Mississippi Today recently spoke with Pam Shaw, a longtime political strategist who has focused her career in Mississippi politics on reaching and turning out Black voters. Shaw is currently working on a study about public education disparities in Mississippi.

Mississippi Today: You mentioned some research you’re doing about public education disparities in Mississippi. Tell us a little bit about that!

Pam Shaw: We are very excited. We are analyzing approximately 100 data elements from MDE, the Census Bureau and community surveys. Using Tableau, a data analytic tool, we are able to visualize data elements in unusual and unique ways. What we are learning from the data is challenging many of the myths about public education. The goal of the report is to seek insights into education performance issues that may reveal pathways to better achievement.  

MT: Why are problems about equity in education important to explore? 

PS: Equity in education is measured by the achievement, fairness, and opportunity in public education for all. You can’t fix what you don’t know. If we, as a society and particularly as a state, are committed to creating opportunities for all to succeed, we must first acknowledge and understand the systemic barriers to success that preclude many from achieving their full potential. Exploration is an important step on the path of knowledge. Our current path of education policy and resource deployment does not contribute to equity and opportunity. That makes our current path in education unsustainable. The slow rate of population growth, brain drain, healthcare disparities and inequalities, modest economic opportunities and growing income inequality are outgrowths of the education inequities in our state.

MT: Education disparities have existed for a long time in Mississippi, and the most powerful politicians seem to ignore it. Why do you think that is? 

PS: The answer goes back to the definition of education equity — achievement, fairness and opportunity for all. That takes a commitment from political leadership that too often we have not had. Too many times our state’s most powerful politicians have lacked a commitment to providing opportunity to “all” of its citizens. “All” means Black and brown, male and female, those with disabilities, physical and mental. The desire to provide a quality education for “all” children does not exist. We have had examples of committed and visionary political leadership such as the late Gov. William Winter and the late Sen. Grey Ferris. Under their leadership advances were made in public education. 

Unfortunately, Mississippi has not had the sustained visionary commitment by elected officials who understand the nexus between an educated populace and the enhanced quality of life for all. Such leadership must be ongoing and committed to making education the state’s No. 1 priority. When we elect leaders with that type of vision, the state’s education, economic and health quality of life indices will increase by leaps and bounds. A commitment to decreasing education inequities must be at the core of the work if we all are to thrive.  Opportunities must be available to every child in every district.

MT: You’re one of the state’s most seasoned political operatives. What do you make of the American political moment we find ourselves in right now — with impeachment, the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and uneasiness about COVID-19 response?

PS: What a very kind description. Daily, I experience a range of emotions – anger, sadness, disappointment, fear and hope. And sometimes that range in a very short period of time. America and Mississippi are at an inflection point. The moment is pregnant with possibilities, both good and bad. Will we talk and listen? Will we share and learn? Will our actions be guided by fear and anger? Will we be inspired by hope? Or will we hunker down in our tribe and ultimately self- destruct? The question yet to be answered is what will we become. 

The decades and generations of ignorance, mistrust and anger got us to this point.  Because of Mississippi’s very violent history, suppression of voting and human rights and unwillingness to craft a future that is inclusive, I feel threatened and ill at ease. I am on high alert. 

And then one of our U.S. senators and three of our representatives, even after the carnage in the nation’s Capitol voted to challenge another state’s certified election. Given our state’s history of voter suppression and violence, I am offended and fearful.

And then in this masked environment, while in the grocery store, I see a young parent with a small child and the child is happy, unafraid and chattering with me a masked other adult, I am hopeful.

What will Mississippians do? Who will we become? Will we rise up and embrace a vision that celebrates difference and opportunity for all or will we retreat to our familiar yet exclusive tribalism. The first option promises a brighter future for all. The latter a slow but unavoidable death for most.  

MT: In 2020, Democrats had more influence at the Capitol than they have in a long time. The state changed the flag. Do you sense some political or social change happening in Mississippi, or do you think these glimmers of hope for so many are short-lived? 

PS: Social change is happening in Mississippi. Political change is happening but at a slower pace. Changing the state flag was as much an economic decision as it was the right thing to do. That the people of Mississippi voted to change the state flag and for medical marijuana sends a clear message that most Mississippians want a future that is different from the past. We want one that is better, brighter and more inclusive for all. Elected leadership needs to pay attention to the voice of the people. What was a glimmer will become a burning ember. With the right fan, the ember will burn and more change will happen sooner rather than later.

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