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Mea Ashley


Hometown Hero: Justin Porter from JPS’s Murrah High to Harvard University

IMG_0824It’s a sunny Tuesday morning at Murrah High School and in Room 212 they’re expecting a visitor. This is the class for the school newspaper and one of the editors starts the morning conducting class business while they wait.

Students constantly trickled into the classroom that was decorated with numerous college posters. Taped next to a white smart board was a sign that read, “From Murrah: Justin P. went to Harvard. Travis R. went to Yale. Which road will You take??” with arrows pointing to two different articles on Justin Porter and Travis Reginal from the New York Times.

In walks Porter out of breath from his jog to the school. Porter recently finished his first year at Harvard after graduating from Murrah in 2012.  Reginal, his classmate, was also attending an Ivy League school as and when a conversation he had with a reporter lead them to publishing articles in the New York Times.  Since then, the nation has gotten a glimpse of the positivity that comes from Mississippi that is so often overlooked.

While at home in Jackson, Miss. Porter has gotten numerous requests to speak at schools, educational programs and has been invited to participate in MSNBC’s Summit on Education, all of which is overwhelming for him. “I expected like one hundred people to say, ‘oh that’s nice’ and flip to the next page,” Porter says. “I never expected family members outside of my parents to read it.”

Porter accepts the newfound fame with humility. When he returned to his alma mater, the editor of the paper who met him as a freshman and is now a junior sees him as the same old guy. “It was like nothing had even happened,” she says. “He was still the same Justin I had known since ninth grade.”

He sits at the front of the class on a stool casually dressed in a collar shirt and shorts offering advice and candid answers to questions like: What was your biggest challenge transitioning to Harvard from JPS (Jackson Public Schools)? At Harvard is there a large concentration of stuck- up people? How did you include all your interests in your application? What’s the SATII?

Justin Porter visits his old school newspaper class at Murrah High School, in Jackson, Miss. to give advice about college.

Justin Porter visits his old school newspaper class at Murrah High School, in Jackson, Miss. to give advice about college.

The students are so engaged in discussion that the teacher, Lynne Schneider, allows them to continue the conversation for longer than she’d planned. Then, Porter got a chance to gregariously tell the class how he’d suspects his suitemate was an African prince because he would travel to meet government officials in other countries in the middle of the semester. “Like we’re studying, and this dude is in Russia!” Porter says. He thinks he met the President of China’s daughter too. “The thing is they’re really secretive about her identity but I’m pretty sure it was her,” he says as the class chuckled. Porter also delves into how important college applications are, finding scholarships, and getting outside of your comfort zone to go to school out of state. “If fear is the thing that’s stopping you then you need to see where are your priorities,” he tells the class.

One question that might have lead to the most outstanding advice for his old friend who was attentively listening was, “Was it a culture shock?” He told the class that having friends that spend $150 on concerts and telling him, “It’s nothing. We ball hard,” was different for him. But when they would encourage him to spend as frivolously as they did, he would diffuse the situation with humor by saying things like, “I’m just a broke college student.” And lately, since he’s shared his experience about going from Murrah to Harvard, he’s felt like people try to craft his story as just that; a stereotypical poor little black kid who makes it big at an Ivy League school against his odds. But Porter tries to safeguard against that and it was clear to the students he spoke to and especially his former classmate, the editor who is very proud of him. “The most outstanding advice Justin gave us was not living a life that has already been lived,” she says.



Hometown Heroes :: Melvin Priester, Saving Jackson One Room At A Time

melvin-preister-jrSitting amongst the crowd while sipping on an orange Faygo, Melvin Priester Jr. (@MelvinPriester) watches a movie about an African American hero unbeknownst that he might be considered a hero himself.  Priester was recently elected Councilman for Ward 2 of Jackson and is hosting a movie night at the Presidential Hills Community Center. The night before, along with Hinds County Sherriff Tyrone Lewis he showed the same movie, 42, a movie that illustrated the history of Jackie Robinson at Triumph Church.

“It really moved me as and when after our first movie night a young man came up to me, he was in the 6th grade and told me he had never gotten to go to the movies before in his whole life,” says Priester.  This movie night is just one example of the things Priester is really proud of. He is also quick to tell what inspired him to work for others in the first place: family tradition.

Priester’s grandmother, the late Bernice Stimley, was a shining example of how important it is to treat people with dignity, respect, and a commitment to caring. Stimley owned a grocery store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Jackson, ran a daycare center, and owned a number of properties. Priester said that when black people got an opportunity to work in polls she did so with passion until she was physically unable to.  “I share that spirit and drive,” Priester adds. “I think having multiple interests gives you the perspective to be able to look at what your primary job is in a new light and a new passion.”

On this rainy Saturday, the light from the windows starts creeping into the community center making it hard to view the movie on the projector screen.  Priester stands atop chairs to cover the windows with black garbage bags and cardboard to give the center filled with an audience of no more than a hundred a dark, movie-like atmosphere. While doing that, beneath him a volunteer for the movie night mops water from the leaking roof. Priester says he’s excited about hands on work like the “nuts and bolts things” that are necessary in Ward 2.

So far, he’s helped get potholes fixed, abandoned properties cleaned up, and lights turned on in parks for safety. He is also fighting to get Jackson Public Schools to resume bus services to the afterschool programs that the City of Jackson runs. Priester says he’s passionate about seeing drastic improvement in our educational system. “I see JPS is the biggest economic impediment to Jackson’s re-development,” Priester comments then explains how people move out of the city because they don’t trust JPS is good enough for their kids.

Children line the front row of the community center with their eyes glued to the makeshift movie screen. Alice Jackson, a resident of Presidential Hills brought her three grandchildren and says Priester couldn’t have picked a better movie. “I’m glad he did this because a lot of kids might not have known about the history of Jackie Robinson,” Jackson says. Her 9 year-old grandson Marvin Jackson who plays baseball says it made him want to play more often. He also has some ideas for the councilman. “They should bring a baseball event, or football!” Marvin says.

Even though Priester is open to suggestions, one of his first plans of action was made clear to the crowd that night. “Everyone knows Jackson doesn’t have a movie theater and we’re trying to change that even if we have to do it one room at a time.”