By Talbert Toole
*Editor’s Note: Hottytoddy.com is reinstating its “Lafayette-Oxford-University (LOU) Women on the Move” series with women who are on the forefront of their respective career fields. In its first installment, Hottytoddy.com interviews Kathryn York who is running for Mississippi District 8 Senate.
Growing up in Georgia, Kathryn York always had one mission in mind: leveling the playing field for education. Now that she has settled in Water Valley with her husband Joe and her two children, York is still on a roll to finish what she noticed as severe disadvantages while a student at the University of Georgia.
Hailing from parents who were both school teachers, York knew she wanted to pursue education policy. She began her mission as a pre-law student with hopes of attending law school. However, she felt she needed to act fast in her career.
“I felt the need to make an impact on that system directly and quickly,” York said.
York found the Teach for America program during her last year of college. The program was addressing systemic education and inequity in places that needed teachers the most, including Mississippi. It just so happened to be York’s top choice for placement within the program.
In 2004, York packed her bags and uprooted herself from Georgia to Mississippi where she would become a teacher at Madison Shannon Palmer High School in Marks, Mississippi where she would start the choral music program.
“I moved from my cognitive understanding of the problem of educational inequity to living and breathing it with my students and parents,” York said.
With a firsthand account of educational inequity in Mississippi, York knew at that moment educational reform would become her passion. Though she began to see policy make headway, the education system as a whole still has work to do, she said.
After teaching in Marks for two years, York moved across the pond to London, England, where she continued in her education career as an English teacher. In 2008, she found herself back in the Magnolia State where she settled in Water Valley.
She continued to be a part of the Teach for America program as a staff member where she worked in the educational landscape.
At the time, Water Valley was experiencing significant growth in economic development through the arts. She said the town’s energy was fascinating, with longtime residents and newcomers both wanting to infuse new energy into the Valley. For the second time in her life, she trusted her gut to act fast.
“I got together [with residents] and talked about what sustainable economic development would look like,” York said. “I think all of those [ideas] working together was the catalyst for making Water Valley what it is today.”
York continued her education by obtaining a master’s degree in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. She moved to Oxford where she would meet her husband, Joe, and have her first child, Emma. The family moved back to Water Valley where York said the town had yet again begun to blossom with the new additions such as art galleries and restaurants. The Yorks decided the town would be where they would plant their roots and invest by purchasing building space on Main Street by refurbishing it to office spaces and apartments.
York said she and her husband simply “want the town to win.”
“I think that’s what community is really all about,” York said. “We learned that from the people who have been here for the long haul. You lean into the place where you are and make it what you want it to be. You do that for you, your children and their children.”
“Do it yesterday.”
Although York works with local organizations every day which seek to positively impact the educational environment in the area, she wanted a more direct impact.
“Whatever that opportunity was next, I was going to do it,” she said.
The Mississippi District 8 Senate seat opened up not long after York witnessed inequality the education system throughout the state faced, specifically in District 8. She knew this would be the opportunity to focus her energy and make an impact.
The only thing left to do was share with her family her political intentions. York said she hesitantly approached her husband with the idea, saying her candidacy could have a direct impact on the Water Valley community.
All he said was, “do it yesterday.”
Policies that Matter
District 8 is one of the larger districts in the state and encompasses many rural areas of Mississippi. When York launched her campaign for the Senate seat, her campaign began with a listening tour visiting residents and voters. She said after hearing stories from all across the area, she began with three issues she would focus on as a state senator: high-quality education for every child, economic development and infrastructure.
York visited with schools, teachers and students listening to the issues that these three face when striving for educational excellence in a state that yearly ranks last in the country. She said Mississippi has some of the most brilliant, resilient and creative students in the country because they have to be.
“[Mississippi] has made a way out of no way for centuries,” she said.
When Mississippi stopped allowing the status quo to be the norm and place resources behind the state’s children, “We will turn our state around,” York said.
As York continues to focus energy on educational reform, she also has ideas for economic development by bringing jobs to District 8. She said the state can use the resources it already has in place to create jobs, especially for working mothers.
With the state’s thriving community college network, York wants to have those colleges partner with new industries. By allowing the new industries to partner and help create curriculums based on its needs, recent community college graduates would have jobs guaranteed.
With the new lottery system coming to Mississippi, $81 million is already allocated for infrastructure. York said that the remaining funds are set to be used for education enhancement. She proposes to use that allocated money to pay for the tuition of the students in community colleges who have partnered with those new industries. By allowing this, she said the state will have graduates with zero debt and a guaranteed job.
“That will change our economy,” she said.
Throughout the country and in Mississippi, infrastructure remains to be an issue that both sides of the aisle are continuously trying to fix. York said this issue runs deep in the rural areas of District 8 due to the trucks hauling crops and agricultural needs for the area, such as sweet potatoes and lumber.
While those trucks haul necessities in and out of the area, the roads begin to increase in dilapidation, which leads to safety issues for those who drive residentially in the area. Although $81 million is set aside for infrastructure, York said the state needs a representative in Jackson making sure the money is being allocated appropriately to those who are in dire need of infrastructure repairs, such as the state’s farmers.
“Mississippi could not run without our farmers,” she said.
Although York is a strong advocate for the state’s farmers, she said there needs to be a stronger relationship with the federal government when it concerns Mississippi’s farmers and residents.
Recently, farmers in the Delta have been struck by flooding which has caused a lack of crops. The industry has also faced problems with President Donald J. Trump’s tariffs.
York said the state has missed partnerships with the federal government in the past, for example, Medicaid expansion, where the state left millions of dollars on the table.
She said a stronger partnership with the federal government will help meet the needs of Mississippians who are in need of resources.
“We must be willing to listen to what our people need,” she said.
York will face off against Kegan Coleman and Mark Hancock during the Democratic Primary election on Aug. 8. If she is successful, she will go up against one of three Republican candidates — Benjamin A. Suber, Stephen Scott Griffin or Steve Whitten.
For more information on Kathryn York and her campaign, visit her website.