Becca Risman ’21 Drives Community Engagement Through the Memphis Urban Fellows Program

a young woman with long dark hair smiles at the camera

Inspired by the revitalization efforts in her hometown of San Antonio, TX, Becca Risman ’21 selected Rhodes College and Memphis because of a culture and community that resembled the urban landscape of her home. Now with graduation only weeks away, Risman looks back at the lasting impact she’s made on her community over the last four years through Memphis’ Urban Fellows program.

After taking her first urban studies course, Risman instantly knew she’d found her major as well as what she wanted to dedicate her time to while in Memphis. From there, Risman was offered a spot in the Urban Fellows program offered through Rhodes in partnership with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. After accepting the offer, Risman began working with JUICE Orange Mound, a nonprofit made up of community leaders in Memphis’ Historic Orange Mound neighborhood. With the help of JUICE, Risman and the other fellows served as liaisons between community members and the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development.

“I believe that in order to hold our cities accountable, we must hold ourselves accountable by ensuring we listen to residents and work to alleviate disparities in our city,” says Risman. “Working directly with community members has shown me the lack of agency associated with disinvested neighborhoods and that there is a need for engagement from municipal leaders to ensure residents are satisfied.”

In the spring of her junior year, Risman took her passion abroad, applying the lessons she learned in Memphis to the community of Sevilla, Spain. Interested in the way that public space breeds connectivity between neighborhoods, Risman sought to compare the Memphis Heights Line, a neighborhood-led initiative to craft the longest linear park in the city along a former trolley line, to Sevilla’s “Sevici” biking program, a project that incorporates bike lanes throughout the city. “Through my research, I tried to help others better understand how the results of the two projects would differ because of race disparities in American cities. I wanted to shine a light on the ways in which urban planning must be inclusive and consider socio-spatial barriers.”

Risman credits her mentors in the Department of Urban Studies with encouraging her to expand her horizons and be bold in her research, citing specifically Visiting Professor of Urban Studies Austin Harrison, who doubles as her Urban Fellows mentor, and Assistant Professor of Urban Studies Peter Hossler.

“I first met Professor Hossler when I took his course Nonprofits in the City, which allowed me to form connections with actual nonprofits in the city and understand how they specialize and adapt to fit the demographic they serve. I met Professor Harrison through a course called Neighborhood Equity, which placed me directly in the Historic Orange Mound neighborhood. Professor Harrison not only showed our class the importance of passion in this field, but also the necessity to balance good interpersonal skills with analytical skills when partaking in community development,” says Risman.

“Because of the Urban Fellows program and my own research, I now understand the importance of resident perspective and effective communication skills when framing solutions in urban areas. Thanks to Rhodes, I’ve been able work with an impactful group of students and community leaders and engage in such influential experiences for the last four years.”

After graduation, Risman will serve as a Work First Fellow in New York City, a foundation associated with America Works, a women-owned nonprofit that seeks to alleviate poverty in major cities. Continuing to work directly with community members, Risman will identify barriers to employment as well as act as a voice for residents, craft grant projects, and teach employment skills and professional development.

By Sam Brown ’21