Why did they leave? Why did they stay? The complicated truth for Mississippi’s millennials

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Mississippi’s Millennial Brain Drain

A vital Coast economy depends on convincing young people to settle here. This Sun Herald series documents and examines “brain drain” and what is being done to combat it.

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They hate to leave, these young people.

But they do. They want to earn more money. They want to be in cities where they can shop, dine on healthy food, hear live music, visit museums and art galleries, exercise on public paths.

Millennials, the prize demographic born between 1981-96, want to live in communities that embrace cultural and racial differences, research shows. Millennials interviewed by the Sun Herald are discouraged by Mississippi’s continued embrace of the Confederate battle emblem, passage of a law that allows businesses to refuse service to members of the LGBTQ community and political events that accentuate the state’s violent racial history.

U.S. Census records show Mississippi’s millennial population shrunk from 2010-17 faster than any state except Vermont, down 5.5 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively. “Brain drain,” as it’s called, appears less prevalent on the Coast but is still a real concern.

Coast business and community leaders are working to identify strengths, weaknesses and improvements that will convince young people to stay on the Coast or move here.

The Sun Herald interviewed young adults from the Coast and other areas of Mississippi about their decisions on where to settle. Here are some of their stories.

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Rachel Nuwer Chris Pevey

Rachel Nuwer, 33

Before history professor Deanne Stephens talked to the Sun Herald, she called the friends whose children were raised with hers. All five of this group’s children earned college degrees.

“None of those children are in Mississippi,” said Stephens, an associate dean at the University of Southern Mississippi on the Coast. “None of them.”

Stephens has two daughters, a veterinarian in Gainesville, Fla., and a freelance journalist in New York City.

“I asked my girls and it wasn’t even a consideration — and I knew that it wasn’t even a consideration — to stay in Mississippi. The pay is too low and the culture is too closed. That seems to be the opinion of several of this brain drain who have drained away.”

Stephens’ daughter Rachel Nuwer has just published a book, “Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking.”

She freelances for The New York Times, National Geographic, the BBC and other outlets.

Nuwer graduated from Biloxi High School and cherishes aspects of her childhood on the Coast. She misses sunsets over Back Bay, her mom and the Vietnamese cuisine that even restaurants she’s tried in New York have been unable to match.

Her feelings about Mississippi are complicated.

As a child, she loved participating in Civil War camps at Beauvoir. As a teenager, she learned more about the dark side of Mississippi history: slavery, segregation and lynchings. She began to feel embarrassed to say she was from Mississippi.

But she also knew it was not the one-dimensional place so many from outside the state believed it to be.

She’s found herself defending the state to New Yorkers, especially those who have never visited. She reminds them that Mississippi has produced some of the nation’s most talented authors and musicians.

But she still sees the hate.

In November 2016, she posted on Facebook about her disappointment over Donald Trump’s election as president. Those who disagreed with her most virulently were some of her Mississippi connections.

She said, “I had to de-friend a lot of people, including relatives of mine, because I just couldn’t deal with the bigotry, the hate I was seeing on Facebook, for example.”

Change does come slow to Mississippi, her mom says. She sees the Mississippi Civil Rights and the Mississippi Museum of History, opened in the state’s bicentennial year, as beacons of that change. The Civil Rights Museum is an unflinching testament to the atrocities African-Americans have endured.

But those museums are juxtaposed against Mississippi’s continued insistence on including the Confederate battle emblem as part of the official state flag, a symbol other Southern states have put to rest.

“I think there is a very large split between people in Mississippi who recognize the fact that symbols such as the state flag are divisive and evocative of racism,” Stephens said. “I think, though, the more conservative viewpoint is the majority, that it is about heritage.

“It’s such a fine line, in my mind. But that heritage was built on racism and how do you separate those two? How does that work? I don’t have an answer. I have no idea.

“I think that the museums are at least opening the door to further conversation and shining a light on things that need to be discussed. I just think in Mississippi we discuss things at a slower rate, perhaps, than others do.”

Sheena Allen, 29

Technology entrepreneur Sheena Allen tried to make a go of it in Mississippi in 2015.

“The last time I came to Mississippi and tried to make it work here, I put 110 percent into trying to make a tech startup work, I was so drained,” the Terry native said. “I can’t tell you how many doors I knocked on . . . I was completely drained.

“I ran into a road block every single time.”

Allen believes Mississippi has been too focused on attracting traditional industries, like manufacturing, and needs to put more effort into working with people in the “creative economy.”

