As a college freshman in 2004, Leslee Foukal never dreamed that, eleven years later, she’d still be in Jackson, Mississippi.
The Monroeville, Alabama native, who has been an active participant in the city’s cultural revival for over a decade, bids farewell this month for a new life and a new career in Birmingham.
A 2007 Belhaven University graduate, Foukal says she stuck around to build a life around connections she had made in the capital city. She worked for Bomgar just out of school and then Cups before managing Sneaky Beans, Brent’s and Mugshots. Foukal bought a house and did what any enthusiastic young Jacksonian would have: she plugged in.
A believer in the power of grassroots, stick-to-it efforts, Foukal first served her city through The Neighborhood Christian Center’s Pickin’ and Paddlin’ (where she met her doppelganger and friend, Melody Moody Thortis). From Figment to Sneaky Fest, Tedx, Fondren’s First Thursday and Jacktoberfest, Foukal doesn’t go too long without having her hand in some sort of creative and community-building effort.
And that’s what she says she’ll miss most about Jackson: her adopted family — her friends and foes – who have always rallied around the same causes she has, a tight-knit, connected effort to do something and be something more. “I tell newcomers this,” she says: “it’s about the people here.”
Foukal’s small town upbringing and personality akin to her dad’s always made her a lover of local. On Sunday, her multitude of worlds collided in a send off at Sneaky Beans, “a bizarre explosion of people,” a formative community unlike any she says she has ever experienced. “I learned a lot of what I know being a part of (this scene).”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. One Foukal fan is Jackson City Council president Melvin Priester who issued a page-long proclamation in her honor, calling her, among other things, “the ultimate volunteer, supporter and booster of all things Jackson.” “They’re not just words on paper, but each line was specific, personal and intentional,” Foukal says of Priester’s official gesture. “Of anything said or given to me, that’s one of the things that’s meant the most of all. Melvin knocked that out of the park.”
Foukal’s new life means new responsibilities and a chance for personal growth. She’ll become one of the managers of a new location of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in Birmingham’s trendy Lakeview district in the very same complex where Babalu Birmingham is located. She says she’s attracted to the company’s commitment to community and to their staff whom they see as she does — as one big family.
While the idea of a new city is somewhat terrifying, Foukal is assured of Birmingham’s growth and her chance to take what she has learned here and bring that skill set to a new place. “I’m more mature than when I first became involved in Jackson and I’m going to a town where the ball is rolling,” she says. “It’s excitement to balance the terror.”
How does Foukal say goodbye to the city she has loved? With an encouragement to press forward. “Keep doing what you’re’ doing! The reasons I am who I am is because of the people here. You support each other and have put Jackson on the map in so many ways now that ten years ago we weren’t. You’re doing something right. It’s organic and grassroots and people are so focused and love this place as much as they do. So keep at it.”
Foukal pauses and laughs: “I know you can’t print ‘kick ass,’ (we just did), but that’s what I feel. The biggest struggle now for Jackson is how to connect and pull in a newer generation of young professionals. A lot of us who did cool events six or seven years ago are at a different place in life, so we need fresh blood. Whether it’s an event you’ve thought of, a concept you want to try or a business you’ve wanted to start, Jackson is the place because of community support. Step up to the plate and make it happen.”
As Foukal departs Jackson, she continues to chronicle her favorite things on a blog titled, “30 Days 30 Faves.” She calls it “more of a personal debrief, maybe an exit interview of sorts” that she has put on paper to honor some but serve as a primer for newcomers, giving them ideas of things to do. We’re grateful to note that Find It In Fondrenâ„¢ made her list.