University of Mississippi

Champions of Racial Equality Create Advocates for a Better Mississippi through Education

This article is from the Fall 2013 edition of The Southern Register

by Rebecca Lauck Cleary

The mission of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation is to work in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference. Currently, the institute is working on three main initiatives: community relations, youth engagement, and academics.

The driving force behind that mission is Susan Glisson, executive director since 2002. The Evans, Georgia, native earned a BA in religion and in history from Mercer University, a MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and a PhD in American studies from the College of William and Mary.

“We’re working in over 20 communities around Mississippi through our Welcome Table initiative, and we’re gearing up for our Summer Youth Initiative next June, as well as for Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi in July,” Glisson says. “Jennifer Stollman, our academic director, is working to create a new minor in civic engagement within the College of Liberal Arts.”

At the Summer Youth Initiative (SYI), rising high school sophomores and juniors learn about civil rights, advocacy, critical thinking, and relationship building from an international staff. SYI educates approximately 30 young Mississippi citizens each year. They learn to exercise their voices and leadership potential and to embrace a commitment to social change, and they become community advocates, inspiring their schools and hometowns. At the end of the nine-day program, the young people critique and analyze the program in order for staff members to perfect it the next year.

So far, more than 100 students have gone through the Summer Youth Institutes.

This summer, the Winter Institute held a Youth Congress in Jackson, which provided the opportunity for 50 students to learn more about the life of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. “The students were very thoughtful about the congress and were inspired by Myrlie Evers-Williams, who spoke to them, and they used that inspiration to make meaningful suggestions about making Mississippi better,” Glisson says.

Southern Living magazine recently lauded Glisson’s hard work, as she was named one of the New Heroes of Civil Rights in their August issue. The magazine selected four honorees who represent the next generation of leaders forging a better future without forsaking a bitter past.

A senior editor at Southern Living encouraged Glisson to submit an application on behalf of the Winter Institute, and a panel of experts selected her. “It is an honor to be in the midst of other folks doing such great work,” says Glisson, who helped the University of Mississippi organize events to mark the 50th anniversary of the enrollment of James Meredith, among many other efforts. “I am a part of the best team of folks here, and I share the honor with them.”

The student-led initiative One Mississippi also reaps the benefits of Glisson’s thoughts on social justice. The group has hosted several open discussions about the campus climate at the university. One of the changes that occurred is the change of the title of the student body’s elected personality from Colonel Reb to Mr. Ole Miss. The first election for Mr. Ole Miss was held in September, with senior public policy leadership major Rob Pyron winning. “I am proud of the student leadership that transformed that election title; it reflects a new understanding of our complicated relationship with our history,” Glisson says.

Hope Owens-Wilson, a student intern from Jackson, has been involved with the Winter Institute since she was a freshman in high school. “Having the ability to do for other high school students and community members what Susan and the Winter Institute has done for me has been my greatest achievement thus far,” Owens-Wilson says. “The great thing about being an intern for the Institute is one can participate in a multitude of aspects of the Institute’s work. Throughout my time there I have been able to do a little bit of everything.”

As a senior African American studies major and theatre minor in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Owens-Wilson also is a leader in One Mississippi. She says it is one of the most fulfilling things she has been able to do with her life. “I never thought that it would touch as many people as it did when I took it over in 2012, but I’m glad that it seems to have the reach it does,” she says.

Through her time at the Winter Institute and being around Glisson, she has discovered many important lessons. “I’ve learned that in order to get anywhere, one has to know where they came from, and the key to creating lasting change after conflict is open and honest dialogue between the ‘hurt’ parties. I’ve also learned that it is important to try to give back to the universe as much as or mare than you’ve gained,” Owens-Wilson says.

It is a sentiment echoed by Glisson in the Southern Living article, as she says, “I believe the truth is the foundation for the future,” she says. “Truth-telling [underscores] the whole approach for what we do.”

The Southern Living article on Glisson, “The New Heroes of Civil Rights” can be found here.