There continues to be an increase of focus on the causes and effects of the “brain drain” on Mississippi's youth. This includes an oversaturation of data attempting to quantify the issues and solutions. While I enjoy “wonking” out on policy with the best wonks, the more I consider this topic, the more I believe the answer starts with something very simple.

Since assuming the role of secretary of state, I have traveled Mississippi speaking to numerous groups of all ages. As I reflect on the speech topics and discussions, a consistent theme emerges—our high school and college students are some of the most passionate, engaged and sincere Mississippians in the state. Contradictory to the narrative we hear, I believe this population truly loves Mississippi and her people.

So, what gives?

The real question is—does Mississippi reciprocate this sentiment? Yes, it is easy to say we must stop the brain drain while dealing with abstract theory, but to keep our best and brightest home, it is not just talking about what makes Mississippi great or what should change. We must focus on our youngest generation as individuals, not just as numbers. To show we truly care, we must invest on a personal level.

It reminds me of the video we filmed during my 2019 campaign for secretary of state. Sitting at my daughter’s miniature table with teacups in hand, we had a simple conversation regarding my election. While we may have been filming this for a commercial, the concept still resonates. Our children and young people want us to meet them where they are, look them in the eye and have real conversations.

Secretary Michael Watson
The Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office has enacted programs that Michael Watson says helps young Mississippians become more civically engaged, such as the Jackson Public School Summit and the Promote the Vote program. Photo courtesy Secretary of State

Although our newest programs at the Secretary of State’s Office may not be politically expedient, they are by far some of my favorites and most rewarding. Through the SOS Student Ambassador program, our Jackson Public School Summit and the Promote the Vote program, we have the opportunity to invest in young Mississippians through civic engagement while fostering heartfelt relationships. We have been able to say, “We see you, and we hear you!”

By creating these interactions, we give our students a forum and understanding they are part of the big picture. Not only does it engage them civically, but it creates a long-term investment in hopes of them settling roots to continue calling Mississippi “home.”

As I often discuss with our students, growing up as a preacher’s son came with the heavy burden of following in my father’s footsteps. I knew I was drawn to public service but did not feel led to ministry. Through a conversation with one of my own mentors, I realized I could serve others from any position or profession.

Despite “wonking” out on policy and being a statewide elected official, I am truly grateful God has given me a platform to connect with and mentor Mississippi’s future leaders. I also encourage each of you reading this to use your status and positions to positively influence this young generation. Through genuine and transparent interactions, we will make a difference in their lives and ensure Mississippi’s prosperity for years to come.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Crirec, 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 [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Secretary of State Michael David Watson, Jr., was born and raised in Mississippi. He is a husband to his loving wife Lauren, father of three beautiful young daughters, the son of a shipyard worker and bank teller. After his work as a pipefitter, Watson’s father entered the ministry and continues to serve as pastor at Liberty Church in Gautier. His mother passed away shortly before Watson became Mississippi’s thirty-sixth Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, he is focused on emphasizing the importance of clean voter rolls and continuing strong enforcement of Mississippi’s Voter ID law to protect the integrity of Mississippi elections. Since taking office, he’s fought to push legislation to ensure only United States citizens are registered to vote in Mississippi. Watson is also working to reduce regulations and red tape so small businesses can grow and flourish in a free market economy to bring about a more efficient and effective state government. During his first year as Secretary of State, he launched the Tackle the Tape Initiative, which promotes competition and encourages innovation and job growth to help increase economic opportunities for all Mississippians.