Close this search box.
Tomika Bell's headshot. She's wearing a red jacket.
Tomika Bell serves as the co-director of Choctaw Fresh Produce, a fully organic farm located on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Reservation in Choctaw, Miss. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation invited Bell and 21 other Mississippians to join the third incarnation of its Community Leadership Network fellowship program. Photo courtesy Tomika Bell

W.K. Kellogg Foundation Accepts 22 Mississippi Changemakers into Third Community Leadership Network

Seven-year-old Tomika Bell stomped down the dusty row of her family’s Philadelphia, Miss., farm. It was hot, and the little girl had no interest in farming. Her father reminded her, as he had on many occasions, that the garden provided food for them including tomatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, peas, corn and greens.

Bell grudgingly took the watermelon seeds in her hand and prepared the ground for planting. The family employed a no-till farming method, which meant using a hoe to create the pockets for the seeds. As she worked, Bell mumbled under her breath that there was no reason to grow so much produce just for their family. Her father guided her as she added the seeds to the soil.

A few months later, Bell’s cousin came to visit. After playing, the two sat outside together and enjoyed the sweet red meat of watermelon from Bell’s family garden. The produce did not just provide for their family but for others in the tribal nation—a lesson Bell did not completely understand until she was much older.

“It wasn’t just providing for us; it was for our whole family, gatherings that might have been someone’s birthday or some sort of holiday coming,” Bell told the Mississippi Free Press. “When you’re a little kid you’re like, ‘If it’s just us eating, then why are we growing so much?’ There was a lot left over. That was his way of giving back to the community, by letting other people harvest the produce or food that they wanted.”

Now as an adult and the co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network, Bell recognizes the importance of having access to fresh food and produce. The group offers resources for schools on how to start school gardens, organizes farm tours, and provides programs to educate children and families about the importance of eating locally grown, nutritious food. The network also partners schools with farmers who can provide them with fresh produce.

“In the schools there’s a lot of regulations, so we’re the ones that are the mediators helping them get into the schools,” Bell said. “We are the advocates. We basically guide them one-on-one on how they can transfer their produce into schools.”

‘I Have This Voice’

Passionate about improving the health of her community, the Neshoba County native wanted to strengthen her leadership skills so that she can be a more effective agent of change, which she now has the opportunity to do as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network fellow.

The foundation, in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership, has selected 80 diverse leaders from the WKKF’s priority places—Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans—to take part in the fellowship’s third iteration. The training sessions will examine community engagement, racial equity, healing, and collective leadership in areas such as education, health, family and economic security.

“The most important thing about the Community Leadership Network program is exactly what it says in the title,” Reggie LaGrand, WKKF’s director of leadership programs, told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s working in communities, communities that we care about—(ones) we are committed to for a generation or more that have some of the most challenging issues that they’re trying to deal with and that align with our vision, our mission, our values, and our beliefs.”

Twenty-two Mississippians comprise the third class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network. The 18-month program helps community-change agents strengthen their leadership skills. Photo courtesy W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Fellows spend 18 months in the program enhancing their individual personal leadership skills and networking with other community leaders. They attend training on building awareness for their causes, giving feedback and engaging the community. Each fellow is assigned an executive coach who helps them learn more about themselves as leaders and extract the most out of the training. The experience provides fellows with the tools they may use to position themselves as changemakers for children, families and communities.

“People that know me know that I’m not the most outspoken person,” Bell said. “It is mostly for me. I have this voice, and I see what needs to be done, (but) I was always so scared. I felt like this opportunity lets me go out there to explore but also learn how to find my voice.”

A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Bell also serves as the co-director of Choctaw Fresh Produce. Choctaw Fresh is a fully organic farming initiative that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians founded. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide fresh healthy produce for its 11,000 tribal members by supplying food directly to individuals, the tribe-owned Pearl River Resort casino’s restaurants and staff cafeteria, local schools, and programs for tribal elders and those with diabetes.

Bell comes from a family with a history of diabetes, and she lost her father to heart problems and kidney disease four years ago.

