Southerners of the Year
Southerners’ famous generosity is often portrayed as a casserole in tow or a pickup truck ready to go. Yes, it’s true. You can count on us if there’s six feet of water in your house or an unexpected burden arises. But our region is also brimming with people applying that Southern spirit to our country’s toughest issues like childhood poverty, food access, education reform, and renewable energy. We found 50 Southerners who have tackled these issues and more, from creating trailblazing nonprofits to starting a simple Kickstarter page. Whether it’s planting the first seed of a community garden, convincing entrepreneurs to stay in their home state, saving endangered historic sites, restoring the Mississippi River Delta, or mowing yards for the elderly, these people prove you can take on life-changing work in ways big and small.
Alabama native Will Dodd created Heirloom Harvest after working in DC and seeing how public policy related to agriculture doesn’t work to the advantage of small and medium-sized farms, like those all over his home state. So, he set out to make it easier to keep Alabama produce in the state and give it to the people who need it most, and even set up warehousing and distribution systems to help farmers keep their focus on growing food rather than finding buyers. Now when you visit restaurants like Montgomery’s A&P Social, you’ll know how all the produce on the local purveyors chalk board found its way to their kitchen by way of Heirloom Harvest.
Dr. Julian Maha and Dr. Michelle Kong
Through their organization Kulture City, husband and wife Dr. Julian Maha and Dr. Michelle Kong work to create not just autism awareness, but autism acceptance throughout the South and across the globe. Their programs provide tablets to children to help them communicate, therapy scholarships for those who can’t afford it on their own, art and music camps geared towards students with sensory disorders, and even funding for the only special needs orphanage in Uganda. Their most recent campaign #LoveWithoutWords raises money for public places like museums, zoos, and stadiums to create inclusive spaces for people with sensory-processing needs, and boasts supporters like Tiki Barber, Temple Grandin, Kellan Lutz, Geraldo Rivera, and Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson.
One afternoon, Rodney Smith saw an older man struggling to mow his lawn. By the next day, the 26-year-old had started a Facebook page to raise enough money not just so he could mow that man’s yard, but enough so he could provide free lawn care for anyone from single moms to the disabled and the elderly. After mowing 100 lawns in two months, Smith and his friend Terrence Story took their goal one step further and started Raising Men Lawn Care Service, which employs a team of around 20 young men, and now women. Smith says the young people who help him and Story are sometimes skeptical when they start, but by the time they’ve cut their fifth lawn and see the grateful face of a senior citizen or a working single mother, they start calling him up asking if they can take on extra work. Just take a look at their Facebook photos, many of Story and Smith with smiling grandparents, all sporting deuces, and you can see why. Inspired by Rodney’s idea, there are now branch leaders of Raising Men Lawn Care from Texas to Pennsylvania.
In 2001, Kyes Stevens started teaching poetry through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts at Talladega Federal Prison. Inspired by her time teaching there, Stevens started the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project with the idea that “knowledge and creative development can change someone’s life.” Now celebrating its 13th year, APAEP brings incarcerated men and women educational opportunities from history to geology to Shakespeare to 20th Century Southern Women’s Writing. Along with a pool of 100 artists, writers, and scholars who volunteer to teach the classes, over 3,500 Auburn students have assisted with the project for undergraduate credit. APAEP not only gives prisoners (many of whom have come from economically disadvantaged circumstances or negative experiences in the classroom) a new enthusiasm to learn, it also provides them tools for a successful life after they’re released.
Little Rock, AR
When Georgia Mjartan was asked to take over Our House, Little Rock’s primary homeless shelter, in 2005, she walked into a flood-damaged building that was even more under water financially. Now, Mjartan had breathed new life into the organization, which serves 1,000 people a year and operates an innovative, 20,000-square foot youth center that has served as a model for homeless shelters and programs in 39 other states. She has also become an advocate for foster-parent mentoring programs that allow foster children to stay connected to their biological parents while the families receive training and assistance to get back on their feet.
