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Leah Davis: Tupelo native charts path toward progress at state's flagship university

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three articles highlighting the efforts of women working to impact and improve their hometowns, schools and wider regions. Whether they call themselves activists, students or simply community members, they are profiled beginning today.

OXFORD • Tupelo native Leah Davis has accomplished a lot during her time at the University of Mississippi.

Davis comes from a religious and musical background. Her parents, Willie and Carolyn Davis, are co-pastors at the Church of Refuge and Restoration in Okolona, and her sister Sydni is a member of the Madrigal Choir at Tupelo High School. Her family has lived in Tupelo more than 20 years. Davis said she was raised to be family and community-centric.

“That upbringing really kind of shaped who I am today and throughout my time at the university,” Davis said.

Davis, a senior psychology major and sociology minor, has been chief of staff for the Black Student Union, director of logistics for the Active Minds chapter at Ole Miss and involved in student government. She’s sung in the gospel choir and is a member of the University of Mississippi concert singers. She’s also done mentorship, is a Luckyday scholar and will be a graduate of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.

She was also one of six students who pushed efforts to build campus support for a proposal to relocate the Confederate monument that sits at the middle of the university Circle. Following resolutions by the Associated Student Body and other campus government organizations, the university leadership formally began the process to relocate the monument earlier this year. That process now requires only the final approval of the state higher education governing board.

For Davis, her organizing work is just part of staying involved.

“I guess I do engage in activism and I am an activist, but I don’t really consider myself that way. I just consider myself a full-time student who works with these different organizations and helps the community,” Davis said.

Much of her advocacy work was shaped by her experience at Ole Miss. As she began to get involved with Ole Miss organizations her freshman year, she began to notice she was often the only woman of color or one of the few people of color in those spaces.

That fueled her passion for race relations on campus.

“A lot of people know the history of the university and a lot of African American people have a negative stereotype of the university, which is definitely warranted, but I do know there are successful African American students at the university,” Davis said. “I think it’s really important that our stories are heard and our stories are shared.”

Davis said a number of racially involved controversies – including a Facebook post her freshman year and discussions in 2016 about policing in her hometown – opened her eyes to institutional racism.

She responded by diving into student government. She credited upperclassmen who helped take down the state flag on campus as a model for her own work. Faculty and staff helped her discover her skills, which includes policy, dialogue-centered events and collaboration.

Davis graduated from Tupelo High School in May 2016, and during her time there she was involved in the Madrigals, cross-country, vocal jazz and various national honor societies. She thinks Tupelo has had pioneering leadership, including Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis, but also believes Tupelo has an opportunity to model how a town can address racial problems.

“I think more work needs to be done and there needs to be a conversation on how to be a more diverse and inclusive town, and how to make that happen,” Davis said.

Likewise, as the state’s flagship educational institution, Davis said Ole Miss should be of service to the state.

“I know the university can set the tone, so if we are doing something and we’re moving forward and progressing, then the state can see that and progress as well,” Davis said.

She graduates soon, but her future plans are open. She is interested in nonprofit and advocacy work. She is not opposed to staying in Mississippi, but she believes there may be opportunities elsewhere that better help her achieve her goals.

With a younger sister bound for Ole Miss in 2020, Davis hopes her work has helped pave the way for a campus where her sister belongs.

“The work is important overall to the betterment of us as a society. Whether that’s the small community of Oxford or the state as a whole, it definitely makes an impact and I believe in the domino effect,” Davis said. “ I think it takes time, so I don’t necessarily know when everything’s going to be solved or when everything’s going to be changed, but (I), alongside some other close peers and close friends of mine, expect to see change.”

As millions risk losing food benefits nationwide, Mississippians to see increase in assistance

While millions of Americans will be kicked off food assistance under the Trump Administration’s new restrictions, Mississippians stand to see their benefits increase.

Folks in Mississippi won’t be forced off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new work requirement, set to take effect in April, because the state already imposed the restriction on recipients in 2016.

Instead, researchers estimate another lesser known provision will increase Mississippi’s food assistance allocation by $32 million or 4.9 percent, the most of any state.

When a person applies for benefits, their eligibility and the amount they receive each month is determined by several factors. If the person has utility bills, they receive a standard deduction, determined by the state, that reduces their countable income and increases their benefit amount. The new federal rule standardizes the calculation of this deduction, called a utility allowance. Under that formula, Mississippi’s monthly allowance will increase from $274 in 2017 to $338, according to Urban Institute senior fellow Laura Wheaton.

This will not affect every household, such as those who do not receive an allowance because their utility is included with rent.

“Too many Mississippians lose utilities due to inability to pay,” said MDHS Executive Director Christopher Freeze. “This increase in benefits will not only allow us to come to the aid of those who need assistance but also allow us to broaden other programs such as workforce development that give Mississippians the opportunity to increase their quality of life.”

