Jessica Allen, an associate with the Full Circle Gardens program, works with local farmers to rescue produce and get it to people who need it. (Photo: Ozarks Food Harvest)

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The details: Missouri State University is hosting its annual Public Affairs Conference on Sept. 20-22. The conference, free and open to the public, is meant to inspire action on community issues with conversation and connection.

A week before her scheduled panel at the Missouri State University Public Affairs Conference, Jessica Allen was out sitting on a porch out at the Ozarks Food Harvest Garden in Rogersville, watching the bulls before she began planting cabbages. 

Allen, an associate with the nonprofit’s Full Circle Gardens program, works with local farmers to rescue produce and get it to people who need it. She and a team from the program recently visited a farm to harvest a bunch of overgrown eggplants that were weighing down the farmers’ other produce. The fresh eggplants went to an Ozarks Food Harvest pantry. 

“So it worked out really well for both of us,” Allen said. “It’s like extra labor that they don’t have to pay for or account for in any way, and then that food goes back into the community.”

Allen is one of four MSU graduates on a panel called “Citizens Bears and Beyond.” The four have gone on to careers that both help and engage members of the Springfield area community, said Shannon Wooden, the 2022 Public Affairs Conference chair. Wooden said the goal of this year’s conference engagement is to have not only meaningful conversations around important issues but also to encourage people to take meaningful action in their communities. 

Wooden said speakers and panelists at this year’s conference were selected in part to show that complex issues can be examined from a number of vantage points. A session on criminal justice reform, for instance, features not only scholars but also leaders who teach formerly incarcerated people to become forest firefighters in the West or to become farmers in the rural South. 

Many of the invited speakers for the free three-day event will either be visiting from out of town or joining via Zoom. To represent Springfield, Wooden reached out to people who she said have taken an inspired meaningful action here, like Allen, who helped develop MSU’s student food pantry. 

Panelist hopes to show students, public that community service is ‘good for the soul’ – and the resume

Allen said she’s been getting her hands dirty since she was an undergrad at MSU. She worked in the Office of Public Affairs, while also running the campus chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She earned her master’s in social work from MSU in 2019, and part of her graduate project was to help start the Center for Community Engagement’s Bear Pantry. Now located in the basement of University Hall, the pantry serves students in need of nutritious resources.

Allen said she and several student workers were among those who used it to meet their food security needs. Her time with the Bear Pantry affirmed for her that there is a big difference between what food insecurity looks like and what people think it looks like. She said there was no “type” of person who used the Bear Pantry.

“A lot of times we were seeing first-generation students, we’re seeing non-traditional returning students, students who have served in the military and are coming back to school — all of these different types of students that we’re seeing now, and they all face different challenges,” she said. 

“There’s that classic joke of the hungry college student eating ramen noodles every day. And that’s a joke, and it’s a reality for a lot of students. And you expect them to put in all this time studying, and all this mental effort when they’re not getting proper nutrition a lot of times.”

Working with NAMI, the Bear Pantry and other volunteer settings opened up Springfield to Allen, who grew up in St. Louis. 

“There’s so much more benefit to getting involved in the community in a volunteer capacity than I think people realize on the surface,” she said. “There’s almost a spiritual aspect to it, in my opinion, of connecting with people around you and getting to know people and their stories in a different way. And not only that, but doing good work and doing something that is going to impact other people. That’s just good for the soul. But past that, it’s also a really good career move, really. It’s networking, it’s resume building. I got a lot of the jobs that I did because of people I’ve volunteered with or different organizations that I spent time working with in different capacities. You give people a chance to see your work ethic in those moments, and that really shines. That really speaks a lot to people a lot more than things on a resume. It’s getting to know you and seeing how you work.

“Connections like that are what keep you invested in a community, and I’ve made connections like that all over town, and it just really helps you feel grounded in the place where you’re living, and it gives you a sense of purpose. It really did help make the decision for me to stick around, plus it got me a really great job – the job of my dreams.”

Conference includes presentations, speeches from several noteworthy guests

Actress Marlee Matlin
Actress Marlee Matlin will give the keynote address on Sept. 20 to begin the 2022 Missouri State University Public Affairs Conference (Courtesy)

The conference kicks off Tuesday evening with a free, in-person, keynote presentation from Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin. Matlin, who is deaf, starred in the 2022 Best Picture, “Coda,” as the mother of a hearing child torn between helping her family’s fishing business and pursuing a singing career. Matlin won a Best Actress award in her debut, “Children of a Lesser God.” Matlin’s autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later,” tells the story of recovering from substance, sexual and physical abuse after winning the Oscar in 1987. 

She will share her story starting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 20 at the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. 

“Her story is inspirational because she overcame odds and broke barriers to achieving great success,” Brent Dunn, executive director of the Missouri State University Foundation, said in a release. “Even more admirable, she has used her platform to champion the deaf and hard of hearing community, as well as advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.”

The event is free to the public, and tickets are not required for the event. A VIP meet-and-greet gathering before the event costs $125. Those interested can register online.

Along with Matlin, the conference has two in-person plenary sessions and one online-only hourlong plenary session with guest speakers. 

Architect Liz Ogbu, whose work focuses on transforming socially and racially unjust urban spaces, will speak via Zoom about how design can help populations take steps both small and large toward building socially just environments. Jamira Burley, who connects youths with business leaders as part of her work as the head of youth engagement and skills for the Global Business Coalition for Education, will speak in person at 7 p.m. on Sept. 21 in the Plaster Student Union Theater about developing leadership skills through emotional intelligence, self-empowerment and compassion. NPR “Morning Edition” and “Up First” host Leila Fadel will discuss the media’s role in a changing world at the PSU Theater at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 22

The conference concludes with a presentation by Zach Anner, a comedian, TV host and with cerebral palsy who began his entertainment career by hosting a Texas public access television show that gained a cult following. Anner will speak from 7 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 22 at the PSU Theater. 

To see the full schedule of events, and access Zoom links to watch the panel discussions, visit the MSU Public Affairs Conference website.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson