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Archive for the ‘Community Chats’ Category

Community Chats – Laura Martin

Posted on: April 12th, 2021 by crpauley

“Keep moving towards the light because it’s there.” -Dr. Laura Martin

In this episode of Community Chats, Erin Oeth and guest host Will Corley are joined by Dr. Laura Martin, Assoc. Dir. of the McLean Institute to chat about her role in fighting poverty through education. She discusses her background in community engagement and advocacy and highlights some of the programs at the Institute. Tune in to hear how you can get involved in the great work the McLean Institute is doing here in the LOU community and throughout the state of Mississippi.

Originally from the Northeast, Dr. Laura Martin moved to Mississippi in 2012 with plenty of experience in community development and poverty alleviation. After working in rural Nicaragua facilitating service-learning trips and moving to Austin, Texas to work in advocacy and lobbying as an AmeriCorps member, all signs in Mississippi pointed to the McLean Institute.

Although she had never considered a career in higher education, Martin ended up at the McLean Institute as a project coordinator where she could continue building broad-based coalitions in service of a greater goal. “I was really delighted to find there were many, many opportunities to do that here at the University of Mississippi,” Martin said.

When she was hired in 2013, Dr. Albert Nylander, the director of the McLean Institute, was looking to reinvigorate the institute and build on its long legacy of community engagement and poverty alleviation, continuing the legacy of its namesake, George McLean. “Universities were key in that vision,” Martin said, “and I feel this very strong sense of attachment and commitment because we have built this new iteration of the McLean Institute.” The team was charged at the time with implementing strategic initiatives on campus to advance transformation through service and to fight poverty through education, which composed the mission of the institute.

The team at the McLean Institute oversees their three main initiatives, the first being MPartner. MPartner is an initiative that creates partnerships with 2-3 local communities and works intensively for 18-24 months to match university resources with the goals and needs of these communities. The CEED initiative, led by Dr. JR Love, works to build even more actionable partnerships with Mississippi communities to increase entrepreneurship and economic development in rural Mississippi.

Finally, the North Mississippi VISTA Project, directed by Emily Echols, is a federally-funded service opportunity that matches members at partner organizations to alleviate poverty through education and improve the quality of life for Mississippians. The McLean Institute is currently recruiting for summer or year-long placements for this program, and you can learn more by going to vista.olemiss.edu or sending your resume and cover letter to vista@olemiss.edu.

In the past year, the VISTA program has had a greater impact than ever before which means that, although communities are struggling much more, they are being connected to valuable resources. “I’m grateful that we have this suite of programs where we can really steer community partners looking to connect to the university,” Martin said.

As a final message, Martin praises the dynamic found in the LOU community where students not only identify as students of the university but also as residents of Lafayette County. She says there is a unique opportunity to blur the boundaries of identity and reimagine what partnership looks like between a university and its home community.

If you would like to get involved in the work going on at the McLean Institute, visit their website (mclean.olemiss.edu) or email them at mclean@olemiss.edu. Make sure to check out the North Mississippi VISTA Project while you’re there!

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.


Community Chats with Patrick Perry and Senora Logan

Posted on: March 31st, 2021 by elpayseu

“You can lead from any place.” -Dr. Patrick Perry

In this episode of Community Chats, Dr. Anthony Siracusa and guest host Will Corley sit down with the directors of the Luckyday Scholars Program, Dr. Patrick Perry and Mrs. Senora Miller Logan to discuss the central tenants of the program and the community they build within their cohorts and throughout the LOU community.

Dr. Perry, director of Luckyday, began his path in higher education working with financial aid and other administrative roles. One of the things he found a “delight” when he came to the University of Mississippi 13 years ago was that he was now able to work with students individually and witness the transformation they experience when they come to college. His positions in the past kept him from working closely with students, but with Luckyday, he could experience first-hand how students’ experiences in college truly transform their outlook on community and themselves.

When Logan started at the University of Mississippi in 2001, she was working in the Office of Admissions in the operations department where she was soon promoted to coordinator of undergraduate admissions. At the time, the Luckyday Scholars Program was in its infancy, and in 2005, Logan was welcomed to the team. Here she was able to work hands-on with students beyond their admission. “It was a dream come true for me,” Logan said, “It’s been a great opportunity to get the answers to the questions I asked in the admissions office.” She was able to answer questions like “What do the students do next?” and “What challenges do they meet?” Through her position, Logan is able to address these challenges and be present for the students as they face them.

