I’ve been back in Jackson, Mississippi, for nearly six months, and if I had a dollar for every time someone’s asked me why I moved back with a face full of disgust, my light bill would be paid for the next month.
And you know what? I don’t blame them.
Our local social media feeds are still sizzling with hot takes after the Mississippi Department of Education handed down its decision to turn over Jackson Public School District to State control. Our immediate past Mayor made national news for his dead serious attempt to unite in prayer to make potholes disappear. And liquor stores aren’t even open on Sundays.
All that aside, there remains an issue disruptive enough to leave a bad taste in even the most deeply-rooted Jacksonian’s mouth: employment.
While the national unemployment rate is at a nice, steady 4.4 percent (Thanks, Obama!), the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as of July 2017, Jackson’s unemployment rate is at a slightly higher 5.2 percent.
Not so bad, right? Well, that’s about 14,477 people in the Jackson Metro area, not including a population within the civilian workforce that the Bureau fails to distinguish between when releasing its data.
The government’s working definition of unemployment includes those who are jobless, actively seeking work and available to take a job — meaning it excludes the dual-degreed barista at Cups who prepares your morning coffee and even the retail associate with a master’s in communications who let you return that impulse purchase you made. Those same people have been tweaking their résumés for months and answering every call from unfamiliar numbers in hopes for a callback.
The government utilizes an entirely different classification for these hardworking folks. They’re called underemployed, the silent movers and shakers who aren’t paid enough and aren’t doing work that makes full use of their skills and abilities. These are the same people who could rightfully cuss someone the out if asked why they aren’t taking an unpaid internship to further their career. “Because I got bills—TF?!”
I’ve been there. I’ve felt that. That reality was the driving force behind my reason to leave Jackson in the first place. Wonderful opportunities to learn and do don’t always pay the bills. And IOUs aren’t sufficient payment arrangements. And when you account for the fact that only Black women make $0.58 cents on the dollar compared to our white male counterparts? It’s a recipe for disaster if I’ve ever seen one.
Speculation aside, I wanted to get the temperature of the real tea around these parts and learn more about the experience of other Black women in the area, so, I hit the streets. Between conversations with five women hailing from the capital city, I learned quite a bit.
Give Me My Due
Kristen Gaddis, currently working as a legal assistant, graduated as one of roughly five Black students from Ole Miss’ mechanical engineering program. Despite corporate internships and lots of departmental support during her undergraduate studies, Kristen still finds herself unable to break into her field.
That doesn’t stop her from applying to more positions and polishing her craft, though. She says, “They love me … but it’s the limited experience that I do have. I’ve been trying to apply for small positions, as well as doing online coursework to kind of boost it up.”
While Gaddis is still looking for her break, it’s worth noting that her 85 percent white male graduating class isn’t having that issue.
There isn’t a shortage of jobs either. A quick Google search led me to 40+ opening in the mechanical engineering realm. However, most positions are looking for senior managers with experience upwards of 10 years.
So where’s the opportunity to get in the door? And why aren’t Gaddis’ white counterparts having this same issue? We all know the answer, Sway.
In a similar case, Jackson State University student Maya Miller* made the informed decision to change course when faced with a lack of opportunities in her desired field. After graduating from JSU with a B.S. in psychology in 2015, Maya realized the road to her dream of being a forensic psychiatrist wasn’t worth traveling.
In cases of especially heinous offenses, she would have been your Dr. George Huang. Both fortunately and unfortunately, in a city like Jackson, there’s no market for a Law and Order: SVU.
Instead, she has chosen to take the prerequisites necessary to get into medical school with the hopes of becoming an OB/GYN, birthin’ babies and taking names.
“When I see this vision of myself, I see myself spending my life serving others, which is probably the number one thing you hear people say when they say they want to go to medical school” she says.
But that doesn’t make the road to success simple. Miller, a part-time nanny, part-time student and nearly full-time barista, is feeling the physical and emotional effects of chasing her dream. Soon, she’ll trade her 60-hour work week for an equally strenuous medical school schedule. And the lane she’s navigating? Only a countable number of Black women in Mississippi have the same credentials.
There’s a long road ahead, but it’s damn sure attainable. Medicine, arguably the most sustainable industry in Jacktown, has proven rewarding for many. Ranking 49th and 50th in health indicators may have some perks. Wow.
Hardly Home, but Always Reppin’
Jessica Walden, like many others from Jackson, chose to move to Houston to advance her career. After graduating college with a degree in psychology, Walden found herself working as a receptionist in a local public school making $8.25/hour . From there, she transitioned to an administrative position with the state that paid $24,000 annually, and she knew something had to give.
Despite its dismal starting pay, the government is the most populous industry in the Jackson Metro area.
Doubly of concern, Walden’s academic path to becoming a licensed therapist was not one favored by clinics in Mississippi, where social work seems to be more desirable than psychology.
Thankfully, within her first year in H-Town Walden saw her income effectively double. Her good fortune continues with the pursuit of her doctorate and upcoming nuptials.
With moves like this to be made, who can blame someone for leaving home with no intentions of returning? Walden isn’t a lone case either.
I moved to Atlanta and doubled my salary within a year’s time, and many other women I know have done the same between Houston and Dallas. Low cost of living and robust job markets make these cities prime for a love affair with the American dream.
While many women leave or stay to take a chance at making it happen here, another question begs to be answered.
Is it possible to have complete job satisfaction in Jackson?
Kendra Redding and Larrissa Moore think so. A nurse and an attorney, respectively, both women left Jackson briefly to attend school or advance their careers and happily returned.
Redding, a champion of all things Jackson, parlayed her experience with travel nursing into a full-time gig she’s comfortable with right here in the capital city. She attributes her success with job hunting to the resources available to her while at the University of Mississippi. “In this area, people have connections to both UMC and Ole Miss, so I’ve found it to be a great networking piece, if I say I went to that school.”
Moore considers Jackson her forever home and is currently looking to plant deeper roots in the city while searching for a home to purchase.
Her best advice on achieving success here? “Be nice to everybody, and I mean that in the most literal sense. Meet people, make connections with people. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met by just smiling at people while I’ve passed them and it’s grown into a better connection both with my career and personally.” She also adds that being generous once you achieve your goals also goes a long way in creating lasting connections in Jackson.
Redding echoes this sentiment by noting that every single opportunity she’s received in Jackson has come from networking, especially with the Jackson Professional Group’s monthly meetings.
Find Your Way, Your Way
While the issues that plague our great state are complex and at times heartbreaking, it’s reassuring to know Black women in Jackson are continuing to keep their heads held high and get things done against all odds.
Whether you choose to stay in Jackson, move to Atlanta in hopes of good celebrity sightings (*cough* me *cough*) or feel too overwhelmed to take life one day at a time, remember this: The journey is your own. The destination is attainable, and even the worst road trips are better with some good music.
*Note: Maya Miller is a regular contributing writer to The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects website.