Besides speaking with a former participant, there’s no better way to get a feel for what you’ll experience than looking at last year’s agenda, skimming previous action projects, and browsing the biographies of past staff and speakers.

Action Project

As part of the NEW Leadership ® program, you will complete a political “Action Project.” Each year, we focus on a different issue—typically in a policy area that topped the agenda of a recent legislative session. As part of the project, you will research the issue from the perspective of an assigned interest group or coalition of interests. The project will culminate in a mock legislative committee hearing on proposed legislation related to the chosen policy area.

2023 Staff and Guest Speakers

At Mississippi University for Women, the NEW Leadership ® MS program is organized by Dr. Chanley Rainey, Director of the Women’s Center for Research & Public Policy, with assistance from Dr. Erin Kempker, Professor of History and Women’s Studies. In addition, Peer Mentors and Faculty in Residence are hired each summer to assist with the institute.


NEW Leadership ® Mississippi Faculty in Residence mentor students, guide students in research and rehearsals for the Action Project, provide general oversight of student behavior and assessment of student achievement in coordination with mentors, and facilitate engagement with elected officials.FIRs are women political leaders who agree to stay on campus with the students for the duration of the program. This allows for an intensive learning and mentoring experience, ensuring students receive the kind of high-quality mentoring that will prepare them, socially, for a career in politics and public service. As part of the Action Project, FIRs are each assigned to a small group of students with whom they can develop especially strong relationships, but the program also creates many opportunities for interaction with other students. In addition, the program offers a range of contexts for mentor-mentee interactions, ranging from policy research to professional dinners, from FIR-led panels to coffee breaks.

Michelle Easterling

Judge, 16th District Circuit Court of Mississippi

Michelle D. Easterling is a Clay County native and Circuit Court Judge of District 16, Place 3. In this position, she serves the citizens of Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, and Oktibbeha County. She won election to the court following a closely contested race that went to a run-off on November 29, 2022.
Before her election as to the bench, Michelle served three terms as the Clay County Prosecutor, a position she first won in 2013. She also served as the municipal prosecutor for the city of West Point, MS from 2016-2022; as the board attorney for East Mississippi Community College; and as the 16th Circuit Court District’s representative to the Mississippi Bar Association. She was elected to the latter position by her fellow attorneys in the 16th District.
For 25 years, she has maintained a general civil practice in the State and Federal Courts of the Northern District of Mississippi, with an emphasis in the areas of domestic relations and family law, workers’ compensation, Public Employees’ Retirement System disability, and business and corporate services.
Michelle has demonstrated a commitment to community service in the Golden Triangle region, serving as past Chairman of the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance; past President and Assistant District Governor of the West Point Rotary Club, District 6800; Honorary Commander, MSG-Columbus Air Force Base 14th Flying Training Wing; and Assistant District Governor of Rotary District 6800. She has also chaired the Mississippi Bar’s Women in the Profession Committee, was an inaugural member of the Bessie Young Council Board of Directors for the University of Mississippi School of Law, and has been a Fellow of Mississippi Bar since 2017.
Michelle earned Phi Beta Kappa and Omicron Delta Kappa honors in college, and is rated “AV” by Martindale-Hubbard. She has been recognized for Leadership, Advocacy and Service by the Clay County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and selected as a “Leader in Law” and “Top 40 Under 40” by the Mississippi Business Journal.
Michelle has been married to her husband, Thomas Easterling, for 25 years. They have two sons, Grayson and Jack, and are members of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, where Michelle has serves as a Parish Chancellor, member of the Vestry, and Sunday School teacher.

Kristie Metcalfe

Municipal Attorney, City of Jackson, MS

Kristie is a municipal attorney serving the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi.
Kristie has extensive legal experience in Mississippi’s legislature and judiciary. After law school, Kristie began her legal career as a law clerk for Chief Justice William L. Waller, Jr. with the Mississippi Supreme Court and then for Judge Ermea (EJ) Russell with the Mississippi Court of Appeals. After her time as a law clerk, Kristie joined the Mississippi Senate as legislative counsel, where she remained for eight years. Kristie then served as an attorney for privacy and civil rights at the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services before becoming an attorney for the city of Jackson.
Kristie holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and English from the Mississippi University for Women. She is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law, where she was Executive Board Notes and Comments Editor of the Mississippi Law Journal and a member of the Moot Court Board.
Kristie loves to Tunisian crochet in her free time. Her work in that area has earned her an exhibiting membership in the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. Kristie is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy novels and college football.

