Jackson's Eleven: The JFP's Young Influentials of 2007

On the following pages, you'll find profiles of the JFP'S 2007 11 Young Influentials. These outstanding individuals are 40 and younger, and each has significant impact on the people around them. Their energies, singly and collectively, reach beyond Jackson's city limits, and within the city, their handprints are inescapable. They are the best at what they do. Ironically, they're a lot like the characters in the film "Ocean's 11."

You're familiar with the movie, I'm sure. George Clooney … err, Danny Ocean, pulls a group of folks together who are masters at their respective skills. Each individual in the group is accomplished and confident in their abilities. (Never mind the fact that these characters gathered to pull off an incredulous heist. It's the exceptionality with which they did their jobs that's important here.) The same can be said of this year's Young Influentials. They are visual and performing artists, attorneys, activists, and business people who are zealous about building on foundations laid by those who were young and influential before they were. None of the Young Influentials are looking to make a name for themselves. They're doing what they feel charged to do: Make a difference. Revolution takes both leaders and followers. Are you in or out?
— Natalie A. Collier

by Matt Saldaña
Photo by Johnny Levi, Jr.

Jackson State Ph.D candidate Teri Robinson was first recognized for her academic achievements on Frank Melton's billboard campaign that paired wanted criminals on one side with outstanding high school students on the other. Since then, the Callaway High School graduate has met Nobel laureates in Germany, taught theoretical chemistry in Poland and presented her research in the Czech Republic.

"When I go to places, and I'm dealing with another generation of scientists, I guess I'm unorthodox in the way I dress and the way I come in, but the mind is still there," she said. "It's so funny, because people go, 'You're a what?'"

Robinson is a 29-year-old black female who is at the forefront of an innovative new science that could help save the world. In May 2007, she will graduate with her doctoral degree in theoretical chemistry, a field that combines physics, math and chemistry in visualizing real-world problems, such as pollution and water contamination, in computational environments. A recipient of a president's post-doctoral fellowship, she will set up a lab and teach classes at the University of California Santa Barbara next fall.

"We need more chemists and more scientists who are willing to look at these problems, because most of the scientists, or the Nobel laureates I met, are older now. We need a new generation to come and take the helm and work on these problems," she said.

In addition to conducting research and inspiring a new generation of scientists, she hopes to work with the government to solve environmental issues.

"I want to be able to enjoy the countryside and the water, to be able to go out without having to worry about (whether or not it will be) there five or 10 years later," she said.

by Emily Braden
Photo by Roy Adkins

Tara Blumenthal, 31, says she "could have been a big wreck." Of course, we don't see that on the outside. Just look at her. But Blumenthal is very open regarding her life's journey. In 2000, she was en route to a master's degree in psychology when a violent crime darkened her path with a wound that literally cut straight to her skull. Her physical, emotional and spiritual recovery left little time for grad school, and she had to choose: post-graduate degree or overall well-being.

Blumenthal chose the latter.

Seven years later, Blumenthal tells her story with positive energy, when she could just as easily hold onto anger and resentment. She could bash the city where the crime occurred, she could move to the suburbs, or she could shield herself in isolation to avoid any other physical hurts. She chooses not to do this because this influential does not have a spirit of fear.

Now, as an instructor at Butterfly Yoga and drummer in The Curves, a band she describes as "very therapeutic," she uses her past to encourage others to heal themselves and not to be ashamed of seeking help. This year, Blumenthal is pouring her strength into the JFP Chick Ball by volunteering her time as an organizer and her talents playing drums for the evening along with her sister-in-spirit, Laurel Isbister. "I get chills when I describe my connection with Laurel," she says.

In fact, she attributes her affirmative personality to the power of other women who "propelled" her: her sister, her grandmother and her godmother (whom she describes as "a fiery red-head" who "taught me to check my own oil"). She brings that learned empowerment to the table for the Chick Ball, giving the organizing committee what can only be described as the "Essence of Tara." She encourages her friends, her yoga students and just about anyone who will listen to take care of their emotional selves.

by Andi Agnew
Photo by Darren Schwindaman

Kate Jacobson, 22, has progressed from the presidency of the Young Democrats at Millsaps College to the vice president for the statewide organization. Not only that, the Tupelo native also works full-time in the communications department for the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association. Jacobson says her family influenced her decision to become involved in politics. Hers was a family that cared about politics and always supported the Democratic Party.