The mission of the Luckyday Scholars Program rests on four central values: scholarship, service, community and leadership. Each year, they welcome a cohort of freshman scholars that engaged not only with each other, building a community of service learning and leadership, but also with the broader LOU community through required service hours. Programs like their Peer Leadership Program and Student Advisory Council help strengthen this sense of community across the different classes of cohorts. Logan said the student leaders at Luckyday have natural leadership potential and are essential in building out these community and programs that define what it means to be a servant leader.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shifted plans across organizations, the Luckyday team were faced with the challenge of being able to establish that same community with incoming freshman while keeping everyone safe. Fun events like Zoom karaoke and socially distanced pumpkin painting contests allowed them to safely navigate these challenges, and emphasizing small group interaction with student peer mentors kept that connection and community that is so vital to their success.

Despite these challenges, both Perry and Logan feel a sense of pride from seeing the progress students have from their freshman year as a new scholar to graduation and beyond. Logan recalls a reluctant freshman feeling like Luckyday was not the place for her, but with encouragement and the sense of belonging that is emphasized through their community, this student was able to be successful throughout all four years of the program and even came back to talk to new students on their alumni panel. These kind of full-circle stories are what makes it all worth it for the Luckyday directors. “Even through the challneges, you get these moments that make the challenges seem smaller,” said Logan. “It’s always important to keep stepping.”

If you want to learn more about the Luckyday Scholars Program, visit their website at luckyday.olemiss.edu. You can also watch this interview and more on our Facebook page (@UMengaged), YouTube channel (Engaged UM) or listen to the Community Chats podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.


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Community Chats – Jaime Harker

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

“We shouldn’t be afraid of celebrating the full beauty and richness of the diversity of our community.” – Dr. Jaime Harker

On this episode of Community Chats, Anthony and guest host Will Corley sit down with Dr. Jaime Harker, executive director of the Sarah Isom Center at the University of Mississippi and owner of Violet Valley Bookstore. They chat about all of the wonderful work the Isom Center is doing to create a fully diverse and inclusive LOU community. Harker’s passion for her work shines through in this conversation, so tune in to hear what the Isom Center has done to create a space for everyone, no matter their background, in our community.

Harker, originally from Seattle, has found herself all over the map throughout the years, but finally landed in Oxford as an English professor, teaching gay and lesbian literature. In 2014, she came on as the interim director for the Isom Center and immediately got to work creating a vision led by students. “Think big,” Harker said about her mindset as executive director, “Let the students set the vision and help them achieve their goals.”

Through this vision, they were able to bring noted LGBTQ+ filmmaker and author John Waters to the UM campus, an accomplishment Harker still revels in today. While on tour doing his one-man show “This Filthy World,” the staff at the Isom Center reached out to him, asking if he would be available for a stop in Oxford. He was happy to do it. They got to work raising funds and promoting the show, which took place at the Ford Center free of charge, and the rest is history. “For us, that was a really good entry point,” Harker said. It was a chance for the Isom Center to start building partnerships, creating an impact for the LGBQ+ members of our community and establish the Isom Center as, what Harker deems, an “incubator for ideas.”

The three-person staff at the Isom Center jokingly refers to themselves as Earth Wind & Fire. Dr. Theresa Starkey, the associate director, and Kevin Cozart, the operation coordinator, work with Harker to utilize their resources and networks to push the agenda of the Isom Center. “We can do a lot because we don’t try to do it all ourselves,” Harker said. The partnerships they have created allow them be actively engaged in the community and create more inclusive spaces for all community members.

Harker’s love of literature and determination to create inclusivity inspired her to open Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi at a time when many LGBTQ+ community members were feeling attacked by the state legislature. The passing of HB1523, what was deemed a “religious freedom bill,” opened the door for discrimination against LGBTQ+ Mississippians, and Harker knew there needed to be a place that was unarguably inclusive. Violet Valley Bookstore, while housing a range of genres, was established to explicitly feature queer and feminist literature. “Things kind of came together in really cool ways,” Harker said. The bookstore made national headlines, and drew in LGBTQ+ community members and allies from all over the country to donate book collections and funds.

