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Donna Ladd works behind a table of DJ equipment in a room that's enclosed with brown bricks
Editor and CEO Donna Ladd writes about how every aspect of her education, inside and outside her colleges, turned her into the writer, entrepreneur and mentor she is now—and taught her “to never prop up false narratives wherever they spring from.” Photo by Joseph Zelinka

Studying Whiteness, Poli Sci and Humanity Changed My Path, Shaped Publications

You may know that I grew up in Mississippi, but left the day after I got my political-science degree from Mississippi State University. I hightailed it north, vowing to never again live in my racist, misogynistic state that tried to kill the spirit of smart young people like me. I thought, naively, that I’d left all that ugly behind. Well, the lessons about bigotry and sexism being a 50-state strategy were still ahead of me. Good Lord, there was so much I didn’t know.

What I did know is that a bunch of political-science profs believed in this child of an illiterate mother from Philadelphia, Miss.—Howard Ball, Ed Clynch, David Mason and Stephen Shaffer among them—and treated me like I was smart enough to learn what I didn’t know without condescension I would sometimes encounter later in grad school. My career path, I thought, was law school, even though I was always attracted to writing and truth-telling through journalism. 

Still, I didn’t exactly leave Mississippi State with a lot of immediately marketable skills. I enrolled in George Washington University in Washington, D.C.—helped along by Dr. Ball’s reference; he compared me to an unsophisticated but promising Norma Rae—but the law school and I didn’t match well. And truth be known, I wasn’t ready to succeed there.

So I dropped out and became a club DJ. That ended up funding my teaching myself to be a writer and a journalist, first with dalliances with small newspapers in Colorado and New York City. I learned on the job. DJ gigs over 10 years in five states also taught me a lot about how racism really works and that it inhabits every corner of this nation.

‘I Cared About Racism Deeply’

But it wasn’t until I was nearly 40 that I got more schooling—and remarkable for the daughter of Miss Katie, it was in the Ivy League at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I honed my journalism skills and learned both what to do and not to do as an editor and trainer. And as any honest success story will tell you, I internalized that who you know and how they’ll help you get into a job to learn and grow inside it is a major path to anybody’s success, regardless of what you major in.

Put simply: I didn’t need a fancy j-school degree to become a journalist, but it helped me both improve my skills and to meet people to help my work be read—and, these days, funded. But it was other Columbia studies as part of my mid-career master’s, with more diverse instructors and thinkers than in the j-school then, that turned me into the writer, thinker, entrepreneur and mentor I am now—and taught me to never prop up false narratives wherever they spring from.

Bottom line: I cared and care about racism deeply, and how to finally end it, and I came to understand that it was my job as a white journalist to expose the perils of “whiteness” (not the same as light-colored skin) to us all, that it was my work to do especially as a child of Neshoba County who knew some famous lynch mobsters. 

Donna Ladd holds a silver bowl as presented to her by then Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll, standing to the right
In 2022, then-Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll presented Donna Ladd an Alumni Award. She studied journalism with a social-justice focus at the journalism school, as well as in Teachers College, Columbia Law School and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies with historian Manning Marable. Photo by Todd Stauffer

I already knew white folks all around me in Mississippi (and the whole U.S. so don’t get cocky) were either actively working to extend race inequity to keep the reins of power—I mean, nothing has ever been more obvious so stop the act, people—but also that my early censored Mississippi education kept me from understanding the connections and pathways out of this sick mess. The censored history and causes to be exposed were about people who looked like me, not to mention most of my journalism profs.

My real grad-school education came after I crept shyly into the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and asked Dr. Manning Marable to allow me into his Black Intellectuals graduate seminar. And I read, listened, thought. A lot. I had no idea that I would soon return to Mississippi—but I know now that my studies with Dr. Marable and my white adviser Andie Tucker (a former PBS producer) urging me to come home to Mississippi and report about race, or “whiteness,” rewrote my future.

‘Soft’ Studies About Humanity: Foundation for Careers

Not to mention the future of others. I brought home everything I learned in that imperfect Ivy League institution among many people who loved to spit at the South without checking their own postage stamps. It was there that I first really understood just how bad de facto northern racism was, thanks to Dr. Marable. I first learned about so many Black American heroes who should, damn it, also be my heroes, and yours. But they can’t be if I didn’t know they existed, or what motivated them, or the sheer bravery they mustered to face likely death for trying to make this country live up to its own constitutional and patriotic hype.

Without the thinking and probing I did in my “soft” studies about humanity at Mississippi State and Columbia, Free Press journalism would not exist in Mississippi. I would not have influenced and trained and cheer-led and mentored and recommended so many young Mississippians over the years, trying to help them believe that we actually can change the trajectory and inclusion of our state and thus the nation. And I sure as hell wouldn’t have so many white people of all ages walking up to me in the grocery store to tell me “I just didn’t know” about so many things they were lied to about in school and our textbooks.


Multiple badges that read YMP Press at the top hang from bright orange lanyards
Donna Ladd writes that her odd mix of education—from political science at Mississippi State, club DJ work in five states, to getting her master’s in journalism in the Ivy League at age 40 gave her the knowledge base and skills to start new kinds of newsrooms back in her home state. Photo by Donna Ladd

Not to mention, I wouldn’t be running the second and third publications I co-founded here after the first, the Jackson Free Press, launched on Sept. 22, 2002 (and never did a single layoff) without my education mix. I wouldn’t be back in my home state choosing truth and accuracy over blind partisanship; recruiting, hiring and giving raises; training teenagers in marketable skills and brainstorming with the most amazing team of journalists I would ever hope to share a newsroom with. 

And I wouldn’t have been here to launch the Mississippi Youth Media Project for teenagers born into no or limited privilege and wealth to have a creative, thought-provoking and, yes, safe space to learn workplace skills from writing and community skills to doing SWOT and systems analyses. It’s a place where they can report themselves on what their communities and our state needs to help all our people thrive. Plus, it’s in a colorful welcoming space where all of their ideas and concerns are welcomed and heard, and they can express themselves. Basically, it’s a place I wish I’d had as a teenager; if I had, I may not have fled from Mississippi the day after I graduated from State.

I also wouldn’t be pinching myself because several of my profs from both my colleges donate and support our newsrooms in Mississippi, even Sam Freedman who challenged me the most at the j-school to fully embrace my skills and not just rely on writing talent, but to build my craft. Now, I teach others the lessons he and others taught me: “Trust your story. Trust your reporting. Trust yourself.”

That’s coming full circle, baby.

Thank you, Mississippi State, Columbia, Andie, Sam and especially Dr. Marable (please rest in peace) and so many others for helping bring me to this place right now where I can sit on my porch and tell my fellow Mississippians not to believe the political hype, to reject censorship, and to stop fearing education and the “other.” We sink or swim together, and heroes come in so, so many forms. Don’t deprive yourself. Talk and listen to those with different experiences.

Oh, and study whatever you need to in order to find your purpose and your path. There is more to life, growth and prosperity than learning to code if that’s not your jam.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints. 

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