"I remember having a mock election at school, and my mom telling me to vote for Bill Clinton before putting me on the bus." After that experience, Jacobson says she was "bitten by the bug."

Jacobson is also one of the youngest members of the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee, where she recently helped certify all the candidates for the upcoming county elections. She is excited to see other young Democrats running for office in Mississippi, and she predicts that the 2008 elections will be very interesting as well. "If John Edwards gets the Democratic nomination, we could see Mississippi become a blue state again," Jacobson says.

Jacobson is energetic and enthusiastic about her cause. She will likely pursue her education further and is considering law school, but for now she is happy with the work she is doing. The Young Democrats co-sponsored a campaign training event in March, and Jacobson has been working closely with both candidates and campaign workers to get ready for the 2007 elections. "I just hope I can get more young people active in the party and in the election process," she says.

by Margaret Cahoon
Photo by Darren Schwindaman

Chris Nolen is hiding something.

Infamous for his recent Che Guevara-style Frank Melton T-shirts, Nolen is a designer in a local Jackson firm, the name of which he will not disclose. We know about his work on last year's Jacktoberfest and that he is helping to plan this year's Jubilee! Jam (June 15 and 16 … mark your calendar). Another round of Jacktoberfest is in the works for this year, and Nolen promises it will be "stronger, even Jackier than last year." But what is this elusive other festival he's thinking about?

"I think you could say there's reason for excitement," Nolen said about performers and plans for the alleged event, but that is all he would say. Accused of having (and keeping) all his tricks up his sleeve, the 30-year-old did not disagree: "My sleeves run deep. I'm a 44 long."

So what will he tell you? He loves the Jackson arts scene and wants to do as much as possible to promote it. His first love is music; he grew up on a farm in the Pontotoc/Tupelo area; he lives in Belhaven with Kelly, his wife of a year and a half; and he went to Mississippi State for his degree in fine art with an emphasis in design. When he graduated, he moved to Jackson and has been here for the last five years.

He and JFP art director Darren Schwindaman have of late been looking to garner interest for a Jackson designers' organization, which would both educate people about and promote the art and design industry in Jackson.

"I would like in some small way to make Jackson a better design place," Nolen said. "The town will be what we make of it."

Whatever Nolen is hiding, it's bound to be good.

by Tiffany Fitch
Photo by Brian Johnson

Growing up in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Brent Cox, now 40, wanted to be "The Green Lantern." As years passed, he settled into a love for philosophy, which led him to the University of West Florida. There, he experienced a defining moment.

"I lived near The Ladies Center in Pensacola," he says, referring to an abortion clinic. "We'd walk by, and it was just mobbed. I didn't want to get involved."

But he did, showing up with two friends on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to show their support for a woman's right to choose. The clinic staff took notice and asked Cox to help escort clients. He agreed, escorting women several times a week from the parking lot to the clinic doors past jeering, pushing, screaming men. Not long after, Dr. David Gunn, the clinic physician, was shot and killed by Michael Griffin, an anti-abortion terrorist.

"That experience made me think that instead of teaching philosophy, maybe I should do something for the ACLU," he says.

Cox transferred to Earlham College in Indiana, where he finished his bachelor's in philosophy. The school's Quaker background and focus on social justice were a perfect fit. Returning to Pensacola, he opened an ACLU office there. Then, in 2006, he came on board at the Jackson office of the ACLU, where he is the public education coordinator.

"It's like being a teacher," he says. "I go into communities and teach people about the Bill of Rights and how to mobilize to change things."

Cox may not be running through the streets in green tights, but in his own way, he is saving the day.

"The work we do here," he says, "really is like being a super hero. You go into places where people's rights are being abused, and you help them."

by Adni Agnew
Photo by Natalie A. Collier

Twenty-seven-year-old George Miles gets to do what everyone aspires to but few actually achieve. He does what he loves … and gets paid to do it. The Jackson State grad and self-described "Renaissance Man" is a photographer, painter, filmmaker and co-creator of the "Trapped Flowers" exhibit, which opens April 11 at ARTichoke gallery.

