Below, please find the candidates running for the 2020-2020 FIN Officer positions.  Please consider the biography, experiences, and vision of each. Use the Qualtrics voting survey link in your Fellows Newsletter emailed April 6, 2020 to record your vote.  Voting ends April 30, 2020 at 11:59 pm.

FIN Chairperson Candidates

Photo of Akiesha Anderson

Candidate 1 of 2: Akiesha Anderson


Akiesha Anderson serves as Policy Director for Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Her professional work focuses on policy development, legislative advocacy, coalition building, and engaging with public officials. In her role, she also assists with Appleseed’s legal projects. As a Montgomery-native, Akiesha received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Alabama State University. She also earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Auburn University-Montgomery and a law degree (along with a Certificate in Government Affairs) from The University of Alabama. Over the years, she’s had the honor of working with several civil rights organizations, elected officials, a university, and a think tank: the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Human Rights Campaign (HRC, U.S. Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (Al-07), the Montgomery County Commission, UCLA School of Law, and the Williams Institute. Outside of the Blackburn Institute Akiesha Anderson serves as Policy Director at Alabama Appleseed. Her work focuses on policy development, legislative advocacy, coalition building, and engaging with public officials. In her role, she also assists with Appleseed’s legal projects. As a Montgomery-native, Akiesha received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Alabama State University. She also earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Auburn University-Montgomery and a law degree (along with a Certificate in Government Affairs) from The University of Alabama. Over the years, she’s had the honor of working with several civil rights organizations, elected officials, a university, and a think tank: the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Human Rights Campaign (HRC, U.S. Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (Al-07), the Montgomery County Commission, UCLA School of Law, and the Williams Institute. In addition to the Blackburn Institute she is a member of several service-oriented organizations including Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Blackburn and FIN Involvement:

Akiesha joined the Blackburn Institute in 2016 and became a fellow in 2017. As a Blackburn student, she conducted research on food deserts in Alabama that later served as the basis for the 2016 Blackburn class’ Daniel Community Scholars project. As a Blackburn student Akiesha was also very involved in other aspects of the Blackburn Institute, including monthly in-person meetings, group discussions, and the interview/hiring process for Blackburn staff. As a fellow, Akiesha has served as a resource and mentor to several Blackburn students, particularly those with questions about navigating the law school application process. She has also attended events such at the Annual Symposium–even when that meant traveling across the country/from Los Angeles, CA to do so.

Vision for the Fellows Involvement Network:

All signs indicate that the nation may be headed into challenging times. As the COVID-19 continues to impact our state, nation, and the rest of the world, leaders such as those of us that are a part of Blackburn will be needed to offer a level of compassion and support to our communities. As Blackburn Chair, I would like to first work with fellows to develop concrete and actionable ways for us to leverage our involvement in the Blackburn Institute in a way that can tangibly assist others within Alabama and other communities. I envision bringing fellows together to “network for a purpose”, namely the purpose of using our collective energy to offer financial and other forms of support to communities hit most harshly by the economic and other consequences of the nation’s current epidemic. Once the impact of COVID-19 resides and things get back to normal, I would next like to find other areas/issues of mutual concern amongst fellows and work to develop other ways for us to utilize our collective energy to effectuate change in those areas.

Photo of Mackenzie Brown

Candidate 2 of 2: Mackenzie Brown


Mackenzie Brown is a 2013 Blackburn Fellow and 2015 graduate of The University of Alabama where he majored in marketing with a concentration in real estate. While at UA, Mackenzie served as an editor at The Crimson White and then Director of Media Relations for the SGA, in addition to working in the Blackburn Institute office. After graduation, Mackenzie helped open a restaurant with another Blackburn Fellow, a connection made thanks to the Fellows network. Mackenzie currently serves as AVP – Marketing at SouthPoint Bank, a local community bank in Birmingham. Mackenzie is an active member at Church of the Highlands and is passionate about leadership development and serving others. Mackenzie lives in Chelsea with his wife Mary Martin and their daughter Lyla, born April 2019.

Blackburn and FIN Involvement:

While a Blackburn Student, I was active in Blackburn engagement and worked in the office serving other Students and Fellows alike. I am a testament to the benefits of the Fellows network. Throughout most of my college career I interned for a Blackburn Fellow which eventually lead to the start of my career in marketing.

Vision for the Fellows Involvement Network:

I believe the Fellows Involvement Network should exist as a catalyst of both involvement and connections. Involvement necessitates a centralized gateway from Fellows to the Blackburn office, Board and current students, which FIN fulfills through regular communication but can be enhanced through continued individual engagement. In addition, the FIN exists to promote a culture of continued involvement whenever possible. The Blackburn network exists as way to facilitate connections that have a shared point of reference: A college experience enhanced by Blackburn’s core curriculum and a love for the state of Alabama. I believe the FIN should serve as one of the first contacts for facilitating these connections.

