Diversity and Community Engagement
The University of Mississippi

Posts Tagged ‘Diversity Equity and Civil Rights’

Community Chats – Jaime Harker

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

“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 jlharker@olemiss.edu.

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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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 Chats – Afton Thomas

Posted on: February 25th, 2021 by elpayseu

“Nothing is impossible.” – Afton Thomas

Our team sits down with Afton Thomas, associate director of programs for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, on this episode of Community Chats. At the Center, Thomas works to create synergy across institutions not just on the university’s campus but throughout the LOU community and beyond by documenting and elevating the history of all Mississippians. Tune in to hear how she and the rest of the team at the Center are working to keep the voices and history of all Mississippians alive.

Originally from St. Louis, Thomas’s educational background is in theater, something she is still passionate about, but her love for community has led her to serve not only through theater education but also through hospitality management, project coordination, and human resources. In the LOU community, Thomas has served as project coordinator for the Southern Foodways Alliance, on a steering committee for Leadership Lafayette, and even with our very own Jody Holland as a board member of the Lafayette Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture was founded in the 1970s to “investigate, document, interpret, and teach about the American South.” Under the umbrella of the Center are three institutions: Living Blues magazine, the Southern Documentary Project, and the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization founded in 1999 as a result of southern studies master’s thesis that Thomas has worked closely with in the past. “To think that an institute can grow from a project with an academic program, I think, is beautiful,” Thomas said.

As associate director of programs, Thomas describes herself as a “yes person,” always willing to undergo new projects and collaborate on new ideas. “I rarely say ‘no’ to a thing,” Thomas said, “Nothing is impossible.” This is a mindset, according to Thomas, that makes the position exciting but also challenging. “I had a Christmas list, and I had to be kind of reeled back in,” Thomas said “Not having enough time to do all the ideas we have [is a challenge].”

Despite this challenge, she says the biggest reward is learning something new every day on the job. “The learning never stops,” Thomas said, “I’m inspired by the work [our students] do and try to find ways to elevate it.” Her colleagues, students, and partnerships are always pushing forth new ideas and initiatives that will highlight and elevate the history of the people of Mississippi.

Currently, the Center is collaborating with community engaged projects like Behind the Big House, a project we featured last September through our Faculty Lunch & Learn series. They are also collaborating with the Black Power at Ole Miss Task Force, which highlights the 1970 protests on the UM campus and the subsequent arrests and suspension of the Ole Miss Eight, and the Invisible Histories project which aims to document the forgotten voices of Mississippi’s LGBTQ+ community.

Thomas says that she is looking forward to the fall, also, as the Center is already planning even more projects including Mississippi Voices, a three-day event in collaboration with the Ford Center that includes a one-woman show that brings to life the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

“We are resource rich,” Thomas said, as a final message. “We are fortunate, in the LOU area, to have so many resources and great people.” She commends the nonprofits and historians working constantly to lift up, educate, and improve our community.

To keep up to date on ongoing and future projects from the Center, visit their website southernstudies.olemiss.edu and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@southernstudies across all platforms). You can also contact Thomas directly at amthoma4@olemiss.edu.

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.

Download the full PDF transcript.

Watch on YouTube.

Listen on Anchor.

Subscribe to the Engaged! Newsletter.

Community Chat – Nicholas Crasta

Posted on: February 11th, 2021 by elpayseu

“If you don’t step up, who will?” -Nicholas Crasta

In the first new episode of 2021, Anthony and Jody chat with Nicholas Crasta, president of the UM Black Student Union (BSU). He discusses the role of the BSU on campus and their goals for the new year. Tune in to hear how the BSU is working towards making our community and campus a welcoming space for everyone.

Crasta, originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, joined the BSU as a general member his freshman year. Since then, he has worked his way up in the organization, holding the position of director of recruitment his sophomore year and vice president his junior year. “I worked my way up and got to work with some really great student leaders,” Crasta said, “It propelled me to take off and see what I could do.”

While running for BSU president, his campaign centered around his vision for making the BSU not only a safe space for students, especially minority students, but also an organization of social activism within the community. As a part of this vision, he created the positions of directors of political action to highlight the BSU’s political activity in the community and create more balance between the social and political aspects of the BSU. Crasta says that the BSU has “great natural leaders” within the cabinet and multiple committees pushing forward the mission of the BSU.

