a conversation with Portia Espy on William Winter Institute

Want to talk racial reconciliation? Want to bridge a divide in your community? The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation could help. Portia Espy is the group’s executive director. She’s been in the position for a little over a year now. The Ridgeland resident has a bachelor’s degree from Southern University and a master’s in business administration from Loyola University New Orleans and is currently a doctoral student at Jackson State University. She and her husband Mike have three children. Espy recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the institute, its mission and its efforts to bridge divides in Mississippi.

What does the Winter Institute do?

“Our goal, our mission is to end all discrimination based on difference. Our organization’s name pretty much focuses on racial reconciliation, but we started doing work in other areas of difference as well. We typically work on anything that is a divider of a community. If there’s an educational divide, we try to help them with whatever issue may be causing it. We do the same thing with socio-economic and gender issues. We try to educate communities and help them solve their own problems.”

How do you do that?

“The idea to form the Winter Institute came in 1997, when then-President Bill Clinton launched the ‘One America Initiative.’ It was the first time a sitting president had a national initiative that promoted dialogue around race. The dialogue, held on the University of Mississippi campus was noted as being one of the best in the country. We noticed at that time that people were hungry to have those conversations and the William Winter Institute was formed (out of) that. We have three pillars: the welcome table, youth engagement work and policy and civic engagement.”

What is the welcome table?

“The welcome table is really based on the dialogue sessions that took place at the university. The purpose to help lead and facilitate discussions in communities where there is a divide. Say you’re looking to have more economic development in your community, but your community can’t come together. What can we do about that? We will get calls from community leaders, both traditional and non-traditional, to help (bring the community together). We don’t only do facilitated dialogue sessions, but a curriculum with the welcome table. We do an educational history of the U.S. and our inherited structures, help people understand there is shared language around race-related issues and help (participants) create an equity plan. They’re actively involved in mapping out what they want the community to look like, and how they can come together as individuals to (make that happen).”

How many communities have you worked with? And what defines a community?

“I have to say we’ve worked in at least 30 communities. Loosely defined, it’s any group that comes together. Sometimes, it may be actual communities, a city, a town or county, or it could be an organization or a company.”

What percentage of the groups you’ve worked with have been actual companies?

“I would probably say 25 to 30 percent. It’s an increasing amount, in part, because of the changing conception of what a community is. Originally, we were thinking geographically, so we did work with cities or counties.”

From your perspective, what are the main issues dividing people now?

“Most of the times, when we’re called in by a company, it’s typically because they are trying to be proactive and establish a certain culture within that organization. We want to use this as an opportunity to build relationships, to do relationship-building exercises and training around how bias may impact a decision.”

Let’s flesh this out a little more. What do you mean when you talk about bias?

“With bias, I’m talking about inputs and unconscious bias. It manifests itself in many ways. The process we’ve honed over two decades now starts with (helping people) build relationships, establish trust and get people to talk about the issues they wouldn’t be comfortable talking about in a normal pace of life or work. We create the conversation about how these biases play out on the individual level and in structures and institutions, and how they can create disparity and inequality. We build on that process to come up with actions that can be taken to create a more equitable, inclusive environment.”

Can unconscious bias be wiped out?

“That’s a good question. I think that is how the human body is made. Go back to early man, we were biased in where we went, the groups of people we interacted with … it was part of the fight or flight response. The thing we need to recognize is when bias is present and whether it is useful or helpful, or whether we need to arrest it and say, ‘this is not useful now.’ ”

How does the institute gauge success?

“As far as gauging success, it is a question a lot of people want to know. We want to see transformation. How do you measure transformation? For us, those communities (we worked with) have identified a project and brought a project to fruition. We look back at communities that were once divided and are now working together, long after we left.”

Give me an example.

“I wasn’t here at the time, but the institute worked with the city of Philadelphia. There were citizens that came together and were really looking at the murders of the three civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner). There was a divide in Philadelphia, but that community came together and it resulted in a trial and call for justice (in the case), and the Winter Institute was very instrumental in bringing those citizens together, helping them have the conversation, and helping them decide if they wanted to move forward for justice in that community.”

I did read on your website that the institute moved away from Ole Miss. How long have you been in Jackson?

“We officially transitioned to the Jackson metro area on April 1, 2018.”

Why did you make that move?

“From the beginning, the University of Mississippi was a great home for the William Winter Institute … As the institute continued to grow, we looked for opportunities to grow our reach within the state. It was the vision of Gov. Winter after the new museums were build, that we started having relationships with those museums and other statewide organizations. What better place to work closely with statewide organizations than in the capital city where these organizations have their home? The move was necessary for us to grow and become our own organization. We did file for our 501(c)(3), which we received two months ago.”

Does the institute still have a connection to Ole Miss?

“We still consider the University of Mississippi a partner. Last year, after we moved, we had our ‘Summer Youth Institute’ there. This year was the first year we had the institute at Millsaps. That was one of our goals when we moved here – to spread the love with the regard to the youth institute across the state. We want to give our other university partners an opportunity to host it.”

What is the Summer Youth Institute?

“We typically bring in rising sophomores and juniors, Mississippi students. We choose between 28 and 29 students to participate. It’s an intensive nine-day experience on a college campus. We hire mentors to work with those students and bring in various subject matter experts who present workshops to the kids. They go on field trips to various parts of the state – typically to Philadelphia to walk in the shoes of the three civil rights workers. This year, students visited the Medgar Evers home and his daughter led them on a tour through the home. It is an immersion for them. Some students have never been to Jackson. Some have never been to the sites we take them to. We encourage students, when they leave, to identify projects in their communities and try to undertake to improve the quality of life or bring people together.”

What is your annual budget?

“We have had a budget that has ranged from $500,000 to a million dollars, depending on what we’re doing that year, where we’re traveling and how many staff (we have). Now that we’ve moved to Jackson, we have less staff than we did in Oxford.”

How many staffers do you have?

“There are five of us right now, four are full-time and we have a part-time employee as well.”

How do you raise money?

“We have donations that come in from individuals. We write grants and have money that comes in from foundations. We have a mechanism on our website, where if you want to donate, you can. We now raise revenues from the partners we work with. We try to provide as much of the work (we do) for free or as low cost as we can, especially for communities that don’t have resources, but have the need.”

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