FIN Internal Vice-Chairperson Candidates

Photo of Olivia Bensinger

Candidate 1 of 2: Olivia Bensinger


Olivia Bensinger is from Troy, Alabama and a 2014 graduate of the University of Alabama. Olivia received a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from New College, for which she focused on Ecological Economics. She also majored in Spanish and minored in Latin American Studies. While at UA, Olivia was involved in the Environmental Council, working primarily to bring local, organic food to campus dining halls. Immediately after graduation, Olivia attended Harvard Law School, where she served as a managing editor of the Harvard Environmental Law Review. Since law school, Olivia spent a little over two years as a litigation associate at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP in New York City. Olivia recently moved to Huntsville to clerk for Judge Lynwood Smith in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

Blackburn and FIN Involvement:

I am a 2013 Blackburn Fellow, and that year I attended all travel experiences, including to Talladega and Auburn/Opelika, and as many on-campus events as possible. Since my time on campus, I have read and evaluated application essays each year and have attended the last two Annual Symposia. I also attended a couple of the NYC Blackburn events when I was living there. I have a mentee through the new Fellows mentorship program. I always enjoy meeting other Fellows and spending time with those I already know.

Vision for the Fellows Involvement Network:

I would like to continue expanding the city-specific meet-ups (once people can be in the same room). I think they are an important way to connect Blackburn Fellows as well as establish connections for the soft landing program. Alternatively (or additionally), we could virtually connect Fellows through groups based on interests or areas of activism or involvement.

Photo of Chandler Shields

Candidate 2 of 2: Chandler Shields


Chandler Shields was born and raised in Huntsville, AL where she graduated from Sparkman High School. Chandler attended The University of Alabama and earned a B.A. in Communication and Information Sciences. While at The University, aside from her involvement with the Blackburn Institute, she served as a Capstone Woman, a Member of the XXXI, Voter Registration Chair through the Student Government Association, the Community Relations Coordinator for UA Best Buddies, and was a Philanthropy Chair of Chi Omega, Nu Beta. During her undergraduate experience, Chandler was honored as a recipient of the Order of Omega’s Most Outstanding Sophomore and Junior of the Year, as well as the Capstone Men and Women’s Most Outstanding Senior.

In August 2017, Chandler moved to Washington, D.C. to begin her career on Capitol Hill with U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. In April 2018, Chandler stepped into her current role as the Assistant to the Chief of Staff in the office of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby. Through this role, Chandler oversees the Senator’s Internship Program, manages the Chief of Staff’s appointments, and assists the policy team on the Senator’s legislative education priorities.

Presently, Chandler is pursuing a master’s degree in of Arts in Public Policy with a focus in Leadership through Liberty University. Through her current role and additional education, she hopes to mitigate the current stigma associated with the intellectual and developmental disabled community in the state of Alabama and beyond.

Chandler is active in her church community, Waterfront Church D.C., serving alongside church leadership in the annual Tim Tebow Foundation sponsored event, Night to Shine. In D.C., she is the current Chairman of Alabama’s Committee of Taste of the South, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to raise funds for 14 charities, one specifically benefiting the state of Alabama. Chandler is also a member of the Women’s Congressional Golf Association.

Blackburn and FIN Involvement:

As a member of the Blackburn Institute Class of 2016, I aimed to intentionally maximize my on-campus time with the Institute prior to graduating in May 2017. The Blackburn Institute has challenged me, broadened my worldview, and reinforced my passion for public service. Through the programming of the Fall Travel Experience to North Alabama, I was exposed to the vast successes of the region. More importantly, I was exposed to the immense room for structural growth in my community of Huntsville, and I accredit this new perspective to my peers and the mission of the Blackburn Institute.

As a Fellow based in Washington, D.C., I am honored to work in the epicenter of where monumental change occurs. As a former participant of the Institute’s Soft Landings Program, I recognize firsthand the impact a Fellows mentor can have on a recent graduate who may be adjusting in a new city. Additionally, by maintaining communication with the Advisory Board, the faculty, and other Fellows at Blackburn networking dinners and events, I have stayed well-connected with individuals who share the desire to see Fellows succeed. Attending the annual U.A. in D.C. Networking Event, sponsored in conjunction with the Honors College, always reminds me of how grateful I am for the network I have acquired through the Blackburn Institute.

Vision for the Fellows Involvement Network:

The Fellows Involvement Network is filled with passionate individuals who awaken each day with a mutually shared desire to impact their sphere of the world as influential change agents. My vision for the Network includes a continuation of our dense web of connectivity, by broadcasting the achievements of Fellows through ease of email outreach and social media outlets. By nature, Fellows lead demanding schedules; therefore, regional networking and social events must be equally beneficial, as they are enjoyable, as time is precious in the professional arena. My vision for the Fellows Involvement Network promotes more openly constructive conversations focusing on the growth and betterment of the state of Alabama by truly embracing a diversity of opinion. When the demand of one’s schedule supersedes a Fellows’ availability, the convenience of social media access and the Blackburn Institute’s email outreach will keep the highest number of Fellows connected. Lastly, I genuinely know the importance of the mentorship role Fellows serve in Blackburn Students’ and other Fellows’ professional paths. As Fellows, we recognize that we are where we are because of the leaders who paved the way before us; therefore, it is the role of the Fellows Involvement Network to faithfully mentor and shape the students who are destined to become the leaders of tomorrow. Through this role, my goal is to provide the clarity that is needed in the current process for students to successfully connect with Fellows, and vice versa, to ensure that the greatest volume of professional connectivity originates from the Blackburn Institute.

