Diversity and Community Engagement

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Archive for the ‘Community Chats’ Category

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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Community Chat – Jon Winet

Posted on: November 9th, 2020 by elpayseu

“…to encourage thoughtful civic and civil conversation about the issues that are driving people’s interest in voting, the issues that keep them up at night, the issues that give them hope.”  – Jon Winet

As the country reflects on the election, Jon Winet sits down to discuss some of the efforts he and others in the LOU community have put forth to understand people’s “why.” Why do they vote? Why do they care about these issues? Tune in to learn about Oxford to the Ballot Box and all the people that helped bring this project together, including the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, Oxford Film Festival, Mississippi Votes, and the University of Mississippi.

A professor at the University of Iowa and native to California, Winet found himself far from home in Oxford, Mississippi but was instantly hooked by the welcoming sense of community he found here. “[Both Oxford and Mississippi] are powerful; they’re evocative. The history is rich and deep,” Winet said on his interest in southern culture.

The history to which he refers is not only cultural but political. “We have learned that voting has been hard earned by many Mississippians,” Winet said. The history of voter suppression and voting complexities in Mississippi, Winet said, are large drivers of civic engagement in the state.

For many young Mississippians, this election was their first time voting, and to Winet, this is indicative of future engagement. “When people vote early in their lives, they vote the rest of their lives,” Winet said. While this engagement is encouraging, Winet says that there is still work to do.

In a year full of contention, it is important to Jon and other partners of Oxford to the Ballot Box that this work continues. As an initiative, they are “projecting ahead” to gauge the reactions of Mississippians, whatever the outcome. “We hope that we’ll have a chance to continue our conversations with people after the 3rd,” Winet said.

As they look to the future for further conversation, Oxford to the Ballot Box has also worked with the UM Digital Library to archive these sentiments for what Winet refers to as a “postcard to the future.” The videos highlighting LOU community members’ thoughts on civic engagement will be available to future generations to reflect on the progress of the LOU community.

If you would like to watch the Voices of Mississippi videos, please go to their website or their YouTube channel. You can also watch or listen to this episode and many other Community Chats on OCE’s Facebook (@UMengaged), YouTube, or your favorite podcast provider.


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Community Chat – Lawrence Muruako

Posted on: October 23rd, 2020 by elpayseu

“We’re trying to make great health the standard.” -Lawrence Muruako

Lawrence Muruako, founder and director of Operation FitNation, joins Dr. Siracusa for this week’s episode of Community Chats to talk about his passion for making great health the standard. He discussed the inspiration, motivation, and determination behind Operation FitNation, his nonprofit promoting accessible health and wellness in the LOU community and surrounding areas.

Growing up in Holly Springs to Nigerian parents, Muruako has witnessed the effects poverty can have on physical fitness, and upon the passing of his father, a tennis coach and lifelong fitness advocate, he realized he had a passion for serving communities through physical fitness. After obtaining a degree in exercise science at the University of Mississippi and operating a fitness center, he and his wife noticed the need for an accessible wellness program, thus Operation FitNation was underway with the simple mission to “make great health standard.”

In 2015, Operation FitNation kicked off their premiere event, Healthy Halloween, with obstacle courses and games for kids. At the end, they received a treat bag of healthier snacks like granola bars and fruit as opposed to typical Halloween candy, a sight that Lawrence loves to see.

“When you see a kid eating an apple instead of a Reese’s on Halloween, and you see them with the biggest smile…that is so rewarding to me,” Lawrence said.

Since then, Operation FitNation has continued providing fun, physical activities for all kids in as many communities as they can. They have expanded their programming to include Fit Camps with after-school programs, Fit Carnivals in the spring, and their newest initiative, Operation One Miler, aimed at promoting a love for exercise while following safety guidelines around COVID-19.

As a final message, Muruako said, “We want people to lead by example by being the example because you never know who you can impact.” He says that when adults lead by example, those kids who look up to them will follow that example. He encourages everyone to lead the most healthy life they can.

You can watch or listen to this episode on our Facebook page and YouTube channel as well as your favorite podcast provider. For more information on Operation FitNation, you can visit their website operationfitnation.org or email them at operationfitnation@gmail.com.


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Community Chat – Kynnedi Taylor-Henry

Posted on: September 1st, 2020 by elpayseu

“Your vote is your voice.” -Kynnedi Taylor-Henry

On this episode of Community Chats, we are talking with Kynnedi Taylor-Henri with the Voting Ambassadors Program at the University of Mississippi. Kynnedi discusses her passion and excitement for voter engagement and the importance of voting to our democracy. Tune in to hear her talk about how she is working with Community Engagement to spark the same passion and excitement on our campus and in the larger community.

Kynnedi, originally from Madison, Miss., came to the University of Mississippi to pursue a degree in public policy. Realizing her enthusiasm for voter engagement, she joined the League of Women Voters, at which time the president got her involved in the Voter Engagement Roundtable series. Through that series, she collaborated with our own Dr. Anthony Siracusa and Erin Payseur-Oeth in the Division of Community Engagement to start building the Voting Ambassadors Program. “We started talking about ideas on how to get students engaged in civics and involved and passionate about voting,” Kynnedi says. Like all good things, it started as an idea and has since developed into real action.

The Voting Ambassadors Program is designed to engage young adults on campus and in the community to be informed about and active in the voting process. It helps them understand their rights and how to register to vote. They will even walk you through the process of registering or completing an absentee ballot. A text messaging system has been put in place that students can use to ask questions and receive a response in a quick and simple way. The program will also be hosting virtual debate watch parties where people with different political ideologies can come and weigh in on the upcoming presidential debates. Even with all of the helpful programs going into this, the process does not come without its challenges.

