Faces of Rhodes

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James Ekenstedt ′15

Hometown: El Dorado Hills, California
Major: Urban Studies
Minor: Political Science

Extracurricular activities: Co-director and co-founder of the Memphis street newspaper The Bridge, Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature (TISL), Community Service Work Study at Community LIFT, Burrow Armstrong Committee, Kinney Site Coordinator, Community Service Work Study at Door of Hope, Chess Coach for Mid-South Chess, Peer Assistant Leader

Tell the story of how you got to Rhodes College.

A snow-white owl dropped a letter off at my house when I was but a young lad, with instructions to depart from the Sacramento airport terminal 9 & 3/4ths. Truthfully, coming all the way from Northern California, I get this question often. I knew I wanted a small-town atmosphere along with the glamour of a big city’s lights and festivities, so naturally I stumbled across Rhodes in my research. I applied once I looked into what Rhodes was about and realized that not only was it a Hogwarts, but it was Hogwarts with a bent towards community engagement. What I wanted was a strong community that applied its close bonds to helping better its surrounding communities, and Rhodes was a perfect fit for that.

How have you changed since beginning your studies at Rhodes College?

That is a loaded question! I have changed in a lot of ways. I’ve seen new parts of the country, developed friendships reminiscent of Mowgli and Baloo (perhaps Woody and Buzz would be more accurate), and studied subjects ranging from the history and evolution of music to computer science. Yet, the most qualitative change I have observed in myself is structure. The responsibilities I have gained at Rhodes, my classes, and my off-campus involvements have taught me one overarching, broad theme: structure cannot be ignored.

How has your work study position with Community LIFT influenced your prospective career path?

Community LIFT (Leveraging Investments for Transformation) does great work. Essentially, LIFT acts as a funnel between large investments and underserved communities to achieve their mission of revitalizing neighborhoods through human-capacity building and economic and community development. In more approachable words, LIFT exists to help struggling neighborhoods become great by capitalizing on their already existing strengths. My time spent at LIFT has introduced me to the fascinating, complex field of urban revitalization and all of the various factors that make a city vibrant. This experience and inspired me to become an Urban Studies major. Moreover, the work done at LIFT has encouraged me to seriously consider a career in city planning and revitalization. I do not have concrete plans for after graduation, but LIFT has led me to consider pursuing a double degree in both law and urban planning at a graduate school that offers a joint J.D./Urban Planning program.

Tell the story of how you came to develop a Memphis street paper and the current status of that project.

The Memphis street newspaper, titled The Bridge, is Evan Katz and mine’s baby, or brainchild, if you will. We started working on the newspaper in August after we had a chance encounter with Nashville’s street paper, The Contributor. After a few minutes of admiration for the quality of the paper, the idea, and the structure (there’s that word again!) that drives it, we decided on the spot that something similar, if not better, should exist in Memphis.
The idea of a street newspaper is pretty straightforward. The Bridge is a 12-page, soon to be 16-page, professionally printed newspaper. Its content is about issues facing those experiencing homelessness and it is written by both staff writers and people who are currently or formerly homeless. We then sell the paper to trained and certified vendors, who must be currently or formerly homeless. We give them 20 free copies, and after that, they buy the paper for 25 cents each.  They sell each copy of the paper for $1.00, with a badge signifying they are a trained vendor, and they keep all of the profits from their sales.  The vendors are independent contractors, and people in the community don’t view this paper as a handout. The Bridge is founded on the ideal of entrepreneurship, an extension of the American dream to those who have fallen on hard times.

Evan and I co-direct an entity called the Memphis Street Newspaper Organization that works to publish this paper monthly, while simultaneously interviewing and training vendors for our bi-weekly distributions. We currently are sponsored by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, but are in the process of applying to be our own legal nonprofit entity. This paper could not exist without the numerous Rhodes students who have stepped up and been incredible in handling real world, difficult, administrative job positions.

Talk about your experience as a member of the Appellate Moot Court Collegiate Challenge (AMC3) with the Rhodes Delegation of the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature.

The two teams I have been on at Rhodes have done well. We have gotten the highest marks on our brief each year, as well as advanced to finals each year.  Two years ago, the Rhodes delegation as a whole won the Best New Delegation award, and in our second year in the competition we won Best Overall Delegation. Shout out to Professor Wirls for coaching, guiding, and putting up with us during those hectic yet exciting Assemblies.  Perhaps the most memorable part of AMC3 was competing in the Tennessee Supreme Court Chambers for finals this year. Presenting an argument in its chambers is something I will never forget. 

Compiled by Caroline Ponseti

Tags: Political Science, Urban Studies, California