A Week of “Sweet” Reflection: JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies

Open Road — Week 3 by Team MACK

After an enjoyable experience in Asheville, North Carolina, we made a pit stop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a hiking trip before heading to our destination for week 3: Birmingham, Alabama.

Upon arriving in Alabama, we were all surprised at how many trees there were. After some googling, we found out that Alabama is the state with the third highest percentage of its land area covered in forest. For you trivia buffs out there, the other two states are Georgia and Oregon. With the windows down enjoying the warm air, we finally made it to Birmingham on Mother’s Day. (I love you, mom!)

Our partner this week was JaWanda Jackson, an absolute all-star. JaWanda is the owner and operator of JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies, a specialty pie shop in Birmingham. Her business focuses on variations of sweet potato pies (all of which are delicious), cobblers, and cakes. In addition to being an entrepreneur, JaWanda is a mother, wife, published author, a local pastor, and much much more.

Team MACK with founder of JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies, JaWanda Jackson L to R: Chris Owen, JaWanda Jackson, Kashay Sanders, Allison Berstein, & Mark Green (author)

On Monday morning, we met with JaWanda at her storefront to narrow the scope of our work for the week. After a productive conversation, we narrowed our focus on two areas: finance and marketing. The finance work would be two-fold: assist JaWanda in utilizing her online bookkeeping software more effectively and develop a financial model that clearly identifies her costs. For the marketing function, we would create a best practices marketing guide targeted towards increasing the awareness of JaWanda’s products in the Birmingham area.

We completed the formalities of scoping and did not realize it at the time, but the best part of the day was yet to come.

The highlight was JaWanda’s southern hospitality. She invited us to her home to break bread with her family. JaWanda had prepared a delicious home-cooked meal of chicken, casserole, cabbage, and of course, sweet potato pies. We met her husband Eddie and learned more about JaWanda’s inspiring entrepreneurial journey.

JaWanda is a local pastor and her faith is the foundation of her business and her identity. JaWanda told us how God has blessed her and her business; the success of her business is directly tied to God’s grace. Throughout the week, we made sure to keep in contact with JaWanda while we worked on the finance and marketing deliverables. We wanted to ensure we were on the right path and were providing products that she would find valuable and easy to implement.

Our “offices” for the week were the University of Alabama Birmingham’s student center and the library at Samford University. On Thursday evening, we presented our finance and marketing deliverables and ate dinner with JaWanda at her house. It was a successful presentation, the food was delicious, and after many hugs and selfies, we said goodbye and God Bless.

A historic marker honoring Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks and the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott outside the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, AL

The next day, we headed to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the site of a powerful new museum in the United States. It is the National Memorial for Peace and is a tribute to the known and unknown victims of lynching in the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Although we briefly touched on lynching in my high school U.S. history class, it was not something I had read much about since. I was confronted with how much I did not know.

There were three points that especially moved me:

1. At least one of the lynchings occurred in the 1940s, making it much more recent than I had realized. In addition, one person was murdered for asking a white woman for a glass of water. In Paris, Texas, not far from where I grew up, a crowd of around ten thousand white spectators came to witness a lynching of a black man. It still baffles me how people could be so hateful.

2. In Collin County, where I grew up, a man named Commodore Jones was lynched in 1911. This was especially difficult to process. I remember thinking, who was this man? What was he accused of? When I got home, I looked him up, and he was accused of insulting a white woman over the telephone. A crowd of white citizens then came and made him climb a telephone pole where they hung him.

3. The most disappointing part of all of this is the erasure. I had no idea this occurred, and I suspect that is the point. It is a point in our nation’s history that is often ignored or goes unrecognized. This memorial does an excellent job of bringing to life these struggles and the lingering impact they still have today.

The memorial was powerful and eye-opening (and eye-watering). It sparked some challenging questions among our group and made us reflect on mourning the past while inspiring us to work for a more just future.
The best-looking members of Team MACK (L to R: Chris Owen, Allison Bernstein & Kashay Sanders) with Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative who created the memorial in Montgomery, in addition to providing legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes.

This was a powerful trip for us. After spending the weekend in Birmingham and attending a minor league baseball game, we are heading to Conway, Arkansas, just outside of Little Rock where we will be working with an educational technology start-up destined for great things.