Young people in Louisiana are asking themselves a key question: Should I stay or should I go?
Students, political figures and entrepreneurs from across the state gathered Tuesday at LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs for a symposium on re-envisioning Louisiana as a place that could keep more of its young talent from moving to states ranked more highly for economic and educational opportunities.
“I think if I had gone to those places that are fifth on the lists instead of 45th, I think my road ahead would be easier, but I also think it would be less impactful,” LSU sophomore Sarah Procopio said.
Procopio, a Baton Rouge native, explained that she would rather stay in her home state and fight for change.
Procopio organized the event with LSU’s student government leaders in reaction to a series of columns written by LSU professor Robert Mann. In 2014, Mann argued that the state needed to work to retain the younger generation. Three years later, however, he wrote another column saying he was wrong, and that young people should leave to seek better opportunities.
Political consultant James Carville shared that he left Louisiana in 1982 because “things weren’t going right.” But, he said, those who leave still feel a cultural pull to Louisiana.
“There’s something a little different about this state,” Carville said. “We are not just a place. We are a culture.”
In the keynote address, Collis Temple III, a former LSU basketball player who is the national sales director of Primerica, a financial-services company, said Louisiana comprises both good and bad, but that anyone who commits to staying in the state should work to make it the best it can be.
Temple responded to a young woman considering graduate school out-of-state because she was concerned about racial barriers by saying that racism is a problem all over the world.
“You’re not running from it by leaving here,” Temple said. “What we can do is build relationships with folks that are here, and we can personally decide to take ownership and become change agents ourselves.”
Carville said that to talk about why students would want to leave Louisiana and not talk about racism would “be dishonest.” He said he hopes his generation did not “infect this generation with the prejudice of the past.”
Temple, who grew up in Baton Rouge, emphasized the importance of education as “the point of the spear” when it comes to improving the state.
“Financial literacy equals economic empowerment, which leads to real change in our community,” he said. “Good people will do good things with good money.”
Another panel explored access to education, from primary to post-secondary. Sarah Broome, executive director of THRIVE, a charter school in Baton Rouge, reinforced the need to develop “policy that promotes change in the school system.”
Panelists focused on the importance of funding early childhood development programs to foster success later in life.
“All this is about re-prioritizing — it’s as simple as that,” former Louisiana Sen. Ann Duplessis said. “We are not going to skimp on early childhood.”
Opening remarks were made by LSU officials, including Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle, who said it is important for schools to recruit Louisiana’s “best and brightest.”
“Keeping people in the state is not, historically, an easy sell,” Earle said. “For young people, we have done a poor job in making this place, Louisiana, a place where you want to stay and apply your gifts and knowledge.”
Courtney Scott, chief strategist at Bryan Group, a strategic branding firm in Baton Rouge, said she encourages young people to find opportunity in Baton Rouge.
“I was one of those people who left,” Scott said. “When you go to other cities, you’re competing with people who are just like you — why would I compete here when I can go back to Baton Rouge and create?”
Scott noted that while there are many exciting developments in Louisiana’s capital in healthcare, arts and culture, it also is up to the younger generation to “show up and have ideas.”
Susana Schowen, director of workforce initiatives at Louisiana Economic Development, said in order to diversify Louisiana’s economy, technology must permeate “everything we do.”
Students at the symposium said while they recognized Louisiana’s problems, they do want to stay in the state to affect change.
“Louisiana is a great place to be, and it is a place of great promise, but we have to be active in creating and engaging change for people like us,” Grant Henry, president of Student Government Association at Nicholls State University, said.
Procopio said she believes the symposium will help people realize that young people can recognize the problems in the state while being “cautiously optimistic but never complacent.”
“If there’s one thing I want people to walk away from here thinking, it’s that they learned something they didn’t know about an issue, and they want to do something about it,” she said.