I was planning to drop in on Empower Mississippi’s four-hour conference, check out the scene for 30 minutes or so and then leave. I ended up staying the entire time.
The panels were great. The issues were important. And the setting made me feel very uptown.
Every time I walk into the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum I am awed by the splendor of the building and its exhibits. The museum’s conference room is equally impressive with state-of-the-art audio/video, excellent lighting, acoustics, seating and decor. The entire event gave me the feeling of progress.
One of my reasons for coming was to learn a bit more about Empower Mississippi. My publications have been running some of their opinion pieces for quite some time. Their agenda seems to be deliberately progressive and non-partisan — two perspectives my publishing company tries to attain.
The founder of Empower Mississippi is Grant Callen a bright young lad from Laurel with a Belhaven degree in political science and a masters in government from Regents University. Grant currently lives in Madison with his wife Page and their five children. Grant and Page are members of Redeemer Church, PCA, where Grant serves as an elder.
Callen was working with the Mississippi Center for Public Policy with Forest Thigpen when he saw the need for a group more focused on advocacy and engagement than pure policy. His fundraising experience gave him a strong basis for founding a new group.
He raised money, hired talented staff and now Empower Mississippi is having a big impact on the direction of our state. It’s inspiring.
The room was full of movers, shakers and highly engaged citizens. These are people who love Mississippi and are committed to seeing our state progress. We need more such people.
There were three panels on three big issues: education, crime and the economy.
The first panel on education included Grant Callen and Elyse Marcellino from Empower and nationally known education gurus Andrew Clark and Donald Nielson.
Andrew Clark runs an education non-profit called “Yes Every Kid” whose mission statement is: ”Every kid works with anyone to support policies that respect the dignity of every student, fosters a diversity of approaches, and is open to the free flow of ideas and innovation.”
“Yes Every Kid” focuses on innovation, inclusiveness, transformation, customization, success, empowerment, opportunity choice. Hard to argue with that!
Donald Nielson is a successful businessman who focused his talents on education reform as a second career. He is director of education reform at the Discovery Institute, an interdisciplinary national think tank.
You can go to northsidesun.com and search for “empower” and watch the entire four hours of panel discussions. Or Google “Empower Mississippi.”
The panel will give you great insight into some of the major issues facing our state.
The education panelists discussed many different ideas and reforms to make education better. The thrust of their ideas was that education must change and adapt to a new world. Curriculums must become more practical and relevant. Education must be customized to fit the unique attributes of the individual students. Parents must have the freedom to choose the right school for their children.
This type of thinking is a radical departure from the “one size fits all,” no choice ideology of our current public education system. Public education is trapped in a forced monopoly system. Depending on where you live, you have one public school and that’s it. Even worse, public schools follow the same rigid, obsolete curriculum of yesteryear. There is much reform that needs to be done. School choice is a fundamental part of that.
Ex-con Eddie Charles Spencer introduced the criminal justic reform panel with a riveting personal story about how he was one heartbeat away from the death penalty at age 17. “If that man dies,” the judge told him, “I’m gonna do you a favor and society a favor and give you the death penalty.”
The man lived, Spencer found Jesus and turned around his life. Spencer, born in abject poverty, talked of how his poverty made him angry and bitter and led to a life of crime. He believes many of the angry young criminals can have their lives turned around if we focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishment.
The crime panel was equally impressive, consisting of Empower’s Steven Randle, state senator Juan Barnett, state representative Kevin Horan, and Brett Tollman with Right on Crime, a national criminal justice reform group.
Barnett and Horan are the respective chairman of the corrections committee in their chambers. They talked of the passage of a recent law, signed by the governor, to increase parole, reduce Mississippi’s sky high incarceration rate and focus on rehabilitation.
This was especially interesting since Horan, a Republican, is a career prosecuting attorney and Barnett, a Democrat, lost his father to a random murder. During the panel discussion, they explain how attitudes have changed. The feeling now is that excessive incarceration and lack of rehabilitation is breaking up families, destroying lives and actually increasing crime.
The final panel was on work and the economy. Specifically, Empower is championing a movement to deregulate licensing barriers to a wide variety of professional occupations. Panelists were James Broughal of the Mercatus Center, deputy attorney general Whitney Lipscomb and Conor Norris with the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation.
No doubt, certain professions require licensing standards and regulations for safety and quality assurance. All the panelists agreed on this. But there is a huge segment of our economy being constrained by excessive and unreasonable barriers to entry. For instance, do you really need to study cosmetology for a year to braid hair?
Lipscomb explained many reforms that have recently been implemented during her role as policy advisor to Governor Phil Bryant. Her command of the subject and clear explanation of the legitimacy of the reforms was a tour de force.
The last panel was House speaker Phillip Gunn and Empower’s Russ Latino discussing the proposal to eliminate the state income tax. Gunn makes a detailed and convincing argument for why this needs to be done. Quite informative.
Ok, I admit I am a bit of a policy wonk. But I found the entire four hours of panel discussions absolutely fascinating and thought provoking. I encourage you to go online and listen to the panel discussions.
We talk a lot about the downside of technology, Facebook prattle and fake news, etc. But the rise of groups like Empower Mississippi, Bigger Pie, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is made possible, in part, by advances in communication. I was encouraged by the quality of the discourse and the earnestness and insights of all the people involved. It gives me hope for the future.