The Starkville native started drawing in elementary school. Miles then found his artistic niche in high school under the instruction and mentoring of Andrew Lark, winner of the Mississippi Teacher of the Year award in 2003.

"He really pushed me. … He gave me the inspiration to keep on keeping on," says Miles. Since then, Miles has not slowed down in his pursuit to bring his art to the masses.

Miles says the theme of "Trapped Flowers" comes from his experiences watching female family members deal with abusive relationships. A picture he took of a little girl holding a flower opened his eyes to the fact that these women often put on a façade as if life is perfect, but there are problems lurking underneath. Expanding on that idea, Miles says, "Like those women, we all have problems that others can't see."

"Trapped Flowers" will become a traveling exhibit after its time at ARTichoke. "We will become Mississippi representatives to the world as we take this exhibit to Arkansas and then on to Atlanta," Miles says.

In addition to this project, Miles is directing his first music video with local hip-hop artist Jason Thompson (aka Inf). Miles also described a project he calls "Fusion" in which he and other artists collaborate and do an art show together. Miles says: "Our art is the message we send to the people. I love Jackson, and I just want to give back to the community."

by Andi Agnew
Photo by Roy Adkins

Jonathan Lee, 29, never thought he would find himself in Jackson. After graduating from Mississippi State University, Lee stayed in Starkville and worked for the university for a couple of years. He made the move to Jackson to help out with his family's business and to take care of his father, diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, his father passed away about eight months later, but Lee decided to stay and continue his father's legacy by keeping the family business going: Mississippi Products. Open since 1992, Mississippi Products contracts with large businesses all over the state such as casinos, hospitals, and school districts to provide supplies and equipment. Lee has been head of the company since 2003.

As if running a company doesn't give him enough to do, Lee keeps a busy schedule by serving on the board for an impressive list of organizations: Wachovia Bank, Atlas Energy, Midtown CDC (Community Development Corp.), Mississippi Minority Business Alliance, Jackson Chamber of Commerce and he is a member of the Downtown Jackson Rotary Club.

"I have a new appreciation for Jackson," Lee says. "This city has a lot of great things going for it, and I know this is where I want to live and raise my kids."

by Matt Saldaña
Photo by Darren Schwindaman

At 23, Karla Vazquez has already completed a law degree at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Monterrey, Mexico, worked for four years at a major Mexican corporation, and made the strange, lonely journey to the U.S. to work as a lawyer's assistant and defend a population of overwhelmingly defenseless Latinos in Mississippi.

Based in Jackson, Vazquez works on cases from all over the state for Nathan H. Elmore, the lawyer who recruited her in Monterrey and helped her obtain a work visa in January. But she also works as a translator and legal assistant for just about anyone who needs her help.

"It's something of everything," she says (in Spanish) of her legal experiences here in the state. "I try to help people with (the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Association), my clients, or at times the court itself calls me. … I work as an interpreter for the Clinton court. Hispanic people call me, (or) the Clinton Police Department calls me because they arrest people who don't understand anything (in English), and I go to the jail in Clinton."

Vazquez, who is fluent in English and is studying political linguisticsat Mississippi College, says she has learned a lot in her three months in Mississippi.

"In Mexico, it's very easy for me to help people. It's my language. Here it's a different race, different people, different laws, different customs. To try to help Hispanics in this environment is very difficult," she said.

Living alone in Mississippi—where even her traditional greeting of a kiss on the cheek draws confusion from the locals—is not the first time that she had to adjust to a challenging new environment. At 16, she entered Autonomous University as the university's youngest student.

"I want to continue learning and developing more," she said. "Because I feel now I have the opportunity … I'm going to continue working, doing what I'm doing, and helping people."

by Emily Braden
Photo by Johnny Levi, Jr.

Sharee' Lucius, 33, walks Metrocenter Mall every day with a cell phone in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. She waves to store owners, mall walkers and early-bird shoppers with a megawatt smile. In 2004, after four years at Northpark Mall, she was offered a marketing manager position at Metrocenter. Some friends and family thought she was crazy to go to "that mall," but others knew her stamina, eye for detail and perfectionism were precisely what "that mall" needed in the management office.