Jorge L. Hernandez
In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Miami Marine Stadium on the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States. After the mid-century modernist marvel was built by Cuban architect Hilario Candela (a 28-year-old immigrant at the time) in 1963, artists like Elvis Presley, Dave Brubeck, the Who, and Ray Charles played on its floating stage in Virginia Key; boats parked out in the harbor to watch the performances. But after Hurricane Andrew, the stadium was closed and abandoned for nearly twenty years. Along with Candela and famous Floridians Jimmy Buffett and Gloria Estefan, architect and historic preservation activist Jorge L. Hernandez has been leading the fight to save the now graffiti-covered structure and return it to its place of prominence in the cityscape. Just this past month, a new bond initiative passed, bringing Jorge’s hopes of the stadium once again being an arts and cultural city center one step closer to solid ground.
One of only twenty Native Americans to hold a doctoral degree, John Lowe was named this year as the new McKenzie Professor in Health Disparities Research at Florida State University where he will lead a first-of-its-kind research organization devoted to bringing health equity to indigenous people all over the world. Lowe wants to create a system where nurses who care for indigenous patients have the tools to speak up about what kind of research needs to be conducted, as well as to be a voice for the world’s most marginalized populations who have not had a seat at the table for healthcare discussions in the past.
Celebrated Southern chef Hugh Acheson wants to bring home economics back; but he isn’t talking about your grandmother’s home ec class. By providing schools with low- or no-cost materials and a curriculum that applies practical skills in hands-on culinary instruction, conscious consumer economics, and D.I.Y. design principles within a modern, dynamic, globalized context, Acheson’s SEED Life Skills is working to create a new generation of self-reliant, entrepreneurially minded students who can make a mean jar of pickles too.
The Giving Kitchen is a tall, sweet pitcher of lemonade made from one bitter, sour lemon. After friends and family raised $275,000 for Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger—who had recently been diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer at just 35 years old--he and his wife Jen took some of the money to start a nonprofit. Its mission: to pay forward the generosity they were shown to the over 200,000 people employed in Atlanta’s restaurant community whenever they need financial aid for unexpected burdens and illnesses. Ryan and Jen also started to build their dream restaurant Staplehouse, which won many best new restaurant nods in 2016. Sadly Ryan passed away a few months before he could see its completion and quick acclaim. Now, Jen is continuing her husband’s legacy (and building her own) as the business manager of Staplehouse and the spokeswoman for The Giving Kitchen, which has given more over 500 restaurant workers more than $900,000 worth of crisis grants since its founding.
Patterson Hood and Linda Phillips
When Linda Phillips’s son Nuçi, a promising Athens musician, committed suicide after battling depression, she set out on a mission to create a resource for “all the other Nuçis still with us.” Her nonprofit Nuçi’s Space offers affordable, obstacle-free counseling, rehearsal space, even instrument rental for area musicians struggling with mental health or feeling isolated. Supporters of the space include not-so-local local musicians like Mike Mills of R.E.M. and John Bell of Widespread Panic. One of its most ardent allies is Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers who has served on their board of directors and regularly creates fundraising opportunities. This year he released a limited-edition t-shirt collaboration with the Bitter Southerner, (the t-shirt reads “Drive-By Truckers: Original Bitter Southerners”) with a portion of the proceeds dedicated to keeping Nuçi’s Space as important a part of the Athens music community as the 40 Watt Club.
Like the first few purl stitches that start a scarf, what began as a few after-school knitting classes has grown into one of the Savannah’s main art education outlets for thousands of children living in underserved neighborhoods. This year, Molly Lieberman’s Loop It Up Savannah! program moved from its 7-year homebase at the West Broad Street YMCA community center to become an independent nonprofit that organizes classes and events across the city, and brings, in her words, “more art to cute little people.” But anyone who knows Lieberman knows that she is so much more than an art teacher to her students. Whether it’s collecting food and diapers for a family who lost their home in a fire or calling on volunteers for a toy drive around the holidays, even offering her own home as a refuge for anyone going through a tough time, Lieberman has become a guardian of her beloved community.
