In Norway it gets dark early. As we left for the arena around 4:00 P.M., the hazy glow of the daytime winter sky in Oslo had faded. I was on the bus headed to a concert honoring one of our own. Daniel was a member of our little band of misfits living in Geneva, Switzerland, who worked in and around the United Nations on issues ranging from poverty, hunger, and demining to human rights, health, and humanitarian relief.
By all measurements, Daniel had “made it.” A native of Los Angeles with British and Swedish parents, he worked for an organization that had recently helped guide a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The day before, they had received the Nobel Peace Prize. That night I found myself with the King and Queen of Norway sitting twenty feet behind me and gazing up at John Legend playing an antique piano recovered from Hiroshima which still emitted faint levels of radiation from the blast seventy-two years before.
Having known them so well, in that moment my mind strangely settled not on how extraordinary of an achievement Daniel and his team had made (and it was extraordinary) but rather, at their deepest core, how incredibly ordinary these people were. They had parents, brothers, sisters, best friends. They remembered the phone numbers from their childhood homes, got teased about clothes they wore in middle school, and were nervous on their first dates. They were from somewhere. Being here, at the pinnacle achievement, it just might be that one of the most interesting stories lay not in their Nobel medal but rather what about the DNA of their somewhere led them here.
I moved to Madison County when I was two years old and am, at every level, a product of the West Tennessee. I walked every step of the well-worn path from West Jackson preschool and Andrew Jackson Elementary to Tigrett Middle, Jackson Central-Merry, and finally Union University. I knew every corner of every hallway and gym at First Baptist, Englewood, and First United Methodist churches. I could also, without putting too many stray dogs and old ladies at risk, make a pretty decent attempt at driving blindfolded down Wallace, Old Hickory, North Highland, Parkway, and Hollywood.
Over the course of the twenty years I spent in Jackson, Tennessee, I made a lot of friends. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, it would be those friends and acquaintances that would play a large role in constructing the architecture of how I both interpreted and interacted with the world around me. These people would shape my perceptions of my strengths and limitations as well as those of others. The ecosystem that I would walk through during those two decades would either sharpen or dull my vision, energy, and courage to reach beyond what was known and comfortable.
The idea for the Jackson Grown series developed slowly over the course of 2017. Living in a highly international city at the heart of Europe, one regularly comes into contact with individuals whose life stories deserve tribute on movie screens and TV shows. They range from F-16 pilots from Montana turned Spanish wine connoisseurs to Syrian refugees who fled as children and now advocate for human rights in the elaborate marble hallways of the United Nations.
Looking over my shoulder toward home, however, there were a number of Jacksonians who were starting to make their marks in the fields of music, sports, journalism, politics, business, and academia. As stories of these “Jackson expats” evolved, my interest grew in understanding what about this wide spot along Interstate 40 helped incubate everyone from Billboard chart-topping songwriters to NFL coaches and leading Harvard researchers.
As these Jackson friends trickled in for the holidays from around the country, we found ourselves catching up in parking lots, shopping lines, and around dinner tables. After quickly covering the talking points of our current lives, we turned toward the old days on baseball fields and around campfires on the banks of the Tennessee River. It was in the moments after the handshakes and till-next-year’s that I couldn’t help thinking about the unique links between the pasts and presents of the individuals with whom I had grown up.
Many of these people who I call friends—whether from Bulgaria or Beech Bluff, Morocco or Malesus, Norway or North Jackson—are people with something very basic in common: they have left the homes where they were raised. They stepped away from the schools, churches, and streets that they knew so well towards a yet to be defined dream and a yet to be finished story.
In looking at the geographic starting points of people’s lives, we tend to explain a town, its people, and its legacy by what is between the “Welcome to” and “Come Again” signs. We hesitate to examine the impact or strength of a place based on the folks that have left. There is a fear, perhaps, that this leaving could be sign of deterioration in a community, more of a hasty fleeing from, as Jackson native Brandon Lay would say, a "Never Look Back Town" as opposed to a purposeful sending out of prepared risk-takers into the world.
In the case of a handful of Jackson’s own living in places as close as Nashville and as far as the other side of the Atlantic, a group has emerged that is representing Jackson on stages large and small. Their stories represent the best of the community, as well as examples of overcoming some of its biggest challenges.
Over the coming year, the Jackson Grown series will dive into the interplay between the Hub City’s history and its hopes as well as how that environment has crafted the unique souls and skills chipping away at the world’s status quo. We are eager to explore the unique gift that Jackson has to offer the world through the heads, hands, and hearts of the people that have called it home.
A native of Jackson, Jon Mark Walls is a social entrepreneur, lecturer, and speechwriter who is driven by the idea that better communication can lead to better politics. Having worked for the United Nations as well as various governments and NGOs, he co-founded GovFaces which aimed to improve interactive communication between citizens and representatives. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jon Mark has sought to blend traditional communications approaches with new technologies and develop ways of delivering ideas across all levels of society.