Allen designed her first computer application when she was a senior at USM and has kept at it, developing a total of five apps and landing on Forbes media’s 2019 list of 30 under 30 young people to watch.

After college graduation, she scouted Silicon Valley as a possible location for her business, explored the tech hub of Austin and settled earlier this year on Atlanta, where she runs CapWay, based on a financial app she developed, and Sheena Allen apps.

Although Allen was unable to raise the money in Mississippi for her tech startup, she has a big supporter in Joe Donovan, a mentor who runs the Mississippi Development Authority’s Entrepreneur Center in Jackson.

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Donovan said state government’s commitment to developing the digital economy has grown. Among other things, the state is supporting computer coding camps that give young people the skills they need for tech jobs, with starting salaries in the upper 40s.

“By developing the digitally educated workforce, the companies will come here,” Donovan said. “They want to come here. This is why the governor has had such a push on workforce development in the digital economy.”

Allen envisions herself returning to Mississippi some day. She has a large family and misses them, plus she loves the state. But she said she will return only when she can stand independently. It’s too hard to raise money in Mississippi, she said.

She was recently home to speak to students as part of a Women in Tech tour.

“I do have a lot of friends that have left,” Allen said. “I ask them if they plan to come back. Ninety nine percent of them say no. It’s because of the opportunities, just a better quality of life.”

Reynolds Bodenhamer, 39

Reynolds Bodenhamer knew when he married that he would stay in Mississippi. His wife is a “diehard Coastie,” he said.

But staying meant sacrifice. He wanted to work in marketing or journalism once he graduated with a history degree from Millsaps College in Jackson.

Unable to find a job in one of his preferred fields, Bodenhamer signed up as a substitute teacher and discovered he enjoyed it.

“In that way, I think I have a pretty familiar story for someone who is just out of college, wants a creative career and is frustrated by the results,” he said. “But teaching has been a good fit for me. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

He is in his 16th year as a teacher at Gulfport High School, ranked one of the state’s best.

He likes the Coast climate, the relatively low cost of living and exploring its unique communities. He wishes the cultural offerings were greater. And, he said, young people need more career options.

“The students I teach are brilliant and solve incredible problems,” he said. “I want them to be able to solve those problems here.”

Brynn Knapp, 34

When Brynn Knapp mapped out her future, Mississippi was not in it.

She wanted to move to Atlanta and work in public relations for the Braves.

Today, the USM graduate would not consider leaving the Mississippi Coast. She is raising a family here, spending her money at local businesses and employing others.

She sacrificed to start the business because she was unable to find a job that paid enough to make working worthwhile. She was earning $9.25 an hour as an administrative assistant at a casino. She realized it could take years to build to a salary of $12 an hour. As her family grew, she needed more flexibility than her corporate job offered.

“Unless you’re going to work for a casino or Ingalls — maybe out at Stennis — other than that, there’s just not that many options,” Knapp said.

She started a paint party business after the birth of her third son, moving in with her mother and saving until she could afford her own house and car.

The paint party business, Twisted Tree Studios, was going well when she got the opportunity in March 2018 to buy Southern Grounds Coffeehouse in Gulfport. The owner and her family were moving to Florida.

She said she got great guidance from The Innovation Center, a small-business incubator in Biloxi, and the Southern Mississippi Planning & Development District, a regional agency with a variety of resources.

Business has been great.

“There seems to be a lot of support for us as small business owners,” said Knapp, who does her part by shopping locally — for her businesses and herself.

She wishes the Coast had more entertainment options for her family, but she said her boys are excited about the Mississippi Aquarium under construction in Gulfport. She thinks South Mississippians, including her, need to get outside and exercise more.

But then she conceded, “It’s just too stinkin’ hot.”

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Jess Davis Anita Lee calee@sunherald.com

Jess Davis, 20

Jess Davis works part time at Southern Grounds Coffeehouse while finishing her degree in marine science at USM.

She also works as a research assistant at Stennis Space Center as part of her undergraduate thesis. Her advisor has a lab there. She could find a job in her field in South Mississippi, but she hopes to study out of state for her master’s degree.

“It has been my ultimate goal to leave here since I was probably 10,” said Davis, who grew up in Gulfport. “First and foremost, I think Mississippi is a breeding ground for intolerant ideologies. Every place I’ve visited seems more open minded that here.”

She said that she has a close relative from rural Mississippi who taught her from a young age that racism was wrong, although that certainly wasn’t what he intended. He believes white skin makes him superior to other races. She knew his bigotry was wrong, especially when he refused to be kind to a childhood friend who was black.