When Keith Miller decided to leave his job as a non-profit marketing manager in New York City and come back home to promote literacy and writing education at Savannah’s Deep Center, his mother asked him this: “Imagine how your life would have changed if you had met someone like you when you were 12?” Now, Miller tries to be the mentor and advocate he wishes he had when he was young for kids struggling with the same issues he did in the housing projects of Savannah’s west side. As program director of Deep’s Block by Block project, he leads a year-long creative writing program that supports 24 young authors (ages 12-18) from Savannah's West Side and surrounding neighborhoods to research, document, and tell the past and present stories of their families, streets, and community through creative writing and art.
Bobby Benjamin, Patrick Hallahan, and Jon Salomon
Since My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, chef Bobby Benjamin, and lawyer Jon Salomon joined forces to create one of Louisville’s and the South’s best new restaurants, Butchertown Grocery, the trio has also started a philanthropic arm known as B.S.A.P.C. (Butchertown Social Aid and Pleasure Club). Using the restaurant as a fundraising site for charities across Kentucky, they’ve donated more than $100,000 to groups like Home of the Innocents, Hildegard House, 21st Century Parks, Teach Kentucky, and the Louisville Orchestra since the restaurant’s opening late last year. They’ve also connected philanthropists, residents, and local business owners to preserve and revive the restaurant’s namesake neighborhood, Butchertown, which Benjamin and Salomon call home.
North Lexington, KY
At first glance, author Crystal Wilkinson’s shop, The Wild Fig, might just look like any other small, independent bookstore, but inside it’s become something of a town hall where just as many discussions are had over a new bestseller as about gentrification, race relations, and city issues. While the salons Wilkinson hosts don’t help the shop’s bottom line, she is helping her community come together to create understanding and trust in a changing neighborhood. This year, in-between running the shop and acting as its unofficial part-time barista, Wilkinson also won the Ernest J. Gaines Award For Literary Excellence for her debut novel, The Birds Of Opulence.
As her New Year’s resolution, Jenny Williams decided she wanted to start a community garden in her tiny hometown of Hazard, Kentucky, population 5,346. Around 750 lbs. of produce later, Williams, an English professor at Hazard Community and Technical College had become a full-fledged local food advocate, donating the fruits of her labor to shelters, food pantries, and learning centers. Now, Williams has not only started community gardens elsewhere in town, including one for students at STARLand Academy, she has also spearheads a program with Pathfinders of Perry County, which helps get kids active and gives them exposure to natural settings.
New Orleans, LA
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land, an amount roughly the size of Delaware. The wetlands once fed by the silt deposits of the Mississippi River Delta have been choked off by levees and shipping channels, removing a wildly important protective barrier for Louisiana’s cities against tropical storms and hurricanes including Katrina and Rita. As the Campaign Director of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition, Steve Cochran is fighting to restore the state’s iconic boot shape and leading the largest effort to create smarter infrastructure and conservation plans that help both the environment and the jobs that depend on a healthy Delta.
New Orleans, LA
First came Johnny Sánchez, celebrity Chef Aarón Sánchez’s collaboration restaurant with New Orleans’ Chef John Besh. Now Sánchez has become a part of Besh’s philanthropic network with the goal of knocking down some of the persistent barriers that prevent so many Latino and Latina restaurant workers from moving up the ladder as dishwashers and line cooks to executive chefs. In conjunction with the John Besh Foundation’s “Chefs Move” initiative, Sanchez has created a culinary scholarship fund aimed at promising Latino and Latina cooks in New Orleans. The scholarship will provide full tuition at the International Culinary Center, school supplies, housing, job placement, and a two-month paid internship at Johnny Sánchez along with mentorship from Sánchez and other successful minority chefs.
