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Launching With Leaders: Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship

Jackson Grown

Originally published on Our Jackson Home's website.

The Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship began a new phase in its mission to empower high-potential, well-rounded future leaders in the Jackson Madison County Public School System (JMCSS). Aiming to serve high school Juniors and Seniors with a broad range of skills, interests and aspirations, the Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship was awarded $5,000 by the Leaders Education Foundation on Friday September 8th at its Annual Kickoff Meeting.

Encouraged by the program objectives and vision, Leigh Anne Bentley, President of the Leaders Education Foundation stated, “Leaders Education Foundation is proud to give forward to students participating in the Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship. The cohort challenges students to a lifetime of learning and empowering our community for good and that aligns with the foundation’s mission completely. We’re excited to see how these students impact the Jackson community and beyond.”

In its 3rd year, the Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship has been a collaborative effort between alumni of the JMCSS, parents of current students and committed members of the community. Housed at theCo working in close collaboration with Our Jackson Home, the Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship works with a range of partners in the area including Madison County, the City of Jackson and the United Way of West Tennessee. Having integrated and built upon the ideas and input of community leaders, Jackson Grown grew from a desire to find and empower high potential students in the area. “AJ Massey, Mayor of Madison County reflected on his role during early stages of the program, “I was personally involved in the coffee table and lunch conversations since the program's early days and am excited about the level of excellence the program has exhibited. The sky is the limit for these students and we expect big things from them. Madison County is proud to support this focused effort to invest in the experiences and future of our local students.”

“It has been incredible to see people, whether up the road in Paris, Tennessee or across the ocean in Paris, France, who were positively impacted by the teachers, coaches and volunteers in Jackson. People have built on those experiences, been inspired by them and come together to invest in the lives of current students,” said Jon Mark Walls a JMCSS alumni. 

The program focuses on three pillars of improving understanding of the community, launching ideas and building networks. Importantly, since the first year in 2021, it has worked in close collaboration with counselors from each high school in the JMCSS. Building on knowledge of and close work with the students, the counselors are able to provide nominations of students who fit well with Jackson Grown's mission. Importantly, they are also able to provide suggestions on how to build on and refine the Jackson Grown program.

Kara Reeves, the Graduation Coach at Jackson Central Merry High School said “The opportunity that Jackson Grown provides students aligns with the goals of the school system to provide students with various opportunities and to focus on educating the whole child. Fulfilling those goals requires experiences outside of the classroom with support from many community stakeholders while ensuring students have a voice in how challenges in our community impact them.” 

She continued by highlighting, “The growth in confidence levels and leadership abilities I have seen JCM High School students gain from their involvement with Jackson Grown is exactly what anyone who cares about students wants them to experience. Jackson Grown gives our students important life skills they need to succeed in their postsecondary plans and into adulthood. Hopefully in the future because of this experience with Jackson Grown they choose to give back to the community that invested in them.”

Building on Mrs. Reeves’ experience and coordination with the program as a counselor, Superintendent of the JMCSS Dr. Marlon King noted, “Walking in step with principals and administrators, Jackson Grown has complimented and supported the work carried out by the school system. By focusing on a small group of high potential students, the Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship has built on classroom lessons by introducing students to ways in which knowledge and skills can be applied to serve the Jackson-Madison County community.” 

Committed mentorship from JMCSS alumni and community leaders has served as a foundation for the program. These local alumni and leaders in Jackson have joined with alumni outside of Jackson including Grammy winning songwriters, nationally recognized journalists, professional athletes and renowned actresses to walk with students during the critical final years of high school. 

In her third year as a Jackson Grown Mentor, Carita Cole reflects on the role that adults can have in helping to shape a student’s next steps. “I believe it is very important because Mentors can pass on their experiences, skills, and knowledge to the students, helping them learn and grow.” she said.

Meetings take place once per month and focus on developing skills such as public speaking as well as ways to think about addressing challenges which Fellows have seen or encountered. They also provide an opportunity to discuss thematic issues such as courage, adaptation or creativity. Over the course of the year each Fellow selects a challenge he or she is particularly passionate about such as poverty, violence or mental health. Over the course of several months Fellows think deeply about the community challenges they have selected.

Jocelyn Gargus, a 2023 graduate of Jackson Central Merry High School and a Jackson Grown Leader Fellow during her Junior and Senior years, chose to address the issue of child abuse in the community. She noted, “I grew a lot over my two years with the Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship. The speech I did in my first year with Jackson Grown as a Junior in 2021 - 2022 was about child abuse. Then, in my second year, I got to further that speech with more education and more input on the issue from experts and mentors I met with.”

In early Spring, during the Expert Leader Day, each Fellow meets with a local expert on his or her selected topic. It offers a chance to learn and engage with community leaders with specialized knowledge. 

T.J. King, Director of Madison County Juvenile Court Services spent the day with Jocelyn at the 2023 Expert Leader Day. “I have worked with numerous juveniles throughout my career,” he said. “[T]he courage that this young lady had to speak to others about how important this topic was to her and how it had affected her life was extremely impressive. She used her life experiences and passion to impact other community leaders.  And, because of this opportunity, she is now continuing to help our community.”

The program culminates in May with the Challenge to the City. Standing in front of diverse leaders from government, education, business and nonprofits, the Fellows analyze the challenges they have seen and present their ideas for how the community can address those issues with new approaches.

Having attended the event, Shea Brown Director of the Leaders Education Foundation noted, “Last year, the Challenge to the City showed that it gives students the unique opportunity to interact directly with their community leaders. It is important for students to be heard, understood and for their impact to be felt. Leaders Education Foundation supports this interaction and important dialogue, and we can’t wait to see the ripple effect for years to come.”

Similarly, Matthew Marshall, President and CEO of United Way of West Tennessee also noted that "[a}s Jackson Grown continues to expand, we find ourselves humbled and invigorated by the fresh perspectives and insightful reminders that our students challenge us with. Their youthful vision, paired with the invaluable insights of community partners, paints a promising canvas of growth and innovation for Jackson. Together, we are nurturing a fertile ground where young minds are cultivating the seeds of both today's and tomorrow's leaders."

The funds provided by the Leaders Education Foundation will provide an important launchpad for the coming year. The award will primarily contribute to meals for the students, mentors, experts and speakers during the Monthly Meetings. It will also be used to support the 3rd Annual Challenge to the City in which students present the results of their research and work to leaders in the community.

Reflecting on the growth of the program, Jon Mark Walls said, “It has been incredible to see the generosity of the Jackson-Madison County community. Whether through the giving of time by Mentors, counselors, speakers and volunteers or through the giving of funds by organizations like the Leaders Education Foundation it provides genuine hope. This gift by the Leaders Education Foundation will help us to feed students’ incredible curiosity and interests as well as their appetites at lunch over the course of the year.”

“This gift by the Leaders Education Foundation will help us to feed students’ curiosity, interests and commitment to the community as well as their appetites at lunch.”

He continued, “The Jackson Grown Leader Fellowship can only function with the participation and cooperation of the full community. Without this, the program and the hope it aims to inspire can’t grow. The Leaders Education Foundation is now playing an essential role by serving as a core partner in helping these students understand their community, launch ideas and build networks around them.”