In a heavily divided political environment, it is quite common for many people, especially young adults, to be indifferent about the voting process. Kynnedi says that it is difficult to get excitement riled up about voting because so many people have been told that their vote does not matter. “The challenge comes in reminding them that their vote does matter, that their vote is their voice,” Kynnedi says, “And the best way to express their voice is through voting.” In the same way that it is a challenge to remind people of that, Kynnedi says that it is rewarding seeing the ones that do get excited go out and tell others about their excitement. Like a domino effect, that person goes out and tells their community, friends, and family about the importance of voting.

As a final message, Kynnedi says, “Voting is the best way to make your voice heard.” She points out that, while it is helpful to connect with others, social media will not make a big difference in any election. “[Voting] is what makes our democracy work, and it will further the success of our democracy,” Kynnedi says.

To get more involved, connect with UMVotes for educational material or hands-on assistance with the voting process. You can also reach out to organizations like the League of Women Voters or the Andrew Goodman Foundation for assistance. If you want to take it a step further, Kynnedi suggests contacting your local clerk’s office to become a poll worker. As many places are experiencing a shortage of poll workers, it is important for people to step up and volunteer as the election looms nearer.

As always, you can find this episode on Community Engagement’s Facebook page, YouTube channel, or on your favorite podcast player.

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Community Chat – LOU Space and Place

Posted on: August 28th, 2020 by elpayseu

“Get to know people that are different from you.” -Lydia Koltai

In this episode of Community Chats, we are joined by Lydia Koltai and Graham Bodie with the Space and Place dialogue series. They talk about the purpose of the series and how it is creating a welcoming space for anyone to discuss issues in our community. Tune in to hear about the rewards and challenges of this series and how they are working to foster conversation and understanding in the LOU community.

Growing up in the Mississippi delta, Lydia Koltai is no stranger to the kind of community that forms in a small Mississippi town. After moving back to the state from California to be closer to family, she found herself in Oxford where she fell in love with the community. She started her own business and homeschools her children, but as the news cycles began running stories about police brutality across the country, she also wanted to get plugged into the type of work that would combat these issues in her own community. This is when she got connected through the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. Through her work there, she met Dr. Graham Bodie.

Graham is an IMC professor in the School of Journalism and New Media. After his research on effective listening was published in the Wall Street Journal, he began consulting agencies on creating a “listen-first” culture in the workplace. From here, he found himself running the Listen First Project, a coalition of 325 organizations nationwide that conduct dialogue deliberation conversation work. It was through his work with the coalition that he met Lydia. Together, they collaborated with other organizations, including the William Winter Institute and Conversations for Change, to create the LOU conversation series.

The Space and Place series is dedicated to creating and fostering welcoming spaces for anyone to share their personal experiences in the LOU community, good or bad. In this space, trust, understanding, and active listening are top priority. Despite our differences, Graham says that we have one thing in common: the love for our community. “Regardless of where someone comes from politically or ideologically, we can agree that we want our community to be welcoming,” Graham says. The first session was spent establishing the foundation of trust to have these sometimes difficult conversations. After that, according to Lydia, is when the real conversations start. “I think, because we’ve built that trust and connected with each other on a human level, we’re going to be able to have some good conversations,” Lydia says. Graham and Lydia hope that these conversations will lead to real, tangible action in the community, creating a more welcoming and accepting place for all.

If you want to get involved in these conversations, you can contact Graham at graham@listenfirstproject.org to get more information. You can also watch or listen to this episode of Community Engagement’s Facebook, Youtube, or your favorite podcast player.

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Community Chats – Night for Nonprofits

Posted on: August 21st, 2020 by elpayseu

In this extra special installment of Community Chats, we are joined by Jody Holland of the Lafayette-Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow (LOFT) and 14 other nonprofit leaders from around the community. Each guest is able to share what some of their most pressing needs are at the moment and how they have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is all in partnership with LOFT’s Night for Nonprofits, an event hosted each year to raise funds for the great work being done by all the nonprofits in the LOU community.

Each year, LOFT provides thousands of dollars in grants to local nonprofits in our community, and the Night for Nonprofits is an annual event intended not only to raise money but to foster relationships and networks between the nonprofit organizations and the community. Typically held in the Powerhouse, the event this year has become a virtual, week-long series of promoting the good work of LOU nonprofits. Each nonprofit has published a short video which you can view on LOFT’s website. Each view on a video is counted as a “vote,” and by the end of the series, the video with the most views will receive a $1,000 grant from LOFT. Jody encourages viewers to share this information, encourage your networks to view these videos, and support the organizations you want to see win.

Among the discussion, many leaders talk about the financial hardships that have come in this time. Even though many nonprofits are always looking for more funding, the COVID-19 pandemic has especially taken a toll. Other areas of need include supplies. For example, Denise Strub from the North Mississippi Exchange Family Center talks about the need for diapers and activities for the children of young mothers who may not be able to be home all day because of school or work. Yolanda Wooten of the LINK program through Canopy Children’s Solutions stresses the need for exposure. As a new program, they were in development right as the pandemic hit and were unable to market the program the way they intended to. The needs of these organizations go on, so Jody encourages everyone who is watching or listening to help alleviate these needs if they are able.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated needs and hardships, it has also created a lot of new opportunities for many organizations. For example, Matt Wymer with the Oxford Film Festival talks about how they are now able to offer programming throughout the year instead of just one week in March. They were able to open a drive-in theater for people to come and be entertained from the safety of their cars and not have to worry about being exposed. The Yoknapatawpha Arts Council has been able to invest in technology that they used to produce their Stay at Home Fest, an initiative picked up by other arts councils across north Mississippi. Tune in to hear more about these special opportunities and how you can get involved and support all of the nonprofit organizations here in the LOU community.

Our guests include: