Diversity and Community Engagement
The University of Mississippi

Community Chats – April Grayson

“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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