by L.A. Warren
Two visionary alums from Jackson State University have taken their advocacy to the city halls of Pelahatchie and Woodville by becoming mayors of their hometowns.
Recently elected Pelahatchie Mayor Ryshonda Harper Beechem and Woodville Mayor Keshia Stewart Ford serendipitously met each other this summer during a meeting in Biloxi for the National Policy Alliance of government leaders. The event was hosted by the Mississippi Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. It was there where two JSU alums forged a friendship and decided to become trusted confidants as they toil to improve the lives of their constituents.
They have quite a bit in common. Both are 37-year-old business owners; assumed office in July in towns with populations of less than 1,500 residents; and graduated from JSU’s College of Business – one in finance (Stewart Ford) and the other in accounting (Harper Beechem).
In Pelahatchie and Rankin County, Harper Beechem is the first African-American woman to occupy her position in a town that she estimates to be 60 percent white, 38 percent black and 2 percent Asian. She said her call to serve was because “God laid it on my heart to help bring prosperity and hope to the area.” After her mother’s support for her candidacy, the rest of the family followed suit. She owns an accounting firm and will lean on her skills to improve her city’s economic outloo
Specifically, her plans to move Pelahatchie forward include completing unfinished projects by amassing revenue and constructing a subdivision. She’s also focused on raising money for the town’s 40-acre Milltown Park that is expected to have baseball, softball, T-ball and soccer fields. As well, there will be walking trails and a children’s playground.
“I thank Jackson State University for preparing me for this position,” said Harper Beechem, describing the HBCU as “the best school for accounting and learning to start a business.”
Although she’s uncertain about her future political career, she provides daily support to her counterpart in Woodville. Each shares ideas for improving their city. Stewart Ford – seeking greater work-life balance – returned to Woodville after years of working for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Entergy. She has four older siblings but has carved a path of her own.
“When I came back people were different. They always talked negative about the town,” said Stewart Ford, the youngest elected mayor in Woodville. “Make It Happen” is her slogan, so she decided to run for mayor and become the change that the city needed. “I love people; I love talking.”
In a town with a population that’s about 75 percent African-American and 22 percent white, her plans are to expand technology and help individuals increase computer skills. Other projects include city beautification, street repairs, infrastructure improvements, crime reduction and greater support for emergency responders. She bemoans that the town remains racially divided but sees some progress. “I have white friends now when before I didn’t.” Today, her priority is to motivate residents because “some people feel nothing will change. For change to occur, you have to stay consistent. I make things happen.” So, rather than sit behind a desk, Stewart Ford often travels with Public Works employees to understand problems.
Having lost a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit, she is passionate about children and a huge supporter of the March of Dimes. Despite the demands on her life as mayor and mother of a four-year-old daughter, Stewart Ford also owns a daycare facility that was met with resistance from those with similar businesses.
Her company isn’t just a drop-off spot but also a learning center with extended operating hours to accommodate busy parents – many of whom are single. Financial assistance is provided, too. Her business model forced competitors to enhance their services. As she re-examines her life, she credits JSU’sDepartment of Entrepreneurship and Professional Development for prepping her with mock interviews in required business attire, résumé writing, building communication skills and creating a solid portfolio.
With an MBA from the University of Dallas, her ultimate goal is to become a Justice Court judge. Her confidence is higher for even greater success because “I put God first in my life,” Stewart Ford said.