M Partner Celebrates Successful Pilot Phase in New Albany

Community engagement initiative will continue to improve quality of life in partner communities

Archive Photo: The New Albany Main Street Association worked with the McLean Institute and a CEED Innovation Scholar to create a leadership development program to build networks among talented young professionals in the area. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – After two years of collaboration between community members and faculty, staff and students from the University of Mississippi, the M Partner initiative has produced tangible gains in economic development and quality of life for residents of New Albany and Union County.

The university launched M Partner, a community engagement effort that seeks to improve life in Mississippi communities, in 2018. M Partner offers a framework for community and university representatives to pair university resources and expertise with priority projects in partner cities across the state, and supports institutional efforts to promote healthy and vibrant communities.

The inaugural M Partner communities were Charleston, Lexington and New Albany. In the latter, the pilot phase of M Partner included 12 academic courses and internships, six special programs and events, 11 new partnerships established through the North Mississippi VISTA Project and the involvement of 140 Ole Miss students.

A group of civic leaders in New Albany have driven the city’s partnership with the university and efforts to promote economic development, livability, educational attainment and leadership, and cultural heritage.

“To be able to work with the University of Mississippi and align their resources and expertise with projects that improved the quality of life for our community was an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Billye Jean Stroud, director of the New Albany Main Street Association. “The knowledge and guidance shared by both entities certainly confirmed that this pilot program met its objectives and more.

“New Albany would most definitely partner with this group again in the future.”

Economic Development

New Albany is about 40 minutes from campus at the juncture of Interstate 22 and two Mississippi highways, which link the city and the rest of Union County to the automotive, furniture and health care industries in adjacent Lee and Pontotoc counties. Community leaders in the three counties have taken a collaborative regional approach to economic development, so the university sought to leverage these connections as part of its larger M Partner strategy.

From 2018 to 2019, UM student Adriana Cooper, of Blue Mountain, served as the inaugural VISTA member with the Minority PUL Alliance to increase access to capital and entrepreneurship among women and minority-owned businesses, helping bolster financial knowledge for more than 150 people.

“M Partner has proven to be very beneficial to the city of New Albany, to include general appearance in some sections of the city and (to) enhance citizens’ positive thoughts regarding the county and city as a whole,” said Denotee Martin, executive director of the Minority PUL Alliance.

During the summer of 2019, Doug Weimer, of Bluefield, Virginia, served as an M Partner intern with the Three Rivers Planning and Development District, where he conducted research to compare the competitiveness of the region alongside other industrial corridors in the South and developed content for officials to promote Union County to the IT sector and other targeted industries.


Archive Photo: The marquee of the Magnolia Civic Center in New Albany celebrates the day that the M Partner initiative was announced. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

New Albany residents pride themselves on having a charming downtown area with ample parks and recreation facilities, including the 43.6-mile Tanglefoot Trail. Community meetings with university representatives surfaced a desire to support the Biscuits and Jam Farmers Market, assess the recreation infrastructure to identify opportunities for improvement and expansion, and launch beautification initiatives to drive tourism.

In the spring 2019 semester, 53 students enrolled in Honors 102 with Ashleen Williams, an instructor and senior Barksdale fellow in the university’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, worked with the farmers market to conduct market research and produce six reports reviewing best practices to promote attendance and engagement at the market.

During summer 2019, Ole Miss student Bella St. Amant, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, served as an M Partner intern, conducting informal interviews with vendors to gauge market strengths and areas for improvement. She also surveyed customers about purchasing, attendance and awareness of the market. Her final report included recommendations to support the culture of healthy eating and access to local produce.

“Working with community leaders in New Albany gave my honors students a chance to lean into their commitment to be both citizen and scholar, and to learn about the incredible work being done in communities in north Mississippi,” Williams said. “The opportunity to collaborate through M Partner changed my approach to the classroom and pushed me to consider the questions ‘What can we learn?’ and ‘Whom do we serve?'”

Another effort involved KoFan Lee, UM associate professor of sport and recreation administration, and Kim Beason, professor of sport and recreation administration, who worked with graduate students to develop and implement a survey to assess community recreation needs and satisfaction levels in 2019-20. Based on more than 200 responses, they developed recommendations and considerations around fitness and leisure to guide program development and the construction and renovation of new facilities.

To support beautification efforts, M Partner and the North Mississippi VISTA Project mobilized several large-scale days of service in August and October 2018 and January and October 2019, putting 66 UM students to work in beautification and landscaping projects.

To make these efforts more sustainable, UM student Astha Kandel, from Nepal, served as an M Partner intern and worked with the New Albany Main Street Association during summer 2019 to develop lesson plans teaching environmental stewardship for elementary and middle school youth. Kandel serves as a CEED Innovation Scholar, where she applies entrepreneurial thinking to lessons from community work.

Educational Attainment and Leadership

The UM McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, which coordinates M Partner efforts across the university, works to drive innovation and economic development through education.

The institute placed VISTA summer associates to support summer learning and enrichment in the New Albany and Union County school districts during summer 2018 and 2019. Collectively, these three summer associates documented increases in literacy and/or math skills in nearly 160 students, preparing them to sustain their academic growth.

To encourage students to attend college, M Partner intern Breonna Grant, of Decatur, Georgia, organized a symposium in summer 2019 for high school students from the Boys & Girls Club of New Albany. Participants heard from a panel of local bankers about money management and strategies for saving and paying for college.

This event also strengthened connections among financial institutions, the Boys & Girls Club, the Main Street Association and the university.

“The experiences the M Partner initiative brought to New Albany are priceless,” said Tracy Vainisi, assistant director of the New Albany Main Street Association and gifted teacher at New Albany Middle School.

“One of my favorite aspects was working with student interns. Their fresh perspectives on community engagement, energy and eagerness to challenge the status quo was wonderful. They pushed me out of my own comfort zone.”

To help attract and retain young leaders and ensure a vibrant local economy, Josh Baker, an economics major and CEED student from Houston, Texas, also served as an M Partner intern and developed a Leadership New Albany program modeled on leadership development programs led by many other chambers of commerce.

Such programs strengthen connections among change agents, business leaders and government agencies. The program outline includes strategic objectives, suggested participant attributes, steering committee commitments, participation agreement, suggested calendar and session structure, project goals, and an alumni network to develop community ambassadors and economic development champions.

Cultural Heritage

Partnership with the Union County Heritage Museum is the final area where the university has invested in the community. Since 2018, two full-time VISTA members have served at the museum, working to create lessons that highlight the history of Union County, from William Falkner to Native American cultural artifacts found in the area.

Seven honors students worked last spring under the direction of Rebecca Marchiel, UM assistant professor of history, to conduct oral history interviews with descendants of Black musicians and business owners from New Albany. These interviews and associated artifacts will become part of the museum’s collection, and a VISTA member plans to develop lesson plans to share the findings with local public school students.

“Our partners in New Albany refer to themselves as a ‘community of doers,'” said Laura Martin, M Partner director and associate director of the McLean Institute. “It has been inspiring to see the collective impact that is possible when our partnership is energized by such visionary community partners and committed faculty, staff and students.

“We are deeply grateful to all of the community and campus partners who contributed to the successes of the pilot phase of M Partner in New Albany.”