and more people who would say that people of the opposite political party are bad citizens.

There are policies that can make someone a bad citizen. Any policy that tries to prevent someone else other than yourself from fully participating in the democratic process. Things that hurt people’s ability to vote. Things that limit a women’s access to birth control is not good citizenship because it limits her autonomy.

What it means to be an American:

Being an American means sharing certain beliefs, such as a belief in the rights enshrined in the Constitution. There’s not one American mindset. But I do think Americans – even at their worst – have a very optimistic world view. I believe that being an American means you believe in freedom or liberty, even if you disagree with other people’s use of them. There’s a certain pride we have. And rightfully so. No matter what our problems are, I would not want to be a citizen of any other country. I’m proud of and love America, and I think most people feel that way, even when they’re protesting.

His advice to young people who want to get involved:

Vote! Always vote. Even if it’s for the dog catch or the country prosecutor! Never miss an election. The next state and national leader gets their start in those elections.

Get involved in local politics. Get involved in a campaign. Go to city meetings. I think on a local level, you see a lot more positive outcomes and hopefulness.

Be a member of something. Whether it’s the NAACP, ACLU, or a neighborhood association, be involved.

Get off the internet. Stop using Reddit. Delete Facebook. The world gets a lot better when you pull yourself off the internet.

Read more

Holly Smith lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and works for an accounting firm that helps cities manage their finances after disasters. Having traveled all over the country, and having spent her life as a Democrat in a “sea of red,” she believes talking to each other and respect for women are the keys to fixing many of society’s problems.

How she engages as a citizen:

I’m engaged with civics organizations. I have an interest in current events. I try to stay updated on the issues that are affecting our country (so that I sound funny at cocktail parties!). As a government consultant, I need to know. It’s really important to be well-informed. As a millennial, we know that there’s a lot of fake news. We were brought up to be in the know.

What makes living in Jackson interesting:

Jackson is an interesting place. It’s a small blue dot in a sea of red. Engagement, civic engagement, politics are all centered around the church. By definition of the fact that Mississippi is in the Bible Belt, people go to church to get the politics. It’s a lot easier to engage; people can call my husband (a city council representative) and reach him. Because people can access their officials, they’re very engaged.

How we need to be thinking about people across the aisle:

I think, in general, most people are good humans. Whether blue or red, Dem or Republican, people are good. Different cultures and ways of thinking require us to meet people where they are. Most people on both sides of the aisle can’t grasp that or accept that. My mother is a Republican. She’s born in Mississippi and is a church-born Christian. So I know what she’s coming from, who she’s talking to. Just being able to recognize that is important.

How we can achieve that understanding:

Just talking. A lot of people are scared to talk. The thing right now is, “I’m not into politics.” If you voted, if you have an opinion on any subject that depends on voting, you are political. I believe we should have mandatory voting. We should get out of our comfort zone. Go talk to someone who doesn’t look like you or talk like you. And get involved in local politics. All politics are local.

Her thoughts on gender and society:

If women ruled the world, a lot of the problems would be solved. With the national conversation shifting to women and this role they have always been expected to play, the conversation is changing. I talked to someone else earlier today and said, you can’t be what you can’t see. Until we see more women in the elected ranks and important roles, we won’t see change. We are conditioned to see deputy roles as the roles for us (as women). Sexism in the South is a product of religion. It’s truly still taught every Sunday that women serve their husbands. Women can’t be preachers or leaders. There are churches where women can’t speak, let alone lead.

I’m also a true believer that the oppressed cannot bring themselves out of their situation; the oppressor must. Women can’t change their situations themselves. At some point, people will get tone-deaf to women being in the streets. Men need to say this is an issue and we need to fix it. Men need to recognize women as valuable members of society and as having expertise they might not. Everyone has different expertise to bring to the table. It’s beneficial to have a seat for everyone at the table.

The biggest problem facing the United States:

Since the financial crisis, the biggest problem is financial inequality. More so than sexism, racism, any of the isms, socioeconomic class determines your role in society. It’s very hard to pull people out of poverty, keep them out of poverty, and ensure their descendants are pulled out of poverty.

A disaster to someone at a poverty level is one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, and a disaster obliterates your house, you’re screwed. You have to depend on the Federal Government, and as we know, the Federal Government, especially in its current leadership, isn’t very good with helping the most vulnerable in our society. It’s a capitalist society. It’s not quasi-like the Nordic countries. It’s this bootstrap mentality that has definitely been unfortunate for a lot of people.

What it means to be an American:

To some extent, it does mean you are free. It means you are free to live your life how you see fit. The fact that we’re still fighting over abortion and LGBTQ rights means we don’t have it all figured out, though.

I feel like I am in control of my destiny, but I know that’s a privileged statement as a white woman. We have a lot of opportunities people in other countries don’t have.

How we can all improve our country:

Vote. That’s what we could do. The voting record in this country is abysmal, and it’s why I think the person who is in power is in power.

Read more