Amy Cyrex Sins and Robert LeBlanc
New Orleans, LA
When this year’s massive flooding in Louisiana turned to catastrophic, chef and Langlois cooking school owner Amy Cyrex Sins loaded up a truck full of red beans and headed out to Baton Rouge. Her goal was to feed 100 people, but when she put a call out on a Facebook page, food and supplies streamed in, and that Facebook page became a virtual emergency response center spawning a spreadsheet that helped other area chefs coordinate their efforts and make sure food was transported safely. Restaurateur Robert LeBlanc was right behind her with his young sons in tow and loaded-down SUVs, after he turned his properties Sylvain, Meauxbar, Cavan, and Barrel Proof into drop-off locations for donations. Together, with the other area chefs they recruited, they fed over 50,000 people in just the first week, and made sure thousands more had access to food through Second Harvest Food Bank.
Dr. Michael Cormack, Jr.
Dr. Michael Cormack knows how to read between the lines of where leadership and literacy rates are connected. As the CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, Cormack is working to make sure every Mississippi student reads at their grade level or beyond in a state often at the bottom for national literacy rankings. By providing literacy coaches in school, students not only benefit from differentiated reading groups and one-on-one attention, but teachers also receive advanced training in being literacy leaders. Cormack knows the BRI model works. Before he took the helm as CEO, he was the principal at a BRI partnership school where he increased the number of students at the national average for reading from just 38 percent to 59 percent in just 18 months.
Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald
Aside from serving as the Southern Regional Director of the Children’s Defense Fund, Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald is also the Regional Director for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, which brings together female leaders in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia dedicated to lifting up black women and families in rural, impoverished areas. Started in 2002, the SRBWI now serves 2,500 women in 77 counties through sustainable initiatives, public policy advocacy, and leadership development including the Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute, which celebrate 10 years in 2015. More than 80 percent of the young women who participate go on to college or vocational training schools.
As the Deputy Director, Sanford Johnson helps Mississippi First fight to close the opportunity gap for students in Mississippi schools. The program, launched in 2009, aims to make Mississippi first where it is last—in areas like teen health, graduation rates, prosperity, quality of life, and innovation. By advancing the best education policy ideas, Johnson aims to provide more opportunities for all Mississippi students.
Tim Medley and Dr. Rob Rockhold
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Base Pair has strengthened science education for students around the state of Mississippi. Founded by Tim Medley and Dr. Rob Rockhold as a biomedical research mentorship program, the program allows high-school students to experience a hands-on research experience alongside a University of Mississippi Medical Center researcher, filling a need for education and career exploration for Jackson Public School District students. The program has also expanded to include a rural initiative.
After losing his wife, Nation Hahn started the namesake Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation inspired by her generous, philanthropic spirit to empower and motivate emerging leaders in community-based organizations. The foundation works towards creating more awareness around three main problems in North Carolina: poverty, food insecurity, and education by raising up those who have rolled up their sleeves. Hahn is out to prove you can make a big impact by starting at the ground level.
Justin Perry hopes to make North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System a good one for all future students, not just ones who live in certain zones. As a co-chair of OneMECK, he works to unify the community around mixed-income schools and neighborhoods, to prevent the isolation of children—especially children of color—in high-poverty schools and neighborhoods. In doing so, he believes they can lift the educational opportunity for all students and families.
North Charleston, SC
Germaine Jenkins used her experiences as a Charleston public housing resident and food stamp recipient, a Lowcountry Food Bank employee, a North Charleston homeowner, a garden volunteer, a single mom, a former board chair for an area CDC and a budding entrepreneur to start Fresh Future Farm, an urban farm and storefront that provides fresh, locally grown produce in the food desert of North Charleston, so close to one of the country’s culinary capitals. By growing and selling fruit and vegetables at affordable prices, supporting SNAP, employing community members, and strategically partnering with affiliate businesses, FFF has become a big piece in the puzzle of solving food insecurity and sustainability in Charleston.
Wanting to see female chefs in Charleston (and across the nation!) reach their highest potential, Randi Weinstein has launched FAB, a 48-hour educational and inspirational workshop by women, for women in the hospitality industry. For the first event in June 2017, Weinstein has lined up some of the most insightful women in the business and created two tracks tailored to meet the needs of women at different levels of their career (101 and 202). As Weinstein puts it, it’s “the place to learn valuable skills and be inspired by women who understand the challenges of the business.” Here, the best new chefs in the South can get insight on everything from staffing and operations to branding and financing.
