Diversity and Community Engagement
The University of Mississippi

Community Chats – Laura Martin

“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.