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Solutions Circles members talking at the first gathering of 2023
The first physical MFP-YMP Solutions Circle brought out a mix of Jackson metro participants across ages, genders, race, ethnicity and political beliefs. Donna Ladd writes that such a conversation so soon after a Mississippi election, shows the kind of imagination and sense of possibility we seldom get from our state elections. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Editor’s Note | Solutions Circles and Unpredictable ‘Circlers’ Perfect Antidote to Political Silly Season

I love Mississippi and being from Mississippi. I love the work I and those around me and many of you do daily to help our state reach its full potential and become equitable and inviting for all our people. I have honestly never lived a more vibrant, engaged, colorful, fast-paced or exciting life amid more determined people anywhere than I have since I returned to Mississippi in 2001.

But damn, our elections are demoralizing.

I don’t actually mean that the gut punch is necessarily who wins the elections—although, sure, that happens—I’m talking about the process. The worst part is the mindless mud-slinging back and forth, much of it exaggerated or outright false. I’m thinking of candidates across parties playing to the worst possible instincts and bigotries in Mississippi, no matter who it damages, or causes to hurt themselves, or to leave and take their potential with them as soon as they’re old enough.

I’m talking about the expectation that whole blocks of people—even big-population groups like women—will put basic life-and-death concerns aside and play along with the least offensive candidate to zealots who might be able to convince the Legislature to do something different, but probably not.

Political division was left to the side in MFP-YMP Solutions Circles at New Horizon Church in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 9, 2023. The circles are meant to be a beginning of shared people-led civil discourse and solutions across Mississippi.

I’m talking about fearful candidates who can’t handle even open bigots criticizing them. I’m talking about the utter lack of meaningful conversation during election season, which I dubbed “silly season” here years ago. My disdain for Mississippi race-to-the-bottom politics built up in me as I’ve watched useless campaign after campaign not move a single damn needle or attract more votes than the last white man who did it, with insipid dog, truck and gun ads being their big closers as Election Day neared. There is never any real attempt to actually grow the electorate, just to move the deck chairs around a little.

Not to mention, even the white, male journalists (with the least to lose) who dominate “political journalism” in and outside Mississippi twist themselves into illogical pretzels to shine their best possible light on their candidate of choice rather than fact-checking them no matter where the chips fall. They even softball political embraces of bigotry for votes or the waving off of concerns of whole genders, especially those of child-bearing age.

It’s not like any of this gamer junk ever changes anything, mind you.

Mississippi elections, and the way they are covered, lack imagination,  innovation and the belief that Mississippians can find common ground with better leadership, including inside newsrooms that treat elections as games for their personal benefit. The journalism and the campaign monsters then feed on each other, helping keep Mississippi exactly the way it is, running off smart Mississippians and embedding a sense of hopelessness that anything can ever change, especially the ever-present bipartisan bigotries here.

And that’s the nicest thing I can say about silly season here. There is a better way, though.

Breaking Down Incessant Silos

Last night I sat in a comfy purple chair in an event space at New Horizon Church for the first live MFP-YMP Solutions Circle. Next to me was a Black woman who didn’t mention politics at all, but took notes on her Kindle, and when she spoke it always mattered.

Across from me was a Black reverend who deeper into the conversation revealed that he considers himself a conservative Republican but gets framed as over to the left because of his concerns for the community around his church. Next to him was a white man who works in Republican politics who listened deeply and made us all laugh. To my right was a white man who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community who grew up with guns and still owns them and wants to innovate ways to bridge divides.

Let’s just say, it wouldn’t be smart to stereotype this group based on tired assumptions.

MFP Solutions Circles, such as this one at New Horizon Church in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 9, 2023, follow the Chatham House Rule. That is, everyone including journalists agree not to quote someone by name without permission but can share what was said. Photo by Imani Khayyam

At this first circle, topics were participants’ suggestions of crime and violence; resources for young people; Jackson infrastructure and conditions; and meaningful and impact civic engagement.

Civic discourse and engagement across divides is, of course, the goal of this series of our circles and dialogue projects by 16 other U.S. newsrooms supported by the American Press Institute, so I joined the community-engagement circle to listen in for ideas on how to actually make it happen meaningfully. This is getting harder in a divided world where many people hardly talk to their neighbors who look like them (I’m often guilty, too), much less cross divides to have civil discourse with people who might think very differently or even brand them as sinful or a bigot right out of the gate.

As my circle colleagues passed and reached for and joked about the talking stick we provided each sub-circle, this group centered on how to break down the silos we tend to exist in that, quite literally, keep us divided and not breaking bread in conversations that can bring us together and inspire us into unlikely relationships and collaborations.

People joining the MFP-YMP Solutions Circles on Nov. 9, 2023, at New Horizon Church ranged from age 17 to over 70. Photo by Imani Khayyam

They talked about how many pastors barely leave their churches, how many LGBTQ+ Mississippians get together for a Friendsgiving because they’re rejected by their families, how institutions are failing us all, how “purity tests” of all sorts cause what one called “intense polarization, how religion often is often less of a safety net now and more of a way to divide people.

“Spaces are gate-kept to hell,” one of them said while holding the talking stick. “There’s no access to the gatekeepers.”

‘Gimme That Stick!’

My circle was animated and blunt, even as a Black Republican businessman and a second Black reverend showed up and joined us—but as good Solutions Circles do, my fellow circlers landed on possibility and hope.

They agreed that people need to sit in such mutually respectful settings and talk to each other, which they emphasized too often doesn’t even happen on the neighborhood level. They acknowledged that certain people and ideas often dominate such attempts as others get drowned out. (As they talked, I remembered political-party people telling me how certain voices and opposition are shut down in their meetings, too.)

Maybe, one suggested, they should use the MFP Solutions Circles’ “Golden Rules and Tips for Impactful Dialogue,” listed on a big blowup poster nearby and on a handout we gave all of them when they arrived. The talking stick was also a good idea, the majority-male circle acknowledged as they seemed to have fun with it. “Gimme that stick!” was a common refrain to laughter as they worked hard not to speak over each other.

The first MFP-YMP Solutions Circle welcomed a variety of people with disparate beliefs into discussion of topics they together generated. They shared, listened, brainstormed and joked about the talking sticks that helped everyone’s voice and ideas to be in the circle. Photo by Imani Khayyam

I could tell that all of them were imagining different kinds of conversations in their own circles. Of course, a big table of “heavy snacks” to make up for them skipping dinner to be there was another dialogue tool, as research shows.

The spirit of possibility was present. A big reason was that the topics were their ideas, not ours. We are institutionally against hosting panel discussions with what’s derided as “sage on the stage” journalists or others we deem “experts” sitting on a dais or at a front able telling people what and how to think. That’s ultimately just another tool of division, let’s be honest.

The idea of our Solutions Circles is to invite a variety of people into a room, feed them and listen to them brainstorm. As journalists—we had two reporters and two editors there—we learn much more by being flies on the wall, and our story sources increase. One circler from last night wrote in the survey: “I am impressed with MFP coverage to date, but will now be alert to suggest issues.”

That’s a huge win right there.

But our goal doesn’t stop with better journalism on our end; we want to help inspire our communities to talk to each other in person whenever possible—rather than squawk back and forth on social media in sound and fury signifying very little.

As we like to say at the Mississippi Free Press: We are introducing Mississippians to each other. It’s up to the people to decide what happens next.

If you’re in Mississippi and want to participate in or help post a Solutions Circle in your area, please fill out this interest form. Jackson-area readers can watch for a followup circle in upcoming weeks.

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

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