After years of fielding media calls regarding negative news in the area—she is referred to as "Sherry Luscious" in the office after one newscaster misspoke her name—she had her day in the sun with the announcement that Burlington Coat Factory will fill an anchor spot in the mall.

She is also proud of the Kaboodles Club that meets monthly at the mall.

"We started in July 2004 with two girls, a table and an idea, and now we have over 630 registered members," she says. Kaboodles, formerly known as Kid's Club, meets the first Saturday of every month to create take-home arts and crafts projects. Winnie-the-Pooh will appear in May, and Gordon from Sesame Street has committed to a September visit. Lucius says, "It's becoming what we always wanted it to be."

A Forest Hill High School graduate, Lucius has fond memories of Metrocenter as do many others. (Yes, she went to Diamond Jim's.) The marketing manager was not surprised by the Burlington Coat Factory announcement, because she usually knows what's coming next, but can't tell others until all plans have been finalized. Lucius recognizes that the days of Tiffany singing in mall food courts are long gone; everything changes and so does retail. Change is good, and patience is required.

Until things change, you can find Sharee' Lucius at Center Court once a month with about 50 parents and their children who have always known that their mall is not "that mall." Their children might have fond memories of seeing Gordon from Sesame Street and having snow cones, but, as Lucius will tell you, good memories do not make the present any less exciting or worthwhile. Besides, hard work and a positive attitude win every time.

by Natalie A. Collier
Photo by Natalie A. Collier

Before I could finish explaining to Shakti Belway that I wanted to feature her as one of the Young Influentials this year, the Jackson import from Santa Barbara, Calif., immediately began finding reasons that someone else should be featured besides her. This is not because she isn't worthy of recognition, however, but because she's quite shy about attention. Even positive attention.

Thirty-year-old Belway graduated with honors from Yale University with an interdisciplinary degree in ethics, politics and economics. After that, she attended law school at Stanford University where she graduated as a Skadden Fellow—a position offered to a select number of law school graduates to pursue public-interest work—in May 2005. The next month she was in Jackson, working for the Mississippi Center for Justice. These are the highlights of Belway's accomplishments, and while the highlights are impressive, what's remarkable is the humility with which she carries herself and acknowledges her accomplishments.

"I'm just one person trying to make a difference. There are so many others who have gone before me," Belway says.

Belway has concentrated most of her work with the Center for Justice in the Delta. There, the attorney "attempts to provide legal resources to families, communities and organizations in their efforts to attain quality education." Surprisingly, the activist says she never had an interest in working in education before coming to the Magnolia State. Since 2005, however, educating students and the general public about their rights has become her driving passion.

During her time in the Delta and Jackson, which she says she loves—"especially the people"—Belway says she's learned about the importance of faith. "To see people who have been oppressed for so long, but still have hope that things can get better … to keep trying. … There's no way it's anything but faith that they're holding on to. Their faith is what compels me to work so hard and so diligently."

by Matt Saldaña
Photo by Jason Jarin

I met Kate Roselle, Vicksburg native and education director at New Stage Theatre, the day before her 27th birthday. In addition to teaching private acting classes and coordinating a new round of New Stage day camps and acting seminars, Roselle has recently finished directing "The Wind and the Willows," a children's show she considers one of her proudest accomplishments. Brushing brown curls away in the wind of a blustery spring afternoon, she talked about discovering character hierarchy from child actors, finding inspiration in Ang Lee and creating portraits onstage.

"My directing style has been changing for the last six years that I've been directing, and I assume it'll keep changing as long as I do it. I keep watching other people's shows and being exposed to the way other people work," she said.

Roselle began her theater career as an 8-year-old in Vicksburg. "I did something for every show that came up for 10 years, and then went off and decided to pursue it in college," she said.

At Washington University in St. Louis, she majored in acting but became more interested in directing along the way. After returning home to Mississippi, she began working at New Stage as their box office manager. The theater company also let her teach classes and direct their children's show. After she left for a year to work with stage directors in Chicago, New Stage brought her back home as education director.

"(T)his is a great opportunity for me to tell the people I know who think Mississippi is maybe a little podunk and think, 'You're doing theater in Mississippi? You can't be serious,' that it is (serious)," she says. "My goal in life is to let kids know that you can (act in Mississippi), to let people know you can do what you want to do wherever you are."


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