When Mississippi in 2016 adopted a law that allowed businesses to refuse service to the LBGTQ community on religious grounds, it only reinforced her opinion that the state is intolerant.

“There’s a conundrum that exists with me,” she said. “I feel that people like me who aren’t so intolerant, if we move away, it’s going to make Mississippi more of a breeding ground for intolerant ideology.

“I don’t want to leave because I don’t want my voice to be lost, but I also don’t want to stay because of the things that have made me so unhappy.”

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Jeramey Anderson Anita Lee calee@sunherald.com

Jeramey Anderson, 27

When he was younger, state Rep. Jeramey Anderson of Moss Point considered leaving Mississippi for better pay and a less “regressive” state.

Instead, he went all in on making his state a better place to live, becoming at 21 the youngest legislator ever elected. At the time, he was working on his degree in Homeland Security from Tulane University.

Anderson calls Mississippi “regressive” over policies such as its $7.25 minimum wage and the state law that allows refusal of service on religious grounds to members of the LGBTQ community.

He says the prevailing attitude in Mississippi seems to be, “If you don’t think and act like us, then leave.”

Millennials, he said, are more accepting and less partisan than older generations. “You can Google it,” he said.

Low pay in Mississippi also pains him. He’s seen more than one state trooper leave for higher pay in Texas.

Anderson is working from his position in the Legislature for more open government and laws that encourage young people to remain in the state, including a bill that would offer them tax incentives to stay.

“We’re trying to make sure future graduates don’t want to leave Mississippi for whatever reason,” Anderson said, “whether it’s a better-paying job or a more welcoming environment.”

The Democrat also is a member of the Future Caucus, a group of House and Senate members who work across party lines on issues and legislation.

His attitude about living in Mississippi has changed.

“I have little cousins and I want them to be able to love their state,” he said. “I hate to hear, ‘I want to leave Mississippi.’ I hate hearing that.”

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Justin Mitchell Sun Herald

Justin Childs, 18

When Anderson asked his graduating class on Facebook if they chose to leave or stay, Justin Childs was shocked that almost every commenter said they decided to leave Mississippi.

The student body president at Hancock High School wants to be the change he feels Mississippi needs, and he doesn’t think he can do that if he leaves.

“I think it’s our job as the next generation to stay and make things better for those that are less fortunate than others,” he said.

Childs is planning on attending Mississippi State University in the fall, where he wants to study political science and pre-law. One day, he hopes he’ll be able to work on political campaigns to change the things he feels need to be better in his home state.

“Education is a top priority of mine,” Childs said. “I know public education is very underfunded in our state.”

Childs, who lives in Bay St. Louis, even wrote to state Superintendent Carey Wright and Rep. David Baria with questions about her salary. Wright, whooversees one of the poorest public school systems in the nation, is the highest paid state superintendent in the country.

Childs hopes to one day be able to help write laws that put more money into Mississippi classrooms.

Justin Mitchell Sun Herald

Aaron Lind, 29

About 10 years ago, Aaron Lind left the Mississippi Coast to chase his dreams. Now he’s come back to help others find their way.

Lind, who grew up as a part of the Coast’s theater scene, left home to pursue a career in acting.

He’s landed professional gigs and has worked off-Broadway and overseas. He’s lived in New York City, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

In April, Lind moved back to Gulfport and has decided he wants to say.

“I got my start here theatrically with community theater, and I learned so much from it,” Lind said. “I really learned an enormous amount of experience that I want to bring back to the Gulf Coast.”

Lind said he feels like he has a responsibility to help young actors reach their dreams, because theater changed his own life.

“I’ve always been the theatrical kid, the creative kid, the gay kid, so I’ve always been different, but at the same time I’ve always felt so similar to everybody else,” he said. “And I think that’s really cool, because I know a lot of other (LGBTQ) people might feel a little more isolated than I do.”

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Sun Herald

Amara Mayberry, 25

Amara Mayberry doesn’t just have herself to think about — she also has to do what she feels is best for her daughter.

Mayberry, a college student and barista at The Grind in Biloxi, wants to one day leave Mississippi so 6-year-old Astrid can have better opportunities.

“She’s amazing, she’s beautiful, but I feel like the education system does not really offer what she needs to achieve her best potential academically,” Mayberry said.

Mayberry, who attended Biloxi schools, said she received a good education, but she wants more for Astrid.

“I feel like there’s so much better opportunity for her, and I feel like she deserves more than what I received.”

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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