Diversity and Community Engagement
The University of Mississippi

Archive for the ‘Community Chats’ Category

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:

Community Chat – Alice Pierotti, Thacker Mountain Radio Hour

Posted on: August 21st, 2020 by elpayseu


“We’re there to be a reflection of everything that is good about the South.” -Alice Pierotti

In this installment of Community Chats, we are joined by Alice Pierotti, executive director/producer of Thacker Mountain Radio. She discusses the history and the future of Thacker Mountain and what motivates her and her team to keep pushing to highlight the culture of literature, music, and art in rural Mississippi. Tune in to learn more about Thacker Mountain and how they continue this staple of the LOU community since 1997.

A native of Mississippi, Alice moved out to Colorado when she was 19, but could not resist the call back home. After 17 years out of state, she moved back down south to work as a librarian at the Como library. As a dedicated Thacker fan, she attended as many events as possible, went to live shows, and supported the art and culture of Lafayette County. In August of 2019, she was hired as Thacker Mountain’s executive director/producer. “Thacker Mountain is like a dream job for me,” Alice says. To Alice, Thacker Mountain Radio has always been a way for her to stay connected to literature and the Mississippi culture that is so close to her heart, and this position was the perfect way for her to contribute to rural Mississippi.

Thacker Mountain Radio started as an idea between a book seller and local artists back in 1997 and has, for 23 years, been a staple of the LOU community. “We’re an old time radio show,” Alice says. Live shows at Off Square Books, the Lyric, and the Double Decker Festival are beloved traditions that draw out crowds from across the region. The show highlights authors, musicians, and other local artists and broadcasts across Mississippi and Alabama as well as other states.

To make this all possible, Alice has a team made up of their house band, The Yalobushwhackers, the host, Jim Dees, and sounds engineers as well as their volunteer board and Claire Byrne, the Assistant Director. They all work hard to ensure that Thacker Mountain Radio continues to promote arts and culture across the region. Especially now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thacker Mountain Radio has worked tirelessly, pivoting their communications methods, fundraising, and strategic planning to keep going. When asked what motivates her to do this work, Alice harps on her love for rural Mississippi. “I know why I wake up in the morning: arts and culture, celebrating our story, and making sure the world has access to it,” Alice says. “I believe in rural Mississippi.” Alice’s love for rural Mississippi shines through in this interview. She describes Mississippi literature and music as “unmatched” in the rest of the world, and the work she and her team does with Thacker Mountain sends that message to all listeners, young and old.

If you would like to learn more about Thacker Mountain Radio, visit their website at thackermountain.com and learn more about their upcoming fall season. You can also donate to their Thanks Thacker donation drive on their website, and be sure to check out their socially distanced videos from the Yalobushwhackers, the Thacker Mountain house band, on their Youtube channel. If you missed some of their summer shows, you can stream past shows through their show archives on SoundCloud. As always, you can find this interview and others on Community Engagement’s Facebook page, Youtube channel, or your favorite podcast provider.

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Community Chat – John Kohne, The Pantry

Posted on: August 19th, 2020 by elpayseu

“There’s a need, and I want to foster that need.” -John Kohne

For this episode of Community Chats, we are joined by John Kohne from The Pantry to discuss the ever present need of supplemental food in the LOU community. John discusses the processes and needs of The Pantry that provides some of this supplement to those in need. Tune in to learn more about The Pantry and what they’re doing to alleviate food insecurity here in Lafayette County.

Growing up in a Catholic church in St. Louis, Missouri, John Kohne gained a heart for community involvement early on in his childhood. After retiring from the Navy and working as a FedEx pilot, he moved to Oxford to be close to family where he quickly got plugged into the community through his church congregation. He began volunteering with The Pantry in 2012 and quickly fell into the process.

Run mostly by church congregations, The Pantry operates through two processes: screening and shopping. The screening process determines exactly what the needs are of individual clients, and then they are able to walk through and shop for what they need. In order to dignify the process, clients are able to actually walk through with a cart and shop for what they need instead of simply providing them with a box of predetermined goods. John harps on the compassion shown by everyone involved in running The Pantry. “This is a caring community,” John says. He is thankful, as well, to university students who come and are always excited to help and make a difference in the community.

The greatest rewards, according to John, come from seeing how the members of the community can work together to ease the burden of food insecurity and from coming in contact with people who have the same heart for service as he does. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly changed how these processes unfold. Churches must mitigate how they distribute food. Also, the food they receive from Mid-South Food Network and the MS Food Network begins to dwindle shortly into the year, especially considering how the pandemic has increased food insecurity. While The Pantry will accept food donations, John cautions community members in how they collect this food. He suggests following safety protocols  by collecting from your own pantry and not organizing a large food drive. You can still help while also keeping yourself and others safe.

The Pantry operates once a month, two days out of the week. To get involved, contact them at (662)832-8001. Also, be sure to watch this episode on our Facebook, Youtube, or on your favorite podcast provider.

Community Chat – Alonzo Hilliard, Interfaith Compassion Ministry

Posted on: August 19th, 2020 by elpayseu

“This community has been a really great community, and it just keeps getting better.” -Alonzo Hilliard

For this episode of Community Chats, we are joined by Alonzo Hilliard with Interfaith Compassion Ministry (ICM). He discusses the mission and work of the organization as well as the need for affordable housing in Lafayette County. Tune in to learn more about what ICM does and how you can help push their mission forward in assisting those most in need in the LOU community.