Mary Celeste Beall
Tucked away in the Smoky Mountain foothills sits Blackberry Farm, a pastoral resort, often frequented by celebrities and food lovers. While fans and visitors know them for their charming accommodations and provisions from the farm, Blackberry Farm also runs a foundation that helps raise over $300,0000 for regional charities focused on children and foodways-related causes. After Blackberry Farm’s revolutionary proprietor, Sam Beall, passed away tragically early this year, his wife Mary Celeste Beall asked in lieu of flowers, that donations be made to the foundation in his honor. Now, after taking the reigns of the Blackberry Farm, she is continuing to make sure her family’s legendary legacy of generosity lives on through the foundations efforts.
If there’s anyone that believes in Nashville—and every single person in it—it’s Rashed Fakhruddin. He’s currently serving a two-year term as president of the Islamic Center of Nashville, where he helps build bridges and foster a greater understanding of Islam with all communities. He also helped found the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), which works to help build a bridge between Muslims in Tennessee and law enforcement, as well as other government agencies and organizations. The motto of AMAC is ‘enhancing safety for all Tennesseans.’ Aside from his work with the Islamic center, he also serves on the YWCA board and helps with MEND, which works to end violence against women.
Beth Mathews started The Mom Bag project to provide dignity and self-confidence (via self-care essentials like shampoo or deodorant) to newly arrived refugee mothers and children. The simple concept makes it ridiculously easy to contribute, and she has a simple five-step system mapped out on her website. Simply connect with your refugee resettlement agency, create an Amazon wish list of the items needed, and host a packing party. If you want to take it one step further you can purchase screen-printed bags, designed by Mathews featuring a pineapple, a Southern symbol for welcome.
Some people say that Memphis’ best days are behind it, but not Holly Whitfield. As the editor of I Love Memphis (started by Kerry Crawford in 2009), Holly Whitfield is a one-woman show providing a much-needed resource for both locals and visitors in the Bluff City. One of the loudest cheerleaders in the ongoing revitalization, she reports and writes about the city’s music, food, arts, and cultural scenes, and provides guides on everything from where to find the best BBQ to community organizations looking for volunteers. Whitfield continues to remind us all to Believe Memphis.
Natalie Maderia Cofield
When Cofield found herself in search of female mentors and role models in her first entrepreneurial venture, she noticed other women looking for the same thing as well—“positive, successful, and accessible examples of women in business.” So she founded Walker’s Legacy, named after Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in U.S. history. Since its creation in 2009, the program has evolved to a professional collective for businesswomen of color that includes lecture programming, a business accelerator, and supportive network of fellow businesswomen that empower one another to incubate, launch, and grow their own businesses.
A café sits in downtown Dallas that, aside from serving up sophisticated American cuisine, saved the Dallas taxpayers nearly 8 million dollars in its first three years. It accomplished such a feat by, as Executive Director Chad Houser describes it, “taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire.” In reality, Café Momentum provides intensive culinary, job, and life-skills training to young men and women coming out of juvenile facilities via a year-long paid internship. The program provides experience in every part of the restaurant in addition to a well-rounded ecosystem of support including a case manager and post-internship job assistance.
Sanya Mansoor and Jim Looney
It started when Dallas Morning News intern Sanya Mansoor wrote an October article about washing machines. More specifically, she went to Roger Q. Mills Elementary School in Dallas to see their latest piece of equipment: a washer and dryer, but what she found was a confidence generator. While so many students take clean clothes for granted, many others across the country and in Dallas often go to school in stained and soiled clothes because their family doesn’t have access to their own laundry facilities or public transportation to get to a laundromat. It can even be a contributing factor in absenteeism. When Jim Looney of Looney and Associates, a design firm that makes high-end interiors for restaurants and hotels, read Mansoor’s article, he decided to ditch the usual company Christmas party and extreme make-over another school, J.W. Ray Elementary School. From new furniture in the teacher’s lounge to school-pride t-shirts featuring their rocketship mascot, Looney and his 30 coworkers were able to give the school--and its students--and well-deserved boost. The volunteer day was so successful that Looney plans to do something similar for other schools every year, and, having raised more than $137,000 for the Dallas school district from donors who read her article, Mansoor proved once again that journalists can change lives.
