If Only Tupelo’s Unifying Culture Reached Statewide

Do you know the “Tupelo Story,” the uplifting chronicle of Tupelo’s self-transformation from “a hardscrabble hamlet” (Aspen Institute) to a prosperous small city and “national model for homegrown development” (William Winter)?

Vaughn Grisham, Jr., built a career around telling the Tupelo Story and was the founding director of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at Ole Miss. His book, “Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community” tells the story as does his monograph with Rob Gurwitt, “Hand in Hand: Community and Economic Development in Tupelo,” a case study published by the Aspen Institute (https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/hand-hand-community-economic-development-tupelo-1999/).

In the Forward to Grisham’s book, former Governor William Winter calls Tupelo “a place where people have learned not to dismiss their own personal self-interest, but to equate it with the interest of their community.”

While Daily Journal publisher George McLean was the enlightened self-interest guru and unrelenting catalyst behind Tupelo’s transformation, the Tupelo Story is really a multi-generational story of strong and progressive business leadership, inclusive community engagement, well-researched and strategic decisions, and institutionalized civic processes.

I was reminded of the story by a Daily Journal editorial last week entitled, “Continued community success depends on training next generation.” It told of the Tupelo Mayor’s Youth Council leadership program teaching youth the Tupelo Story and inspiring them to “continue the history of engaged and dedicated leadership our community has benefitted from for the last 75 years.”

You see, what Tupelo has developed is a unifying “community culture” (Grisham) that intentionally renews itself, edifies its business and community leaders, and, thereby, sustains the city’s focus on helping both its people and its businesses do better.

In looking to answer why Mississippi persistently ranks at the bottom on so many indicators, you need look no further than to our lack of a vibrant, unifying state culture. Unlike Tupelo, we have been unable to bridge divisions rooted in race, provincialism, self-interest, and ideology. Thus, instead of discourse leading to success and distinction, we get unending squabbles that foster distress, disappointment, dysfunction, distrust, and discombobulation.

Nothing is more symptomatic of this condition than the rank partisanship in our state Legislature. Indeed, its leaders tout partisanship and offer no proposals to bridge divisions and develop a unifying culture.

Tupelo ensconced its forward-looking business leadership in its Community Development Foundation (CDF). Not satisfied with the chamber of commerce model, McLean designed the CDF to serve the full community along with business interests.

The only organization to come close to the CDF at the state level has been the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC). While primarily business focused, the MEC, like the CDF, has championed education, health care, and other quality of life initiatives. But despite ambitious efforts like Blueprint Mississippi, the MEC has been unable to forge sufficient consensus to bridge the state’s many divisions. Lately, MEC influence has dwindled as that of anti-progressive out-of-state special interest groups has surged.

It is human nature to put self-interest first. Once George McLean convinced Tupelo business leaders that balancing self-interest with community interests would be better for all, the city and region prospered. Tupelo has carefully nurtured this approach through future generations of business and community leadership.

How far off the bottom might Mississippi be if this approach had reached statewide?

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