M Partner Summer Interns Work to Improve Quality of Life in New Albany

Five students assist farmers market, youth and economic development organizations

M Partner intern Astha Kandel (front center) works with youth from the New Albany Boys and Girls Club on a community cleanup day. Submitted photo

NEW ALBANY, Miss. – This summer, University of Mississippi students completed internships in communities across the state working through M Partner, a community engagement effort that seeks to improve quality of life in partner cities.

In New Albany, five University of Mississippi students worked on community development and revitalization projects that involved the local farmers market, a youth-focused nonprofit organization and a planning and development district, among other initiatives.

M Partner offers a framework for community and university representatives to advance priority projects in partner cities across the state. The initiative is central to the university’s mission of learning, discovery and engagement.

Team Up to Clean Up

Astha Kandel is a junior majoring in banking and finance who worked this summer with the New Albany Main Street Association to promote and advance beautification in the community. An international student from Nepal, she understood the role that volunteerism can play to promote community development in rural areas.

“I used to be very passionate about volunteering in social campaigns and environment-friendly activities in school,” Kandel said. “I’ve always thought that youth have a major role in community development and should take any opportunity they get to help and serve the community they are around.”

Throughout the six-week internship, Kandel learned many things, including how to work in a community that was new to her. To learn about community perspectives, Kandel created a survey and collected data about perceptions of New Albany among local businesses owners and residents.

“When you first step in the community, everything looks fine and organized, but you would have to go deep into the neighborhoods to find out what the city needs and the residents feel,” Kandel said.

Besides researching community attitudes toward the town, Kandel collaborated with the Boys & Girls Club of New Albany and organized a cleanup day.

“Young students worked with Astha and engaged in meaningful conversation about the environment,” said Billye Jean Stroud, director of the New Albany Main Street Association. “Whenever the communication lines are opened up, it’s a win for all.”

Food that Nourishes Your Body and Community that Nourishes Your Soul

In a grassy patch beneath shade trees on the bank of the Tallahatchie River, hundreds of community members and visitors gathered to peruse the offerings of the Biscuits and Jam Farmers Market: fresh Mississippi vegetables, fruits, honey, preserves and other handmade goods from local farmers and artisans.

Bella St. Amant, a senior pursuing degrees in international studies and Spanish, worked to support this farmers market through researching best practices for its expansion and promotion.

The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native has been actively involved in community service abroad and in the Oxford-Lafayette community during her undergraduate career at the university. She used skills she gained from her extensive service experience to expand and promote the New Albany farmers market this summer.

UM senior Bella St. Amant visits the Biscuits and Jam Farmers Market in New Albany. She went to the market weekly this summer to evaluate the market and provide recommendations for its expansion. Submitted photo

Over the course of the summer, St. Amant researched and developed the market’s social media marketing strategies and collaborated with community stakeholders to shape its unique brand. She took photos, visited with vendors and observed the number and profile of consumers to get a better understanding of the market’s strengths and weaknesses.

St. Amant also created eye-catching graphics that reflect the colorful and vibrant atmosphere of the market and promoted the special programs and workshops that it hosts, such as a demonstration booth sponsored by the New Albany Main Street Association that showcased a variety of activities, including cooking demonstrations, terrarium-crafting activities and homemade tincture workshops.

Other programs that St. Amant promoted include BNA Bank’s Produce Power on children’s nights, a program that gives children who participate in two booths at the market a $5 token to spend on fruits and vegetables, and the Pediatric and Internal Medicine Clinic of New Albany, which offers free blood pressure readings to market patrons and then “prescribes” the patron a $20 voucher for produce.

“As the market has grown, I feel that it has become more than just a location to stop and pick up local produce,” said Tracy Vainisi of the New Albany Main Street Association. “It has become a gathering spot for the community.

“Through collaboration with M Partner, the farmers market has received new opportunities to use academic research to plan its future growth and promote awareness for the market and its initiatives on social media.”

Engaging Local Youth to Envision the Future

Breonna Grant, a second-year student in the Ole Miss law school, supported community revitalization initiatives this summer in New Albany. She worked to engage the imagination of the city’s young people through workshops and events, and sought community participation through a range of initiatives.

Grant partnered with the New Albany Main Street Association and New Albany Boys & Girls Club to facilitate a financial literacy symposium and a SAT/ACT prep boot camp.

“Through the financial literacy symposium, youth learned how to save, budget and invest as well as become the entrepreneurial thinkers their city needs to create a vibrant future,” Grant said. “The Main Street Association, in conjunction with other community leaders, believed that we could channel an interest in the youth that would ultimately fuel the fire for them to imagine and create a future for New Albany as a town where they could imagine their grandchildren thriving.”

A highlight of the summer was an opportunity for youth from the Boys & Girls Club to provide feedback that will be incorporated into the comprehensive city planning process. The youth heard a presentation about city planning, then discussed their vision and aspirations for their community while reviewing maps of the city.

“New Albany is a model for being open and intentional in their comprehensive planning process,” Grant said. “The youth have engaged in serious dialogue with local city planners in order to determine what New Albany will look like in 10 years, and they have delved into SAT and ACT prep in order to seriously consider their college and post-high school options in order to earn the money to fund these entrepreneurial efforts that will ultimately change the face of New Albany.”

Leadership New Albany

Josh Baker, a senior majoring in economics and an innovation scholar with the McLean Institute‘s Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development initiative, developed a framework for a civic engagement program for local professionals called Leadership New Albany.

“This leadership program targets adults aged 25-40 in New Albany for the purpose of placement in existing nonprofits, community leadership positions, governmental roles, as well as creating new pathways and opportunities for community involvement,” Baker said.

The structure of Leadership New Albany was modeled after Leadership Lafayette, a civic engagement program that has seen great success in Lafayette County. Participants in the Leadership New Albany program will meet once a month for six months to engage in professional development workshops, learn from guest speakers, tour community locations and network.

The focus of the program is a group civic engagement project that will produce a positive impact on the community. While working on the group project, Leadership New Albany participants will build relationships with community members and institutions and engage in a mutually beneficial interaction with them.

At the end of the program, participants will present a presentation about their project and be recognized as graduates of Leadership New Albany.

An interesting aspect of this program is the proposed alumni network. Each individual who graduates from the Leadership New Albany program will be recorded in a “past member roster” that will be used to build a network of community professionals.

“As graduates rise in New Albany’s community, so will the opportunities for participants,” Baker said. “This creates a sustainable leadership program that only can get more attractive year after year to New Albany residents, as well as ensure as many opportunities for success as possible for the program’s participants.”

Elevating Regional Community and Economic Development

Douglas Weimer, a senior majoring in public policy leadership from Bluefield, Virginia, worked with the Three Rivers Planning and Development District to generate economic development through business attraction and retention in New Albany, Union County and Northeast Mississippi as a whole.

Weimer conducted data collection for the Three Rivers Planning and Development District. He also updated presentations and was trained to use different database platforms, such as like JobsEQ and GIS. His work contributed to the mission of the planning and development district, which is to help facilitate community planning and promote economic and civic development.

“Those in the community, especially within the office itself, reminded me of where I grew up more than I had expected,” Weimer said. “Being from a rural area, I saw that those living in north Mississippi faced many of the same sorts of challenges that those who lived in southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia faced, especially in terms of job creation and wage stagnation.

“The same feeling of community action and the need for place-making was very similar to what I had experienced growing up in central Appalachia, and the community friendliness was similar as well.”