Especially in today’s political climate, Crasta said one of the biggest challenges for the BSU is having their problems, feelings, and emotions taken seriously. “Everybody’s trying to feel safe and excel in every area of life,” Crasta said, “Once you’re living it and experiencing so many different issues, you have no choice but to step up.” He has emphasized the role of mentorship with his position to make the LOU community a better place for future generations, taking inspiration from black student leaders before him.

One of the greatest rewards of Crasta’s position, to him, has been witnessing minority students feel safe and welcome in a predominantly white institution. “We’re trying to uplift and foster a sense of community at the University of Mississippi,” Crasta said. It is important to him and the BSU team that minority students at the university feel safe and welcome.

You can catch up on this and all other episodes on our blog, Facebook and YouTube, and you can even listen as a podcast through Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to tune in every Friday at noon on our Facebook (@UMengaged) to catch the newest episodes of Community Chats.

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2021 MLK Campaign of Service

Posted on: January 11th, 2021 by elpayseu

Carrying on Dr. King’s legacy of service, justice, and community

Service is at the heart of every leader. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an exceptional leader who fought for racial justice and equality for all Americans. To work toward that Beloved community, one must act on assisting others and bettering our communities. Dr King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” Service is an opportunity for us to live out that legacy, love our neighbors, and make our communities better for all of us. . It allows us to come together across race/ ethnicity, religious background, socioeconomic status and rediscover our common humanity.

Normally, this time of year, we would be gearing up for our MLK Day of Service, an annual gathering of campus and community members giving back to our community. This year, in light of the pandemic, we are unable to gather together in person. 

Therefore, we are pleased to announce our 2021 MLK Campaign of Service, a 10-Day campaign for each of us to pledge to live out Dr. King’s commitment to serve others by investing in our communities – wherever we are, however we can. Perhaps we volunteer with a local agency, or write letters. Maybe we collect supplies or donate money to relief efforts. There are myriads of ways we can serve. This year, as individuals, families, and communities have been ravaged by a virus, by racial violence, by economic and racial injustice, we can recommit ourselves to the work that belonged not just to Dr. King, but to the ongoing work that belongs to each of us – to seek justice, to love others, and to make our communities better than we found them. 

Pledge your commitment to join us in the 2021 MLK Campaign of Service to demonstrate that renewed commitment yourself and do a tangible action for your community – we have different options for you to choose from or create your own. Our goal is that 1000 campus and community members would join us in living out Dr. King’s legacy by participating in some type of community engagement over these 10 days.

<< Sign the pledge here and commit to make an impact.>>

Other ways to join in the commemoration of Dr. King:

Attend the virtual MLK Community-Wide Celebration 

Join OxFilm at the Drive-In for a screening of FBI

Community Chat with JR Riojas and John Hydrisko, Warren Debate Union

Posted on: November 13th, 2020 by elpayseu

“No matter who you are, you have a voice, you have a platform. Use that platform to be empathetic and to not be willfully ignorant.” -JR Riojas

In this episode of Community Chats, our team chats with JR Riojas and John Hydrisko from the Warren Debate Union. Recently, the duo won awards in the Intercollegiate Advocacy and Dialogue competition hosted by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Their project discussing Confederate memorialization in the southern United States won Best Letter, Best Creative Argument, and Honorable Mention in Best Use of History. Tune in to hear about that as well as how speech and debate can foster conversation and understanding within communities.

When writing their award-winning letter, Riojas and Hydrisko were given simple but vague instructions. Given it was the first year of this competition, they were initially at a loss for what to write.

“We knew that they had invited schools from different states across the American South, so we wanted to really focus on Mississippi in particular,” Hydrisko said. Their letter addressed the controversial past of Mississippi’s involvement in the Confederacy, the memorialization of that past, and the evolution of the Lost Cause narrative used to justify that past.

They wanted to highlight the parts of Mississippi’s history that painted the state in a lighter tone. “As we pull down the worst of our state, we also really want to elevate the best and elevate the things that ore often ignored in history that can unite us,” Riojas said. Mississippi, for example, boasts a history of native artists, musicians, and authors.

In writing this letter, the two had to undergo a lot of local history analysis. “You engage with not just the present community but also the past community and how we got there,” Riojas said. They want people to recognize that when you do not engage with your community, either past or present, that that is when the harms in society progress, so be engaged and do so with empathy and understanding.

