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Trailblazing Alumni Chris McCauley March 13, 2024

Abigail FranksAbigail Franks grew up in Somerville, a rural Alabama town with a population of approximately 800 people. After living in a small town next to the Tennessee River during her formative years, she prioritized going to college in a bigger city. She was also determined to better understand the systemic poverty and environmental issues that impacted her hometown.

“[The University of Alabama at Birmingham] was the only university in Alabama I was going to give a chance,” said Franks, an alumna of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. “I wanted UAB… because of our diversity and the fact it’s in Birmingham… the holy grail for innovation and resilience and justice.”

UAB’s generous scholarships and financial aid also influenced her college plans. Given these considerations, Franks decided to enroll at UAB in 2016, which, she says, was one of the best decisions she ever made.

After choosing UAB, Franks started searching for a major that aligned with her many passions and areas of interest. Specifically, she was (and continues to be) interested in alleviating poverty, environment justice and conservation, and human rights.

“I am passionate about so many things,” said Franks. “[I asked myself], ‘Why can’t I solve all of these problems?’”

Although she was being pulled in many directions, she found clarity through a network of mentors who encouraged her to develop a theory of change and identify a field of study that aligned with it.

“I had amazing mentors [in] my undergrad and graduate programs—they’ve really pushed me to hone-in my skills and focus,” said Franks. “I realized that when I work to solve climate change problems, it solves a lot of the other social inequities. The B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Peace, Justice, and Ecology had enough relevant classes to hone in my skills and provided the flexibility to forge my own expertise, intellectual curiosity, and knowledge about the issues I care about.”

Her long list of influential mentors includes several faculty members from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration: Wendy Gunther-Canada, Ph.D.Tina Kempin Reuter, Ph.D.; and Robert Blanton, Ph.D. In addition, she received support from Michelle Cook, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Office of National and International Fellowships and Scholarships; Bambi Ingram, UAB’s Sustainability Manager; and Julie Price, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Public Health. Along with guiding Franks toward her major and minor, several of these mentors also supported her pursuit of scholarship programs and opportunities, eventually leading her to be named a Rhodes Scholarship finalist.

As Franks found her rhythm at UAB, she continued to uncover new avenues to solve some of the pressing problems that concerned her—one of which was the 2018 Honors College Presidential Summer Fellowship, which gave her the chance to research why renewable energy policies were not “taking hold” in Alabama. Her research highlighted certain influences to policymaking in Alabama, and she realized that a major obstacle to renewable energy policy was industry interest. It reminded her of the pollution in her hometown, and she connected the dots.

“Through that research, I realized that the pollution that my communities dealt with all throughout my adolescence… wasn’t just an issue for my hometown. It was also an issue all over the state [and] it was an issue in Birmingham,” said Franks. “The same health, environmental, and economic issues that vulnerable people face through a lack of infrastructure and protection from industry pollution (such as coal ash in Birmingham or mercury in Somerville) are rooted in the same causes that created the climate crisis I seek to address.”

She shared her findings at the Summer Undergraduate Research Expo, and, from there, she launched the early stages of her advocacy career. Specifically, she founded a program at UAB called, “We Are: We Envision Alabama Renewable Energy,” which helped her build a network of like-minded people.

“From that, I started to form relationships with people and organizations in Alabama that also have a similar vision that I do. I started to network with people like GASP—the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution,” said Franks.

Through this work and these relationships, Franks found her way to the Southeast Climate and Energy Network (SCEN), a nonprofit organization that aims to “confront the climate crisis by creating strategic alignment, growing capacity, and building power among member organizations and their communities in the Southeastern United States.”

After graduating in April 2020, she joined the SCEN team full-time as Programs and Policy Manager. In her early days with the organization, Franks facilitated state organizing efforts, while also providing financial and physical capacity to groups across the region. Last year, her role changed to Memberships and Policy Manager, which, according to Franks, has a greater emphasis on community building.

“For the past year, I traveled by RV… and worked with organizations and provided remote support,” said Franks. “That could include anything from event planning and agenda setting [to] facilitation, education, technical training, social work, and community mediation.”

In addition to her important work with SCEN, Franks is currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree. And, unsurprisingly, she’s earning it at UAB.

“I want to get a degree that focuses on climate adaption and mitigation,” said Franks. “I realized that an MPA program still can check a lot of boxes when it comes to my vision of creating adaption plans for Alabama, in general.”

And, in the not-so-distant future, she plans to do just that by earning her degree, continuing her work with SCEN, and building climate resiliency plans for both Birmingham and Alabama. She might also one day launch her own nonprofit organization or teach at the college level. Regardless of her next steps, her vision will continue to be her driving force, especially in her home state.

“I can picture what I want Birmingham and Alabama to be. It doesn’t matter how I get there, as long as I’m moving that vision forward,” said Franks.

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