FIN External Vice-Chairperson Candidates

Photo of Aaron HowardCandidate 1 of 1: Aaron Howard


Aaron Howard graduated from UA’s Culverhouse College of Business summa cum laude with a double major in finance and economics. Upon graduation he returned to his home in the “Shoals” area where he began an Operator Training Program with a local Chick-fil-A with the expectation of acceptance to LDP, the corporate training path that ends in becoming the owner/operator of a Chick-fil-A franchise. This 5-year career path, ending in store ownership, began with two intensive years of learning the business from the ground up. In addition to working directly with the operator on high level operations and long-term vision for the company, Aaron worked every position in the store and managed a team of over 70 employees.

During his time back home in the Shoals, Aaron’s love for his local community was rekindled. Unfortunately, Chick-fil-A required an 18 month 100% travel commitment as the next phase of the program; it also did not guarantee location selection upon completion. In light of that, he decided that being a part of a community he loved was more important that pursuing store ownership through Chick-fil-A. Still, Aaron is grateful for his time spent there and feels that what he learned about leadership and their incredible business model will be of benefit to him in the future.

After changing direction, he went through a sort of early life crisis, but after much research and deliberation, Aaron decided on financial advising. Through a connection at the Blackburn Institute, an Advisory Board member gave him the introduction he needed to land a job. (shout-out to Russ Henshaw!) Shortly after, he became a fiduciary advisor with Cloud Investments, a financial advisory firm in Huntsville that is expanding to the Shoals area. He is currently still employed there, and in the process of building a book of business in the Shoals and the Huntsville area.

One thing he loves about his job is that he is able to assist people as they step into retirement; his position has also given him the ability to share experiences with people who can benefit from financial planning and budgeting, like those under the poverty line who seek assistance from the Shoals Dream Center. He is excited to be a part of the Shoals Dream Center which is focused on stopping the opioid epidemic and serving at-risk students in the community. It is designed to help people get out of difficult situations rather than just giving them assistance. They do this by rewarding those who participate in classes that provide various life skills. It is based on the organization of the same name in Los Angels, CA. In his spare time, Aaron and his wife Layla are heavily involved in his local church in Florence, Chapel. They serve there in many capacities from the worship team to leading a small group.

Blackburn and FIN Involvement:

Upon Graduation, I haven’t been able to attend many Blackburn events. Part of that is because the majority of events are held in Tuscaloosa or Birmingham, but I must say that I have seen a real effort to make Blackburn available to those in various parts of the state and country. Honestly, I also felt that once I graduated I did not have a lot to offer current students or other officers; as I write that I know that it probably isn’t true and that we all bring important perspectives and values to the table. Nonetheless, Maybe the truth of my experience could shed light onto the way other fellows might feel as well. When I think of Blackburn, I think of the people who are making a difference. I think of leaders who are serious about lasting change and committed to open-mindedness and diversity. I know that none of us can get there without personal commitment to growth, but sometimes the gap feels wide and insurmountable. As I have been mentored by Mark Martin through the Fellows Mentorship Program I have felt that gap shrink, and I have realized that we all need each other if we want to “change the damn state.” I’ve always wanted a mentor, but I’ve never sought one out. FIN providing that program has made a tangible difference in my life and in my growth towards the person I am striving to become. I want to be a vice-chair so that I could play a part in extending that experience to others.

Vision for the Fellows Involvement Network:

Being a mentee to Mark Martin has made a powerful impact on my life. It is like the watering of a plant that I had forgotten upon graduation. I think the future of the FIN is two-fold. Primarily, I think we have to continue to push for mentorship and for connection through local fellows in various parts of the state. It is very easy to become alienated to Blackburn when you miss a few symposiums and don’t talk to anyone for a couple years. It only takes one or two real relationships to be reminded of the value that Blackburn has as a community of people dedicated to the betterment of the state. Our strength has always laid firmly in our diversity of opinion and our commitment to pushing one other to be better. If we all become islands, then we will only achieve a fraction of what we could, together. Blackburn needs big events like the rural community experience, various networking events, and the symposium. Those type of events where a large group can get together and be inspired should be the launching pad for deeper connection through personal and professional relationships that are maintained on an ongoing basis. I think the future of the Fellows Involvement Network starts with getting fellows working together, taking ownership of the Institute, and building stronger relationships with each other. If that happens then the results are organic.