The Warren Debate Union also hosts public debates in a normal year like their Sunflower Charity Invitational in which they invite debate teams from colleges across the country to compete to raise money for the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Open to and judged by the public, these events are great ways to learn how to have open and productive conversation and engage with different viewpoints. The invitational raised over $3,000 for the Sunflower County Freedom Project last August.

To learn more about the Warren Debate Union and upcoming events, you can visit their Facebook page or their page on the Trent Lott Leadership Institute’s website.

You can also watch or listen to this episode and many more on our Facebook page, YouTube channel, or your favorite podcast provider.

Download the full PDF transcript.

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Faculty Lunch and Learn Recap – Behind the Big House

Posted on: September 30th, 2020 by elpayseu

Dr. Jodi Skipper, associate professor of anthropology and southern studies, and Chelius Carter, director of Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc., joined us on Thursday for our inaugural Faculty Lunch & Learn series highlighting Behind the Big House, an initiative launched by Preserve Marshall County in 2011 to bring light to the unspoken truths of enslaved people and reframe local histories to move beyond the cities’ big mansions and focus on the slave dwellings so often ignored.

As a community engaged scholar, Dr. Skipper values the innate relationship between her research, teaching, and community engagement, so when the opportunity presented itself for her graduate students to collaborate with Carter, she saw it as a chance for her students to not only gain valuable research and hospitality experience but also to make a real impact in their local community.

This was also an opportunity to address some of the issues regarding white supremacist ideology that Dr. Skipper believes is not being addressed. “It’s important for [students] to see white people in north Mississippi doing this kind of work as examples,” Dr. Skipper said of Carter and Behind the Big House co-founder Jennifer Eggleston, “I felt like I was attempting to force people to do the right thing, and when I started to work with Chelius and Jennifer, there was no forcing it.” Anthropology faculty and students have been working with Behind the Big House to promote community-based education since 2013.

The vision for Behind the Big House came after Carter purchased the Hugh Craft House, an antebellum home in Holly Springs, and wanted to know the history of the estate’s slave quarters in which he was currently housing his studio. “This structure is more important and rare historically and culturally than the big house,” Carter said. His vision was brought to life by Eggleston who suggested creating a community-wide educational program that had never been done before. Behind the Big House serves as a template for other communities with similar ties to the legacy of slavery to reframe their history to be one that is more accurate, complete, and inclusive.

For more information on Behind the Big House, you can visit Preserve Marshall County’s website, and be on the lookout for our next Faculty Lunch & Learn series coming soon. If you’d like to watch the recorded session, you can visit our YouTube page.

Meet Camesha Johnson – OCE Area Coordinator for Diversity, Equity, & Civil Rights

Posted on: September 8th, 2020 by elpayseu

Camesha Johnson Headshot“Hello, my name is Camesha Johnson. I am a senior chemical engineering major from Laurel, MS. This is my first semester as an issue area coordinator for the Office of Community Engagement, and I will be working with organizations dedicated to diversity, equity, and civil rights. As an issue area coordinator, I hope to spread awareness to the community while also expanding my knowledge on the issue. This issue area hits home for me. As the only black female in my chemical engineering class, I feel like I have to advocate for the unheard voices in the world. I want my classmates to know how to approach any social environment they find themselves in. The best part of the LOU community to me is the togetherness I feel from the LOU community. I feel a sense of family from the people I encounter which is why I think community engagement is so important.

Community engagement involves bringing people together from different backgrounds, races, genders to open up communication and understanding. Communication plays a key role in building long-lasting relationships, and without it, many bonds in our community would not form.

Something I have learned lately is to remain in the present. I always thought that the best thing in life was to be ahead. My eyes were so focused on the future I would forget about what was going on right in front of me. As of lately, I am determined to focus on what is going on right now because you never know what moments can leave a lasting impression. I want to be there to see it instead of hearing about it. If I could have any superpower, it would be the ability to read minds so I could know exactly how to engage in conversation with that person.”

As the coordinator for diversity, equity, and civil rights, Camesha will be working with campus and community partners to promote inclusion, accessibility, and equity in the LOU community to make it a more welcoming place for everyone. She will be working with local organizations such as the Gordon Community and Cultural Center, Oxford Pride, and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Make sure to reach out to her if you are interested in opportunities to promote this work! Contact us at engaged@olemiss.edu to get in touch with Camesha.