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Jennifer Stollman, academic director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Oxford, is spending hours planning ways to share lessons about Freedom Summer, the 1964 civil rights campaign to register blacks to vote in a climate rife with violent resistance. The William Winter Institute is a non-profit based at the University of Mississippi that works with communities in Mississippi and beyond to end discrimination based on difference. Established in 1999, the Institute has also worked with the University to build community relations and provide professional development for students, staff, faculty and administrators. The Hechinger Report spoke to Stollman about the Institute’s mission and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What are the Institute’s plans for Freedom Summer?
What we’re doing is we’re doing far less in the way in programming, and way more in the way of training. [We] will be doing some youth programming that involves knowledge, information about Freedom Summer, [and] youth leadership development. We’re trying to hook the young to the established leaders so they can have networks and connections, but also so they can start to see how its done- learn a little about public policy or how you become a successful activist in the state. [We’re] also trying to create a model, a campus model. We will also doing a series of lectures on the legacies of racism as it relates to public policy, education, and student future employment. This our big push. What we want to do is take advantage of the whole Freedom Summer focus. We have this wonderful anniversary, and we have a great ability to start with history and move forward. My overall goal is a to make sure people have the knowledge and the skills to effectively, productively, and comfortably work in a multicultural environment, recognizing inequity, and recognizing the history of Freedom Summer.
Q: It’s interesting that an institution like this even exists in Mississippi. Why do you think the state, Ole Miss in particular, seems to have such a problem with race and difference?
A: I don’t think issues of race are specific to Mississippi. I think all of the nation’s states have race issues. What I do think is because of Mississippi’s unique historical legacy, its problematic relationship to racism and unique relationship to civil rights activity that it makes sense that there would be an institute like this in Mississippi. So I think the people who support this institute, who make use of its programs and the people who work here are committed to anti-oppression efforts. I think it’s in no better space than connected to the flagship university of the state.
Q: Is there a specific goal the institute hopes to accomplish?
A: What we’re trying to do is create a cultural change to create systemic shifts as they relate to oppressive action, behavior and thought. I think it’s also important to use the academic space to critically think about difference and to think about the problematic relationships with difference and instead to understand that certainly at a university we are more enriched when we experience other people’s life experiences and different cultures. So I think it’s very fitting that there is an academic component here.
Q: When you say “difference,” are you primarily referencing race and culture?
A: It’s race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, regional identity. Any form of discrimination that can happen. Identities naturally intersect so one’s racial identity is impacted by their other identities including but not limited to sexuality, gender expression, class, age, ethnicity and religion. We understand that if we allow or accept one form of oppression to stand, it allows for other oppressions to exist. To that end, we will work to end discrimination in all of its forms on campus.
Q: Why did you join the institute?
A: I was hired to be the academic director so I am a historian by trade. I’ve spent about 18 years in undergraduate and graduate classrooms. What I am supposed to be doing here is fostering knowledge and skills as it relates to difference and anti-oppression tactics. I develop curricular and co-curricular programs. We try to get our students to consider how difference is beneficial…. It advances our student’s goals, and makes for a better working environment for the employees at the University of Mississippi. What we do is try to shed a light for people on the ways in which they might be inheriting structures of oppression and how they can stop that legacy of oppression.
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