Through her work at the Isom Center, Harker has found it difficult to push past the perception that LGBTQ+ inclusion can be taboo. While cooperation has improved, Harker says it was difficult, if not impossible, at first to get the word out about their LGBTQ+-centered initiatives. “We are an inclusive community, and LGBTQ+ folks are part of our community,” Harker said, “We should be proud of this.” Despite these barriers, Harker is fulfilled in knowing she can help make our community a better place for all students, especially LGBTQ+ students. Her upbringing and educational experience lacked that and kept her from experiencing the full richness of an inclusive and welcoming community, so being able to give a sense of possibility to young LGBTQ+ community members is a reward in itself.

As a final message, Harker praises the community for its dedication to becoming more welcoming and open to new possibilities. “This community is diverse and wonderful, so come join us,” she said, “Bring your passion. Bring your ideas. Bring your full selves.” Harker is dedicated to creating an Oxford that is “big enough for everyone” and celebrates all the people that live there.

To keep up to date on ongoing and future initiatives at the Sarah Isom Center, you can visit their website at sarahisomcenter.org and follow them on social media (@sarahisomcenter across platforms). You can also contact Dr. Harker directly at jlharker@olemiss.edu.

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.

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Community Chats – April Grayson

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

“Mississippi and its people: they’re the reason that I’m here.” -April Grayson

On this episode of Community Chats, our team sits down with April Grayson, director of community and capacity-building at the Winter Institute. As director of her team, she works hard to be responsive to communities wrestling with their pasts and guiding them as they strive for a more open and honest conversation around equity. Tune in to hear how Grayson and her team are working toward living more truthfully in the present by engaging honestly with the past.

Originally from the Mississippi Delta, Grayson came back to her home state to do documentary work for the institute after living in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, the Winter Institute was still young, and Grayson was just starting out as a volunteer. After a five-year hiatus from the institute, Grayson was offered a part-time position by the institute’s founding director, and she has since moved into the director position for the community and capacity-building team, a team focused on building trust and open dialogue in communities everywhere through a model they call the Welcome Table.

Since its founding in 2004, the Winter Institute has been supporting “movements of equity and wholeness” to end discrimination and divisions based on differences.  It has since moved off the University of Mississippi campus and formed a new headquarters in Jackson. While Grayson is still based in Oxford, the Winter Institute works with communities across the country, and even internationally since much of their dialogue can be conducted virtually now.

The youth engagement branch, led by Von Gordon, supports youth-led community efforts, and the policy and civic engagement branch, led by Jake McGraw and Jeran Herbert, works to engage Mississippians in learning about and finding solutions to some of Mississippi’s most pressing issues. “We’re small and all over the place,” Grayson said of the institute’s staff, “but we get a lot done.” Other staff members like Executive Director Portia Ballard Espy and coordinators Jacqueline Martin and Jennifer Heath work together with Grayson and the rest to pull off incredible efforts of racial reconciliation and equitable solutions for all communities.

For Grayson, the challenge in this work comes when the dialogue begins. She says that people can often be uncomfortable when talking about the issues surrounding discrimination and equity that face their communities. “We try to interrupt those assumptions about how we can engage very effectively and very collaboratively around really hard topics,” Grayson said. Grayson and her team try to extend grace to community members and learn together to work through their histories in productive ways.

On the other hand, she says that the relationships she has built with people and communities through this work are rewards in themselves. “This really is my heart’s work,” Grayson said. “It is slow work, and it is deep and multi-layered, but we can certainly make some real impacts and nurture collaborative work together.”

If you would like to get involved with the Winter Institute, or if your community could benefit from their programs, you can visit their website at winterinstitute.org and reach out to their staff there. You can also watch this episode and all others on our Facebook (@UMEngaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment and share this series as we continue to highlight community and nonprofit leaders across the LOU area.


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Community Chats – Kenorus Wilson

Posted on: March 6th, 2021 by elpayseu

“Lives depend on you.” – Kenorus Wilson

On this episode of Community Chats, Kenorus Wilson, director of the LOU Boys & Girls Club, talks with our team about his role in shaping the next generation of community leaders. His work fostering responsibility, leadership and success in the youth of our community is incredibly valuable, so tune in now!

After coming to the University of Mississippi to pursue a degree in music education, Wilson found himself as a volunteer for the Boys & Girls Club in 2013 and quickly came on staff in June of that same year. Wilson credits his position to his former director and fellow church member, Lamont Watkins, who assured him a position should one open up. “He kept his word,” said Wilson, “and I’ll always take my hat off to him.”

The old saying goes “Our youth are the leaders of tomorrow,” but Wilson and his team like to take it a step further. “We’re training them to be leaders of today in preparation for their future,” said Wilson. The mission of the Boys & Girls Club is “to inspire and enable all young people to realize their full potential as responsible, productive and caring citizens,” and through their extensive programs and initiatives, they are doing just that. Wilson hopes the Boys & Girls Club can act as a beacon of hope and a light that shines bright throughout the entire community.

The programs offered at the Boys & Girls Club center around leadership, mentorship, academic success and career readiness. For example, their Power Hour is a time for students to study, do homework and seek mentorship and is typically followed by a time for them to socialize and decompress after a long day at school. “We try to mix both,” said Wilson, “make sure we take care of business and then have fun.” Other programs like Career Launch, SMART Moves and Money Matters, among many others, teach youth life skills, ways to cope with stress, financial literacy and the importance of community.

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting school schedules, Wilson says it is a challenge to provide the regular services to those who may get out of school at a later time. “Whether they’re here for two hours, or whether they’re here for five minutes, we still want to offer that safe haven, that fun educational environment,” said Wilson. Despite this challenge, however, Wilson takes reward in knowing that he and his team our touching the lives of youth in our community each and every day. Whether that be through tutoring or by attending school events, the team at the Boys & Girls Club ensure that the safe haven felt within the four walls of the clubhouse is felt outside those four walls, as wells.

In his final message, Wilson thanks the LOU community for their continued support throughout the years and asks for anyone to reach out with opportunities for their students to serve our community. “We’re trying to teach them how to be responsible and how to give back to your community that supported you in so many ways,” Wilson said. If you would like to get involved with the Boys & Girls Club or if you have service opportunities for them, you can contact Wilson at kwilson@bgcnms.org.

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.

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Community Chats – Afton Thomas

Posted on: February 25th, 2021 by elpayseu


“Nothing is impossible.” – Afton Thomas

Our team sits down with Afton Thomas, associate director of programs for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, on this episode of Community Chats. At the Center, Thomas works to create synergy across institutions not just on the university’s campus but throughout the LOU community and beyond by documenting and elevating the history of all Mississippians. Tune in to hear how she and the rest of the team at the Center are working to keep the voices and history of all Mississippians alive.

Originally from St. Louis, Thomas’s educational background is in theater, something she is still passionate about, but her love for community has led her to serve not only through theater education but also through hospitality management, project coordination, and human resources. In the LOU community, Thomas has served as project coordinator for the Southern Foodways Alliance, on a steering committee for Leadership Lafayette, and even with our very own Jody Holland as a board member of the Lafayette Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture was founded in the 1970s to “investigate, document, interpret, and teach about the American South.” Under the umbrella of the Center are three institutions: Living Blues magazine, the Southern Documentary Project, and the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization founded in 1999 as a result of southern studies master’s thesis that Thomas has worked closely with in the past. “To think that an institute can grow from a project with an academic program, I think, is beautiful,” Thomas said.

As associate director of programs, Thomas describes herself as a “yes person,” always willing to undergo new projects and collaborate on new ideas. “I rarely say ‘no’ to a thing,” Thomas said, “Nothing is impossible.” This is a mindset, according to Thomas, that makes the position exciting but also challenging. “I had a Christmas list, and I had to be kind of reeled back in,” Thomas said “Not having enough time to do all the ideas we have [is a challenge].”

Despite this challenge, she says the biggest reward is learning something new every day on the job. “The learning never stops,” Thomas said, “I’m inspired by the work [our students] do and try to find ways to elevate it.” Her colleagues, students, and partnerships are always pushing forth new ideas and initiatives that will highlight and elevate the history of the people of Mississippi.

