Diversity and Community Engagement
The University of Mississippi

Posts Tagged ‘Community Chats’

Community Chats – Laura Martin

Posted on: April 12th, 2021 by crpauley

“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.


Community Chats – April Grayson

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

“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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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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