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Rachel Canter and Mississippi First

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Rachel Canter and Mississippi First

The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.

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Rachel Canter grew up in a small town in Mississippi, going to a local public school and exceling as a top performing student. Her success in school opened doors for her to attend a prestigious university--and yet she found herself struggling. Mississippi has historically ranked at or near the bottom of national rankings for educational access and achievement, and it was clear to Rachel that she was not prepared for the level of rigor in a university.I Because of how this experience dramatically changed Rachel’s life, she decided to become a teacher to be part of the solution for what education could look like in Mississippi. However, through her teaching experience, she found systemic inadequacies that went far beyond the capacity of any single teacher to make changes. It was clear to her that the solution would need a long time to be effective, lasting beyond the terms in office of any one political leader.

With these insights and framework, Rachel founded Mississippi First, a nonprofit with a mission to champion transformative policy solutions that would boost Mississippi’s standing from last in education nationally to first. Over the past 13 years, Mississippi First has worked tirelessly to lead change through policy. In 2013, the Early Learning Collaborative Act and the Mississippi Charter Schools Act were passed with the efforts and advocacy from Mississippi First. These successes did not happen overnight. It took the Mississippi First team time and tenacity to advocate for the passage of these laws.

As with most successful organizations, Rachel and the Mississippi team have faced occasional setbacks from both internal and external stakeholders. With internal governance, Rachel points out, “When we talk about leadership, we neglect to talk about [school boards]. A board that supports you is necessary for the leadership to do their job. I had to learn this the hard way, but we made it through and we're stronger than we've ever been.”

Mississippi First has also experienced twists and turns in advocating for policy implementation, which depends on who is in office. “That’s why we have a lens beyond policy and into implementation. We don’t stop with the governor’s signature. We have seen great ideas go nowhere because there is no leadership on the implementation side.” But each setback has provided instrumental lessons. As Mississippi First pushed past its challenges to secure legislative wins, “it gave us a voice that people sat up to listen to.”

Today, Mississippi First serves as a leading voice in the state for standards and accountability. As one measure of its success, education appropriations today are five times what they were at the time of its founding.

Based on her experience both in nonprofit and education, Rachel offers the following lessons for others, whether they work in education or in other endeavors:

  • Change takes time, so sustain the people who are making the change. “Too often leaders wash out in nonprofit organizations because the work is hard. It’s demanding for a changemaker to do the work for a long time. So, take care of your people and yourself.”
  • Don’t be seduced by charisma. “People can easily be seduced by people who have charisma, but I will take hustle over charisma any day. There’s a lot of work that is not sexy but needs to happen and while charismatic leaders can move people and make them feel good, if you don’t have the execution or hustle, nothing will get done. We need to be less seduced by those who look like leaders.”
  • Persist through failure. “Often the path to success is failure after failure after failure. It’s hard to see where the failure is taking you. And when you reach success, people only see the success but don’t forget that there is usually a path of failure. There have been many times where if our organization had not kept going, we would not have gotten the win. And while at times it may be that we need a better strategy or resources, but more often it’s perseverance that we need.”

As a state-based organization, Mississippi First is focused on scaling in depth and capacity in the context of the state—not beyond it. As the organization continues to build its influence in the state, Rachel and her team intend to maintain their original focus on making Mississippi first.;