Powerful Stories Worth Celebrating

UM Office of Community Engagement hosts series highlighting work of local nonprofits

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi‘s Office of Community Engagement is giving voice to local nonprofits, community leaders and volunteers through a series of online chats about the work they’re doing and the needs they hope to meet during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The office is working with Jody Holland, director of the community group Lafayette-Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow, or LOFT, and an assistant professor in public policy leadership, on the series.

The goal is to elevate community leaders from the region and allow them to tell their stories. The series covers who they are, how they came to be involved in the work they do and what that important work is, and also shares their visions for the future.

Anthony Siracusa, UM director of community engagement, started his job at the university March 23, just as COVID-19 began to force closures and quarantines across the country. Local nonprofits found themselves grappling ways to help others in the time of social distancing, which is one among the myriad effects of the ongoing pandemic. 

“This is a very tangible way we can support them, to get others involved and to provide needs that go beyond COVID-19,” Siracusa said. “It has been really wonderful to hear their stories.”

The video interviews are posted to the Community Engagement Facebook page. So far, about a dozen have been completed. They include segments with Alonzo Hilliard from Interfaith Compassion Ministry; Betsy Chapman, of Oxford Community Market; and Melanie Addington, of Oxford Film Festival

The partnership with LOFT has been rich, said Erin Payseur Oeth, the university’s project manager for community engagement. An Ole Miss graduate assistant working with the program is taking the 10- to 15-minute videos and turning them into podcasts and shorter videos, with closed captioning, to reach even more audiences.

The Community Chats have potential to create new connections between the university and the community, she said. 

“We want to grow this out and we feel it has the potential to blossom,” Oeth said. “We will continue to expand the voices we bring to the table. There’s also such a major opportunity to highlight UM students and faculty working with these community partners.

“We think these are powerful stories worth celebrating.”

Plans are in the works to increase accessibility to the videos through closed captioning and to develop a podcast from the series.

The collaboration with Oeth and Siracusa is a critical link to the community for those organizations trying to help out, Holland said. 

“These community chats are so important for our community leaders to be able to connect to the community and provide insight regarding the mission and programs offered by each organization,” Holland said. 

The office will continue to add videos to the Facebook page as the effort grows strength and support. They also expect to benefit from a renewed sense of community spirit and service to others in the wake of the pandemic. 

“We are seeing that across the country,” Siracusa said. “A spirit of national service has kicked in. We have gone for so long being focused on our own lives, but this pandemic is teaching us just how interconnected we all are.”