Born and raised in Lynchburg, Mississippi, Alonzo attended the University of Mississippi, moved out to Texas, and finally came back to Lafayette County where he lives with his wife. He has 4 children and 10 grandchildren whom he adores. And while he recognizes how fortunate he is to have his basic needs met, he realizes that there is a large population in our community that does not have the same fortune. That is why he started volunteering with ICM about 5 years ago. “It’s great to give back,” Alonzo says. He wanted to work to ensure that everyone in the LOU community can live comfortably and affordably on a fixed income.

ICM assists those in our community who cannot have their needs met on their own income. Their services include transportation, temporary housing, utilities, counseling, and even school supplies and children’s clothing. ICM strives to help at least 10 families a day by providing these services by screening clients and assessing their needs individually. Over 30 church congregations contribute to this work through donations and volunteer time, but Alonzo says that there is always a need for donations and urges the community to contact them or donate through the United Way.

Along with the work he is doing at ICM, Alonzo is also actively involved in organizations that integrate ex-offenders back into society and in affordable housing investment groups. He discusses the great need for affordable housing in Lafayette County, especially to those on a fixed income. “This community has been a really great community, and it just keeps getting better,” Alonzo says. He goes on to thank the community for all the support it has given to ICM over the past 20 years.

If you would like to learn more about Interfaith Compassion Ministry, you can visit their page on the United Way website or contact them at (662)281-1002. You can also watch or listen to this episode on Community Engagement’s Facebook page, Youtube channel, or on your favorite podcast provider.

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Community Chat: Jody Holland (LOFT)

Posted on: August 5th, 2020 by elpayseu

“There’s this nonprofit sector out there that’s really caring and giving, and they’re making a difference.” -Jody Holland

On this episode of Community Chats, Erin talks with Jody Holland, executive director of the Lafayette Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow (LOFT). With their annual Night for Nonprofits fundraiser coming up this month, Jody discusses the great work being done by LOFT partners across the community. Tune in for more information about LOFT’s Night for Nonprofits and how you can get involved and help local nonprofits improve the quality of life in the LOU community.

Born and raised in Mississippi, Jody attended Delta State University for his undergraduate degree and then went to Mississippi State University to obtain his PhD. He ended up in Oxford as a visiting professor in the Department of Public Policy Leadership and was won over by the LOU community’s welcoming atmosphere. He ended up going through Leadership Lafayette and discovered a job opening within LOFT thanks to his connections made there. As executive director, Jody works hand in hand with LOFT’s board of directors to plan programming and write grants for local nonprofit partners. “I facilitate this organization because my board’s so awesome,” Jody says. He credits the board of directors and local partners for the success of the foundation.

LOFT is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life in the LOU community by partnering with local nonprofit organizations to provide funding and networking opportunities. Through their work, LOFT gives out upwards of $50,000 to local organizations and raises awareness for the work of these organizations through events like their Night for Nonprofits. The Night for Nonprofits is an annual fundraiser that highlights the good work of local nonprofits and allows the community to donate to them. “We raise money to try to give them, but they do the work in this community,” says Jody. While it is usually held at the Powerhouse, the fundraiser this year will be held virtually on August 13 at 6 p.m., and each nonprofit will record a 90-second video to highlight their work and their needs. Tune in to learn more about what those specific needs are and how you can help.

You can learn more about LOFT on their website loftms.org or by watching the first installment of Community Chats. You can also watch or listen to this episode on Facebook, Youtube, or your favorite podcast platform.

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Community Chat – Suzanne Helveston, More than a Meal

Posted on: July 31st, 2020 by elpayseu

“It’s more than just a meal. We want our guests to feel like they’re at a friend’s house coming over for dinner.” -Suzanne Helveston

For this episode of Community Chats, we are joined by Suzanne Helveston, board president for More Than A Meal. Suzanne discusses the mission of More Than A Meal and the hard work of the community that goes into making meals available for those who need them. Tune in to learn more about how More Than A Meal operates, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally from Meridian, Miss., Suzanne and her husband moved to Oxford, their college hometown, in 2014. She soon became involved with More Than A Meal through her cooking club as a meal provider and was drawn into the atmosphere of the organization. “It was kind of like having a group of friends in your living room,” Suzanne says. After becoming a regular volunteer, she was asked to serve on the board. In fall 2020, she will begin her position as board president.

More Than A Meal is there to provide a hot meal to those in Lafayette County who may not have access to one. For a while, these meals were being hosted in churches and parish halls, but the City of Oxford has recently allowed them to utilize the Stone Center. “[The Stone Center] is a great central location,” Suzanne says, “It’s comfortable and constant.” The Stone Center provides a consistent, central location for guests and makes meals much more efficient, and as the name suggests, it is more than a meal. They provide basic toiletries and paper products to their guests as well as school supplies in early August. They even host a coat drive in November.

Recently, More Than A Meal has been operating a drive-thru system to accommodate COVID-19 health regulations. They also extended their service through the summer as opposed to just during the academic year as they have done in years past. They will reopen on August 11. Suzanne says that one of their biggest challenges, still, is simply bringing awareness to More Than A Meal. “We have a lot of regulars, but there’s room for more,” Suzanne says. They send fliers and use social media to spread awareness, but Suzanne encourages everyone that knows of someone in the community who could use a hot meal to spread the word.

You can learn more about More Than A Meal by going to their Facebook page or their website at mtamoxford.org.

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