As president of Plant It Forward Farms, O’Donnell is tackling not just one, but several, of Houston’s biggest challenges. PIF Farms helps refugees (which settle in record numbers in Houston) by giving them land and training to farm and become a key player of Houston's local produce system. Through this program, refugees are able to become a self-sufficient and contributing part of the Houston economy, and Houston, a food desert that imports most of the food that its residents consume, has increased options for fresh, sustainable, and local produce.
Chris Shepherd and the HOUBBQ Collective
Multiple Sclerosis is a devastating disease, and, if you work in the hospitality industry, the diagnosis can rob you of your livelihood. When Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Hay Merchant, and Blacksmith learned his friend and sommelier Antonio Gianola had been diagnosed, Shepherd, a legendarily generous host, responded the only way he knew how: he fired up his smoker and threw a party. He hoped that his ticketed cook-out, Southern Smoke, would maybe raise $30,000 for the National MS Society, but with the help of the HOUBBQ Collective, made up of Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner, Terrence Gallivan, Ryan Pera, and Justin Yu, they raised over $184,000. This year, the quintet threw the second Southern Smoke featuring food from an all-star team of Southern chefs including Aaron Franklin, Tandy Wilson, Ashley Christensen, Rodney Scott, Ryan Prewitt, and Stephen Stryjewski along with wines poured by some of the world’s best wineries in honor of Gianola and a performance by the Rebirth Brass Band. Houston turned out in Texas-style fashion, so much so that Franklin ran out of brisket only two hours after the event started. With $100,000 more raised this year and a promise for next year’s event to be even bigger, Shepherd and HOUBBQ are turning brisket into a cure.
Newport News, VA
As the first lady of Christopher Newport University, Rosemary has devoted her life to young people. She is also a survivor of sexual assault, and, through Fear 2 Freedom, aims to empower young women to live fulfilled lives and heal from the trauma of sexual assault. Their main program provides F2F kits, which contain clean clothes, new toiletries, a resource card, and handwritten note, among other items, to sexual assault victims at hospitals. The kits are put together by college students at Celebration Events throughout the year, and the program has now become a national campaign. To date, Fear 2 Freedom has provided over 13,000 F2F Kits to sexual assault survivors.
This little bakery in Georgetown isn’t just baking up enticing sweet treats; it also gives back to veterans in a major way. Through an innovative five-month training program, Dog Tag Inc. is able to provide a Georgetown University education to veterans with disabilities, spouses, and caregivers, alongside in-shop experience. Ogilvie, who hails from a military family, is the Chief Executive officer that oversees this operation and the strategic vision for the future of the program. Vets get jobs, and DC gets baked goods—the perfect partnership.
Dan Conant, a native West Virginian and founder of Solar Holler, knows every penny that a church, library, or organization doesn’t have to spend on utilities, that’s another penny they can spend on community improvement. And every contribution to community development turns into jobs and opportunities that will help keep West Virginia’s talent in-state too. So what’s the fix? Helping organizations adopt clean, efficient, high-tech solar and LED lighting. But Solar Holler isn’t stopping there. Thanks to a partnership with the Coalfield Development Corporation to launch West Virginia's first solar job training program, they’re connecting and employing young people in coalfield communities to work in the solar industry.
Fonda is a powerhouse when it comes to innovation and education in West Virginia. She was the director the University of West Virginia's LaunchLab and served as a professor in other areas where she was responsible for turning students dreams into successful businesses in West Virginia. She is now new Vice-President and Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Charleston, where she directs the Russell and Martha Wehrle Innovation Center, while also leading entrepreneurial studies for UC Innovation Scholars. She is committed to making West Virginia not only a place where students want to stay and live, but a hotbed of creative new businesses.