Adrienne Wooten

Judge, 7th District Circuit Court of Mississippi

The Honorable Adrienne Wooten is a native of Meridian, Mississippi. Judge Wooten, is the first African American female to hold the position of Circuit Court Judge of District 7, Place 1 in Hinds County, Mississippi, a position she won after a historical run-off election on November 27, 2018.
Prior to her transition to the Judiciary, Judge Wooten was a solo practitioner whose areas of specialty included criminal law, premises liability, personal injury, drug product liability, product liability, mass tort litigation, medical malpractice, wrongful death, and family law. Judge Wooten also served for 11 years in the Mississippi State Legislature representing District 71. She served on the committees of Insurance, Judiciary B, Judiciary En Banc, Municipalities, University and Colleges, and Public Health and Human Services during the last years of her legislative tenure.
Judge Wooten began her career 22 years ago as an associate at the Law Firm of Blackmon & Blackmon, PLLC, and in 2004, she began operating the Law Office of Adrienne Hooper-Wooten, PLLC, with offices in Ridgeland and Lexington, Mississippi. For 19 years she actively litigated civil matters and served as an Assistant Public Defender for Holmes County for 15 years representing indigent defendants.
Judge Wooten is a member of the American Bar Association, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Metro Jackson Black Women Lawyers Association, Mississippi Women’s Lawyers Association, Magnolia Bar Association, the Mississippi State Bar, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. She is the daughter of the late Tommy Hooper, Sr. and Jo Ann Hooper. Judge Wooten and her husband, Dewayne, have two (2) fur babies, Buster and Biff Wooten.


Faculty in Residence are joined by Peer Mentors as they guide students throughout the week of NEW Leadership MS. Peer Mentors are graduate students, law students, or early career professionals who have participated in a previous NEW Leadership MS summer institute. As such, they are well-positioned to help current students navigate the program and to advise them regarding opportunities they might pursue during and immediately after their undergraduate studies.

Isabella Escobedo

NEW Leadership ® Mississippi Alumna, 2022

Isabella Escobedo moved to Mississippi in 2015 and settled in the small town of Gore Springs on the outskirts of Grenada.
She studied history, pre-law, and sociology as a Statesman Scholar at Delta State University, where she graduated summa cum laude as an honor graduate in 2022. She will be an incoming University of Mississippi School of Law J.D. candidate this fall and hopes to work with local Mississippi governments in the future. At Delta State, she was involved in Student Government Association, DSU Diversity Equity and Inclusion, the DSU History Club, the DSU Run Club, Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society and Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society. She graduated from the Delta State Honors Program, where she researched topics in early United States constitutional history. In addition to her involvement in campus organizations, Isabella served as a supplemental instructor in the History department and a tutor in Delta State’s Writing Center.
In 2021, Isabella was awarded the Jack Winton Gunn Award, the highest scholastic honor at Delta State University. She is a four-time recipient of the William McKinley Cash History Scholarship and a recipient of the L.Q.C. Lamar History Scholarship, William N. LaForge Memorial Scholarship, Allen and Rose Drake Burrell Scholarship, and the John & Dorothy Merrill Journal Award. In 2019 she placed first in the Delta State Oratorical Competition for her speech “Know Your Rights: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the U.S.”
In the spring of 2022, Isabella served as the Delta State University-Delta Council-StaplCotn Congressional Fellow for Senator Roger F. Wicker of Mississippi. In 2020, she interned for the U.S. Department of State/Foreign Service Corps for the Central-South Region of the United States (LA, AR, MS). She also has over four years of experience at three Mississippi law firms, where she found a passion for aiding local Mississippi governments.

