Leah Ford ′15

Hometown: Memphis, TN
Major: Anthropology/Sociology
Minor: Gender and Sexuality Studies

Academic Interests: Queer theory, social justice movements, reproductive justice, critical race theory, social inequalities, feminist theory

Extracurricular activities: Intern for Vote No on 1 Campaign, intern for Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, member of Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Young Leaders Advisory Council, Young People For (YP4) Fellow, Rhodes Student Associate for Grant Writing, Sexpert Peer Educator, member of Voices for Planned Parenthood (VOX), Queer Advocacy, LGBT Working Group, Sexual Assault Task Force, Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center’s Youth Services Committee, Tri Iota, Mortar Board, and Omicron Delta Kappa, (Editor’s note: elected to Rhodes Hall of Fame, April 2015)

Tell the story of how you got to Rhodes College.

Growing up in Memphis, I always thought that I would leave the city to attend college somewhere else. Rhodes was just the gorgeous school down the street—not a school I ever seriously considered attending until my senior year of high school. As a student in the International Baccalaureate program, I wanted to attend a college that would challenge me academically and also allow me the opportunity to build personal connections with my professors. While I knew that Rhodes offered these opportunities, I had a hard time deciding to stay in the same city I grew up in. Honestly, it wasn’t until I came to Rhodes as a student that I actually learned anything about Memphis and how it could enrich my life. It took me right up until decision day to choose Rhodes, but I now know that I made the right decision.

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

Before attending Rhodes, I was more concerned about grades than I was about learning, and I really wasn’t passionate about anything in particular. Taking classes in sociology and gender and sexuality studies has made me look at the world in an entirely new way, a framework that I use in my activism. Coming to Rhodes has not only made me care more about the things that I study, but also it has made me more passionate and driven to do something about them. For me, education is inseparable from action, so the education I’ve received at Rhodes has pushed me to be active in my community.

Can you tell us more about the way your studies intersected with your involvement in the community?

I started volunteering with Planned Parenthood my freshman year after I attended a sexual health training held by the organization on Rhodes campus. It was easy to become involved with Planned Parenthood as a student at Rhodes, as several Rhodes alums work there and are passionate about involving youth in reproductive rights activism. As I learned about feminist theory and gender inequality in my gender and sexuality studies and anthropology/sociology classes, I started putting that knowledge into practice through my work with Planned Parenthood in the Memphis community. This involvement in the Memphis community culminated in my involvement with the Vote No on 1 campaign. As a part of the Vote No on 1 campaign, I worked to educate voters about Amendment 1, a state constitutional amendment that passed last November and will give legislators more power to restrict abortion in the state of Tennessee. The amendment isn′t about whether you′re pro-choice or pro-life, but rather it′s about who you think should be able to make decisions for women about their pregnancies—women or politicians. I believe strongly in the right for women to make their own private medical decisions, and I′m glad to have been a part of this campaign, which continues to advocate for this right for Tennessee women. (Editor’s note: On March 19, Ford received the prestigious Young Volunteer of the Year Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America at their annual ceremony in Washington, D.C.)
You’re also involved with Queer Advocacy.

Queer Advocacy, which is an issue area under the Kinney Program, holds two annual events—a drag show fundraiser and a student service trip to Chicago. In the fall, the drag show helps to raise money for LGBTQ-serving organizations in Memphis while also putting on exciting performances by professional drag performers and by students. In the spring, a group of students involved with Queer Advocacy travel to Chicago for a weekend to learn about and engage in LGBTQ service, particularly around the issue of queer youth homelessness. I’m proud to be involved in these efforts to engage in LGBTQ activism in Memphis and at Rhodes and to help move our campus and our city towards being inclusive of people of all genders and sexualities.

What are your plans for next year? How has your Rhodes experience influenced this decision?

Next year, I plan to continue organizing for reproductive justice and LGBTQ liberation in the South by working for a non-profit on one or both of these issues. My experience at Rhodes has shown me that I am capable of making change in my community rather than staying apathetic about the injustices in our society. Organizing around important issues like abortion access and LGBTQ youth homeless with other students has reminded me of the power each of us has to truly impact the world we live in.

Compiled by Caroline Ponseti ′15