“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 firstname.lastname@example.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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