Currently, the Center is collaborating with community engaged projects like Behind the Big House, a project we featured last September through our Faculty Lunch & Learn series. They are also collaborating with the Black Power at Ole Miss Task Force, which highlights the 1970 protests on the UM campus and the subsequent arrests and suspension of the Ole Miss Eight, and the Invisible Histories project which aims to document the forgotten voices of Mississippi’s LGBTQ+ community.

Thomas says that she is looking forward to the fall, also, as the Center is already planning even more projects including Mississippi Voices, a three-day event in collaboration with the Ford Center that includes a one-woman show that brings to life the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

“We are resource rich,” Thomas said, as a final message. “We are fortunate, in the LOU area, to have so many resources and great people.” She commends the nonprofits and historians working constantly to lift up, educate, and improve our community.

To keep up to date on ongoing and future projects from the Center, visit their website southernstudies.olemiss.edu and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@southernstudies across all platforms). You can also contact Thomas directly at amthoma4@olemiss.edu.

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.

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Community Chat – Nicholas Crasta

Posted on: February 11th, 2021 by elpayseu

“If you don’t step up, who will?” -Nicholas Crasta

In the first new episode of 2021, Anthony and Jody chat with Nicholas Crasta, president of the UM Black Student Union (BSU). He discusses the role of the BSU on campus and their goals for the new year. Tune in to hear how the BSU is working towards making our community and campus a welcoming space for everyone.

Crasta, originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, joined the BSU as a general member his freshman year. Since then, he has worked his way up in the organization, holding the position of director of recruitment his sophomore year and vice president his junior year. “I worked my way up and got to work with some really great student leaders,” Crasta said, “It propelled me to take off and see what I could do.”

While running for BSU president, his campaign centered around his vision for making the BSU not only a safe space for students, especially minority students, but also an organization of social activism within the community. As a part of this vision, he created the positions of directors of political action to highlight the BSU’s political activity in the community and create more balance between the social and political aspects of the BSU. Crasta says that the BSU has “great natural leaders” within the cabinet and multiple committees pushing forward the mission of the BSU.

Especially in today’s political climate, Crasta said one of the biggest challenges for the BSU is having their problems, feelings, and emotions taken seriously. “Everybody’s trying to feel safe and excel in every area of life,” Crasta said, “Once you’re living it and experiencing so many different issues, you have no choice but to step up.” He has emphasized the role of mentorship with his position to make the LOU community a better place for future generations, taking inspiration from black student leaders before him.

One of the greatest rewards of Crasta’s position, to him, has been witnessing minority students feel safe and welcome in a predominantly white institution. “We’re trying to uplift and foster a sense of community at the University of Mississippi,” Crasta said. It is important to him and the BSU team that minority students at the university feel safe and welcome.

You can catch up on this and all other episodes on our blog, Facebook and YouTube, and you can even listen as a podcast through Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to tune in every Friday at noon on our Facebook (@UMengaged) to catch the newest episodes of Community Chats.

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Community Chat – Rebecca Nelson

Posted on: December 4th, 2020 by elpayseu

In this special episode of Community Chats, Rebecca Nelson joins Erin to chat about available funding for nonprofits through the CARES Act and the CREATE Foundation. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting an economic burden on nonprofits across the country, these grants are providing reimbursement funds for any expenses or changes brought on by the pandemic. With just two weeks left to start the application process, Nelson encourages every nonprofit to apply for the $1.6 million still left to disperse.

Through the CREATE Foundation, this funding is available to organization falling into two categories: nonprofits and food pantries, and each organization can be awarded up to $12,000 in reimbursement funding. These grants are intended to reimburse nonprofits for any expenses or lost revenue that may have occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic from March 1 through December 30 such as cancelled fundraisers, new technology, or even cleaning supplies.

The deadline to create an account for the application is December 15, and Nelson encourages everyone to get that done as soon as possible along with the Eligibility Quiz. After completing registration, the application will be open until January 15.

For many, as Nelson can testify, the application process can be daunting. She wants people to know that this application process is quite easy, and she and others at the CREATE Foundation are ready and willing to provide assistance along the way. “We are all behind you, and we want you to reach our for help,” Nelson says. There is also a helpful instructional video available on the CREATE Foundation’s website.