Mackenzie Pearce

NEW Leadership ® Mississippi Alumna, 2021

Mackenzie Pearce is a native of Guin, AL, a graduate student in American University’s Master of Public Policy program, and a Funding and Engagement Fellow at Vote, Run, Lead. She earned her B.A., with honors, in political science with a concentration in nonprofit advocacy and a minor in philosophy from the Mississippi University for Women in 2023.
At MUW, Mackenzie served as President of the Student Government Association and the Ina E. Gordy Honors Council in addition to numerous other campus organizational membership and leadership roles. She is a two-time winner of the MUW Political Science Student of the Year award and recipient of several scholarships, including the Ina E. Gordy Centennial Scholarship, the university’s most prestigious.
Mackenzie has extensive experience in campus organizing and activism, local governmental relations, and event planning and publicity. She also has a strong passion for women’s rights, voter access and education, and rural area development. Beginning in high school and continuing throughout her undergraduate studies, Mackenzie interned at Guin City Hall—in her hometown—assisting with office administration, communications, and program development. She has served as chair of the Women’s Caucus of the College Democrats of America, and worked as a 2020-2021 Democracy in Action Fellow for Mississippi Votes, a 2021-2022 Equal Pay Intern with AAUW MS, and an intern at The W’s Center for Women’s Research and Public Policy in the spring of 2021. In addition, Mackenzie was an intern and, later, administrative assistant at The Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry of the United Methodist Church.

Rachel Shirley

NEW Leadership ® Mississippi Alumna, 2017

Rachel Shirley is a 2017 graduate of Mississippi College in Clinton, MS. She majored in history with a minor in business administration. Afterward, Rachel earned a Marketing Management Technology degree from Hinds Community College in Pearl, MS.
Rachel has been an intern with Governor Bryant’s and First Lady Bryant’s offices and completed a remote internship with the social media team of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. After graduating from Hinds, she working as social media liaison and administrative assistant for the Special Events Coordinator at the community college for a time. Currently, Rachel works remotely with a political marketing firm based in Utah. As Rachel stated while in college, “TV is actually educational, I binged watch The West Wing show while taking an American Presidency class and understood so much more.”

Keara Williams

2022 Summer Intern, Center for Women’s Research & Public Policy

Keara Williams is a licensed teacher with endorsements in English, Biology, and Social Studies and was recently hired as a faculty member at Aliceville High School in Alabama, where she will teach ELA for grades 10-12. In addition, she is a graduate student in the Master of Library and Information Sciences (MLIS) program at the University of Southern Mississippi. She completed a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a concentration in Social Studies as well as a Master of Arts in Teaching at Mississippi University for Women.
At The W, Keara participated in Phi Theta Kappa and was honored with the 2020-2021 Edsel and Joyce Cooper award and was selected as the 2022 Dave Evans Scholar. In 2022, Keara interned at the Center for Women’s Research & Public Policy, a position in which she helped to plan and administer the NEW Leadership Mississippi summer institute.
Keara lives in Columbus with her daughter, Khaleesi, who is four years old. She is a local photographer when she isn’t a student, mother, or educator. She also enjoys watching Chicago PD, All American, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things.


