Our Team

Get to know the people behind MELA

Biz Harris

Executive Director

Biz charts the course for the organization, builds strategic partnerships, and maintains a culture of innovation, equity, and core-values alignment. She leads the organization in building and adapting strategic plans, and coordinates staff to meet goals aligned to MELA’s mission. Biz earned a Master’s of Divinity degree from Emory University in order to explore how communities of faith work together to make change and brings passion for collaboration and community to her work. Harris has demonstrated continued success in bringing people together to work toward a common goal. Early in her career, she was the co-coordinator of the Mississippi Education Policy Fellowship Program, which focused on building the capacity of preschool-12 and higher education leaders, practitioners, and advocates to advance equitable policies for Mississippi students. Following that, she worked with the Tallahatchie River Foundation to launch their local collective impact initiative around pre-kindergarten. When Morgana Freeman, Executive Director of the Tallahatchie River Foundation, devised the concept for the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance in 2018, she asked Harris to join the team as one of the organization’s founding members, alongside former Executive Director Dr. Angela Bass. In addition to her work with MELA, Biz is the founder and volunteer director of Nurture Our Future, a non-profit that provides out-of-school learning & enrichment experiences, parent support and service referrals, and books to families in Laurel, Mississippi.

April May

Coalitions & Programs Director

As a dedicated advocate and integral member of MELA, April plays a pivotal role as a backbone in coalition building. With a keen eye for strategy, she oversees incentive programs and masterfully devises recruitment strategies, amplifying the coalition’s impact and fostering a vibrant community of engaged members. Hailing from Jackson, Miss, April brings a wealth of experience with 18 years dedicated to education and early childhood professional capacity-building.

Her fingerprints are all over Mississippi’s early learning landscape with a deep understanding of the childcare system. April’s influence extends beyond her role at MELA; she sits on the board for the Mississippi Early Childhood Association, has been a crucial member of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council (SECAC), and stands as a driving force behind the Mississippi Leadership for Children Network – a pioneering initiative launched in collaboration with forward-thinking colleagues and Leading for Children, Inc.

In addition to her impactful work at MELA, April is an adjunct professor, enriching the next generation of professionals with her knowledge. Her expertise extends to the stage, presenting at local and national conferences and leaving an indelible mark on the broader landscape of early childhood education.

Alexis Hicks

Policy & Advocacy Director

Alexis Hicks will be vital in transforming coalition recommendations into tangible policy proposals. She will be key in connecting, engaging and educating decision-makers, leaders, and community influencers across Mississippi. Hicks will work closely with Mississippi Forum for the Future and other MELA programs to achieve the vision of a state-of-the-art Mississippi childcare system that supports Mississippi children, families, and early care and education providers. Alexis is a native of Hallandale, Miss. After graduating from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s in Psychology, she received her master’s in Social Justice and Criminology from Delta State University. Over the years, she worked in numerous capacities serving systematically impacted populations across Mississippi. Hicks is involved in additional extracurricular activities that are focused on Mississippi’s underserved communities. She has also worked on public health initiatives and spearhead advocacy campaigns to create sustainable change. “One of my greatest accomplishments was being selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Mississippi Women in the Lead,” Hicks said. Mississippi Women in the Lead is a leadership program designed to help Mississippi women become well-equipped to run for elected office and champion progressive and equitable public policies that impact the lives of girls, women, and other vulnerable populations across the state. She is passionate about bringing hope and restoration to children, families and communities affected by the criminal justice system.

Mindy Phillips

Communications & Operations Director

Mindy Phillips’s role as the Director of Communications and Operations is to lead MELA’s work highlighting the successes of the Mississippi early childhood community. She will also oversee and execute the communications promoting Mississippi Early Learning Resources shared services site, a program for childcare and family care providers and raise awareness for the early childhood community about events and projects. Mindy is from Greenwood Springs, Miss., but she and her family have lived in the Jackson area since 2010. She received her Bachelor of Science in Public Relations at the University of Southern Mississippi. All of her previous jobs had an element of public relations, but Phillips took her public relations career further at the Mississippi Pharmacists Association (MPhA) as the Director of Communications. Shortly after, Phillips became the sole employee of MPhA, where she worked closely with the Board of Directors to oversee all aspects of the association. “I am looking forward to working with MELA and our coalition partners. The future of Mississippi is in the hands of the children in our state. I believe a future national leader could be in the hands of a dedicated childcare provider today. All children deserve a chance to succeed, and it begins by giving a voice to the early childhood community,” Phillips said.

Our Board

Dr. Devon Brenner, Board Chair

Director of Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University

Ross Weems, Board Treasurer

First Vice President, BankPlus Private Client Group

Dr. Alexander Washington

Director of Federal Government Affairs, Entergy Services, LLC

Dr. Suzette Matthews

Director of Development, University of Mississippi School of Law

Mandy Mahoney

Director of Building Technologies Office, US Department of Energy

Corey Hinshaw

Attorney at Watkins & Eager PLLC

Rich Long

Dr. Richard Long

Executive Director of Learning First Alliance

Dr. Jameshyia Ballard

Director of the Mississippi WIC Program, MS State Department of Health

Alex Martin

Associate General Counsel, Mississippi Power

Andrew Wilhelm

Dr. Andrew Wilhelm

Division Director of the Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine Division at the University of Mississippi Medical Center

Kimberly LeRoy Washington

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager at Mississippi Power

Casey Butts, CPA, Esq.

Attorney at Wells Butts Law, PLLC

Neil Tullos

Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Wiggins, Miss.

Jennifer Buster

Human Resource Professional Laurel, MS

Morgana Freeman

Executive Director of the Tallahatchie River Foundation