“We want you to have the money,” Nelson says, “We want you to be able to continue to provide the services Mississippians depend on.” The grants are awarded on a first come first served basis, so the sooner, the better.

The application can be found at www.mscaresgrant.com, and you can reach Rebecca Nelson at rebecca@unitedwaynems.org or at (662)432-0158 for further assistance. You can also reach out to the Office of Community Engagement at engaged@olemiss.edu.

All Community Chats episodes can be found on our Facebook page, YouTube channel, or on your favorite podcast provider.

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Community Chats – David Stone

Posted on: November 20th, 2020 by elpayseu

“We’re providing not just help, but hope.” -David Stone

In this episode of Community Chats, Anthony sits down with David Stone, volunteer recruitment specialist with the North Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross, to talk about the mission and work of the Red Cross as well as the power of volunteerism. Tune in to hear about how you can get involved with the Red Cross and help those in our community affected by disaster.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, David Stone found himself in the midst of a wave of evacuees escaping the ravaged coastline. He got involved with the Red Cross connecting displaced people to local resources to help them get back on their feet. This work exemplified the mission of the Red Cross: to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

The North Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross, like others, offers an array of services to victims of disasters and relies heavily on volunteer service. “Our volunteers are critical to the mission of the Red Cross,” Stone says. In fact, Stone says the Red Cross is aiming to be 100% volunteer-led in the near future, and you can visit their website to sign up to volunteer today.

One of the most rewarding experiences through the Red Cross for Stone occurred shortly after he began working with them after Hurricane Katrina. A father of a family receiving assistance approached him and said that it was not just the material assistance the Red Cross provided but the personal connection and secure presence of the Red Cross they received. “They didn’t have to walk alone through that situation,” Stone recalled, “Red Cross volunteers touch lives every day.”

To find opportunities with the American Red Cross, you can visit the website above or get in touch with David Stone at david.stone@redcross.org or give him a call at (662) 701-7133. You can watch this episode and more on our Facebook (@UMengaged), YouTube, or your favorite podcast provider.

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Community Chat with JR Riojas and John Hydrisko, Warren Debate Union

Posted on: November 13th, 2020 by elpayseu

“No matter who you are, you have a voice, you have a platform. Use that platform to be empathetic and to not be willfully ignorant.” -JR Riojas

In this episode of Community Chats, our team chats with JR Riojas and John Hydrisko from the Warren Debate Union. Recently, the duo won awards in the Intercollegiate Advocacy and Dialogue competition hosted by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Their project discussing Confederate memorialization in the southern United States won Best Letter, Best Creative Argument, and Honorable Mention in Best Use of History. Tune in to hear about that as well as how speech and debate can foster conversation and understanding within communities.

When writing their award-winning letter, Riojas and Hydrisko were given simple but vague instructions. Given it was the first year of this competition, they were initially at a loss for what to write.

“We knew that they had invited schools from different states across the American South, so we wanted to really focus on Mississippi in particular,” Hydrisko said. Their letter addressed the controversial past of Mississippi’s involvement in the Confederacy, the memorialization of that past, and the evolution of the Lost Cause narrative used to justify that past.

They wanted to highlight the parts of Mississippi’s history that painted the state in a lighter tone. “As we pull down the worst of our state, we also really want to elevate the best and elevate the things that ore often ignored in history that can unite us,” Riojas said. Mississippi, for example, boasts a history of native artists, musicians, and authors.

In writing this letter, the two had to undergo a lot of local history analysis. “You engage with not just the present community but also the past community and how we got there,” Riojas said. They want people to recognize that when you do not engage with your community, either past or present, that that is when the harms in society progress, so be engaged and do so with empathy and understanding.

The Warren Debate Union also hosts public debates in a normal year like their Sunflower Charity Invitational in which they invite debate teams from colleges across the country to compete to raise money for the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Open to and judged by the public, these events are great ways to learn how to have open and productive conversation and engage with different viewpoints. The invitational raised over $3,000 for the Sunflower County Freedom Project last August.

To learn more about the Warren Debate Union and upcoming events, you can visit their Facebook page or their page on the Trent Lott Leadership Institute’s website.

You can also watch or listen to this episode and many more on our Facebook page, YouTube channel, or your favorite podcast provider.

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