In other states, the rule adjusted utility allowances downward, leading to reduced benefits. Nationally, the Urban Institute estimated 22,000 households would lose eligibility and 71,000 would begin participating in the program – either because they became eligible or are encouraged to sign up because of the increase – as a result of the rule.

In states that stand to see increases, including Alabama and Arizona, 2.5 million households will receive an average of $14 more each month, according to the Urban Institute report.

The other rules changes – tightened work requirements and other eligibility tweaks – are expected to result in 3.7 million fewer people receiving the assistance nationwide, including 26,200 in neighboring Louisiana.

The federal government currently requires people between the ages of 18 and 49 to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in workforce training in order to keep receiving food stamps. But it granted waivers to states with areas of high unemployment.

Among the states with the highest unemployment, Mississippi qualifies for the waiver but chose not to renew it in 2016. The state also passed a law, the Act to Restore Hope Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE), in 2017 promising not to “seek, apply for, accept or renew” any work requirement waiver for the food assistance program in the future, except in the event of a natural disaster.

The new federal rules would restrict these waivers nationwide, imposing the work requirement on areas with unemployment under 7 percent. In October, 16 counties in Mississippi had an unemployment rate of over 7 percent, according to Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue released a statement saying the new policies “restore the original intent” of the food assistance program, “which is to be a second chance and not a way of life.”

AP | File 

FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2018, file photo, Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin looks over his team during warm-ups before an NCAA college football game against Old Dominion, in Boca Raton, Fla. Kiffin has Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA title game for the second time in three years. The Owls play host to defending champion UAB on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, amid speculation that it might be Kiffin's farewell at FAU. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)

McMahan returning to Senate under new leadership

TUPELO • In the state Senate, Lee County is carved up across three districts, but will only have one incumbent Republican returning to office when a new four-year term begins in January.

Chad McMahan, a Republican from Guntown, represents Senate District 6, and will begin a second term in 2020 after running for re-election unopposed.

Staring down a fifth year in the legislature, the former Guntown alderman who touts his blue collar roots anticipates that he’ll be well positioned to play a larger role in the state capitol.

“Now that I’ve got some experience under my belt I’ll be able to do a better job for the people I represent,” McMahan said.

On the Republican side of the ledger, that’s experience the greater Lee County area may need. A rash of retirements ushered in a number of new faces among the ranks of lawmakers.

In Senate District 8, which includes Lee County, Bruce attorney Benjamin Suber will take office, replacing the soon-to-be-retired Russell Jolly. Jolly was among the dwindling ranks of white Democrats in the state legislature, and Suber is a Republican.

Outside Lee County, but within the area, senate districts 3, 5 and 9 are among those that will see new faces representing the seat.

Turning back to Lee County, in Senate District 7, longtime legislator Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat, ran unopposed, like McMahan. He has been one of the few Democrats to hold a chairmanship in the Senate.

Whether Bryan retains a chairmanship will rest in the hands of the incoming lieutenant governor, Delbert Hosemann.

Hosemann has sounded bipartisan notes in discussions about how he’ll lead the Senate, even as recently as last week in a column his office distributed.

“No matter our political differences, we all have a common goal: seeing Mississippi rise to its fullest potential,” Hosemann said.

The outgoing secretary of state, Hosemann has of late touted his efforts to take over as presiding officer of the state Senate. By now, Hosemann has personally met with most members of the state Senate.

In his meeting with Hosemann, McMahan said the two men were able to pivot quickly to talks about policy and McMahan’s committee wishlist.

“Delbert and I already had a wonderful relationship over the last four years,” McMahan said. “We didn’t have to talk long to get to know each other.”

Throughout his campaign and since the election, Hosemann has pledged to increase transparency in state government by livestreaming senate committee sessions over the internet.

This pledge is just one part of a wider expectation among some incoming lawmakers and political watchers that the committee system will function in a newly robust fashion under Hosemann.

While he was careful not to criticize Tate Reeves – the outgoing lieutenant governor and incoming governor – McMahan indicated that he shares the expectation of fresh attention to the nuts and bolts of the legislative process.

“I think Delbert Hosemann is committed to allowing the institution to working the way the institution was designed,” McMahan said. “The committee system operated under Tate Reeves, but I think the committee system is going to be expanded and there is going to be a lot more testimony before the committees.”

With such a system in place, a good relationship with the lieutenant governor and a bit of hands-on experience to draw upon, McMahan hopes to push bills related to education, rural development and local needs like a regional wastewater treatment facility serving Guntown, Baldwyn and Saltillo.

“I’m really excited about the opportunities,” McMahan said. “I understand better now how legislation needs to be crafted. Not just how to write legislation, but how to craft it.”