“That made my passion food systems and my goal to somehow alleviate the health disparities in my native community,” Bell said. “Not only did it bring me that much closer to my people and try to bring back the cultural significance, but also it brought me back to my memories with my grandpa or my grandparents. (It is) keeping me that much closer to my dad knowing that I can make that change for someone else’s parents or loved one.”

Bell joins a cohort of 21 other Mississippians who include family community and youth advocates such as Nadeane Cattrell, Micah Briggs Sr. and Paheadra Robinson; youth mentors Marcus Burger, Steven Randle and Kierre Rimmer; community, power and bridge builders Chauncey Spears, Caitlin Brooking, Deeneaus Polk and Allytra Perryman; health agents Jessica Reed, Olga Osby and Laura Sessum; technology innovator Raymonda Delaware; food-systems steward Liz Broussard Red; social entrepreneur JJ Townsend; social-justice warrior Arekia S. Bennett-Scott; youth opportunity creator Parthenia Fields; democracy protector Jarvis Dortch; community educator Alexandra Melnick; and education ally James Forte.

‘That’s Their Space, And They’re Brilliant at It’

The first Community Leadership Network cohort began in 2014 and was a three-year program encompassing 120 fellows. After the first cohort, the foundation decided to revamp the program and partner with the Center for Creative Leadership. The second class began in 2019 and was designed as an 18-month program with a more pointed focus on leadership development.

“That’s how we ended up with starting in CLN two in the partnership with our fund grantee partner, the Center for Creative Leadership,” LaGrand said. “That’s their space, and they’re brilliant at it. They do leadership all over the world. And so it was a nice partnership to bring into the fold to help us really up or strengthen our leadership-development piece.”

Members of this third class of the Community Leadership Network cover a wide array of professions including urban farmer, consumer-protection lawyer, breastfeeding-medicine specialist, music-theory professor, rural-technology consultant and Indigenous-rights activist, and tribal leader. The new class of the WKKF Community Leadership Network will begin with a virtual session in September 2023 and an in-person gathering in October 2023.

Four women pose for a photo outside of a greenhouse
Mississippi Farm to School Network Co-Director Tomika Bell, pictured third from left, is one of 22 Mississippians accepted into W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s third iteration of its Community Leadership Network fellowship program. Photo courtesy Tomika Bell

Once the program is complete, fellows join the Global Fellows Network, a group of more than 1,100 leaders spanning 40 countries that consists of participants from various WKKF fellowship programs such as the Kellogg National Leadership Program, Kellogg International Fellowship Program and the Community Health Scholars Program.

“Leadership has always been a core focus of the foundation dating back to the early days,” LaGrand said. “We were one of the earlier foundations to invest in leadership in health and leadership in community colleges. When you look at the information on our global fellows network, many of those leadership programs date back to the early ’80s and before. Currently, the global fellows network represents about 17 different fellowship programs.”

Breakfast-cereal innovator and entrepreneur Will Keith Kellogg began the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1930 to support thriving children, working families and equitable communities. It supports work in the United States, with sovereign tribes in Mexico and Haiti. It was established with a commitment to racial equity, leadership development and community-based solutions.

Bell understands that her work today has deep implications for not only the future but her family.

“I just keep doing this and wanting to grow for it—not just for my family, to keep that legacy going, but for my child, too,” Bell said. “I just hope it will be things that he learns from me, too, and that I just have this everlasting impression on him, that at least I had the guts to get outside of my comfort zone and see where I can show up better not just for him, or for my community, but for all people in the city.”

For more about the WKKF Community Leadership Network with the Center for Creative Leadership and a complete list of fellows, visit

Note: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has provided operating funds for the Mississippi Free Press, as well as the Mississippi Youth Media Project, which began as then-fellow Donna Ladd’s CLN leadership project in 2016. This article was not influenced by the foundation’s support.

Correction: This story originally incorrectly quoted someone as referring to a “Center For Community Leadership”; they referred to the “Center For Creative Leadership.” We apologize for the error.

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

With your gift, we can do even more important stories like this one.