Kyle Kirkpatrick

Assistant Secretary of State, Elections Division

Dana McLean

Representative, Mississippi House; District 39 – Lowndes, Monroe

Dana McLean was born in Russellville, Alabama but spent part of her childhood in Columbus, Mississippi. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and French at the University of Alabama and received her JD and LLM from Stetson University College of Law.
After living and working as an attorney in Florida, Dana and her daughter relocated to Columbus, Mississippi in 2013 and she began a career in real estate, serving the Columbus, Caledonia, and Steens communities. also joined the Exchange Club, served as President of the Columbus Arts Council, and sat on the Lowndes County Crime Task Force’s Education Committee.
In the spring of 2019, she decided to challenge Jeff Smith, a powerful incumbent of 28 years, for the Republican nomination in the primary election for Mississippi House District 39. Dismayed at the state of education policy and concerned that it did not seem to be a priority for elected leaders, Dana was already going to public forums and paying close attention to politics. When former Representative Smith voted down a local 2% restaurant sales tax that was essential to the operation of Columbus’ local development association, Dana was convinced new leadership was needed. The day before the filing deadline, when it was clear no one else was going to challenge Smith, she threw her name into the hat. Traveling Lowndes and Monroe counties in her 1988 Airstream Excella camper, Dana led an insurgent, grassroots campaign. Despite being at a severe financial disadvantage (Smith raised $74,000 to McLean’s $14,550), Dana prevailed. She won by 162 votes.
Dana has served in the legislature since January 2020 and serves on the Agriculture, Constitution, Judiciary B, Judiciary En Banc, Public Health and Human Services, Universities and Colleges, and Workforce Development Committees in the House.
Dana is a member of the National Association of Realtors, Greater Golden Triangle Realtor Association, Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce, Exchange Club, and Columbus Arts Council.

Beth Waldo

Candidate, District 15, Mississippi House of Representatives

Beth Luther Waldo is a life-long native of Pontotoc and a graduate of Blue Mountain Christian University. Beth is currently the Director of Pontotoc County Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Association and a Realtor. After college, Beth worked for the Department of Human Services. She and her business partner constructed commercial buildings to lease to Dollar Generals and built residentials properties to sell. Beth has owned and operated several small businesses: an assisted living facility, a restaurant/events venue, and a flower shop.
Beth is running unopposed for an open seat in District 15 of the Mississippi House of Representatives. Beth not only loves her hometown of Pontotoc County, but she also loves the state of Mississippi and looks forward to this new opportunity to serve. She comes from a political family and has been interested in politics from a young age. While Beth loves to travel, one of the highlights of her day is reading a fiction book each night at bedtime.

Hester Jackson-McCray

Representative, Mississippi House; District – Desoto

Hester Jackson-McCray was born in Drew, Mississippi but spent many years living in Chicago, Illinois. She earned her Associate in Science degree from Triton College and her LPN certification from the Chicago Board of Education. She also earned certification as a Dementia Practitioner through the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners. Her career in nursing stretched over more than three decades until complications from a knee replacement surgery led her to retire. Her love of baking led to Hester’s Unique Catering and Character Cakes, a catering business that has helped sustain her and six grandchildren who lived with her at one point.
Since 2001, Hester has been a resident of Horn Lake. She has been called “the definition of perseverance,” because of her continued pursuit of elected office. She first ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Horn Lake in 2009, then lost a race for the local board of aldermen and her first attempt at representing District 40 in the House. Finally, in 2019, she won in a tough election against Ashley Henley, the Republican incumbent who had defeated her in the previous election. Winning by fourteen votes, Hester survived an election challenge that went all the way to the Mississippi legislature, where a bipartisan House committee heard testimony from local election officials who confirmed the fairness of the election and the accuracy of the results. Despite a request from Henley to order a new election, the Republican-controlled House voted unanimously to affirm the election results. When she took her seat in February of 2020, Hester made history, becoming the first Black woman ever to represent her district in the state legislature and the first Black person to do since Reconstruction.
Hester’s platform emphasized support for public education and support for teachers, including full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Plan (MAEP) and teacher pay raises, with the slogan “S.O.S. – Save Our Schools.” She has also championed voting rights and, before the initiative process was ruled invalid by the Mississippi Supreme Court, filed a ballot initiative to establish no-excuse early voting in the state. In the House, she serves as a member of the Conservation and Water Resources; Drug Policy; Energy; Gaming; and Public Utilities committees.
In 2021, Hester received the National Foundation for Women Legislators’ Elected Women of Excellence Award, having been nominated by her colleague, Representative Lataisha Jackson. The award honors “pacesetters [whp] have engendered an environment where women can now serve in public office and fight for the issues they are passionate about.” She is the co-chair of the Mississippi Early Voting Initiative and a member of AARP Chapter 5371, DeSoto-Marshall County Mississippi Federation of Democratic Women and the NAACP.
Hester is a member of Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven. She has two adult children who attended Mississippi public schools and eight grandchildren.

Shalonda Spencer