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A year later, SPLC Advocacy Institute graduates pursue transformative change

As an alderwoman in a small town, Nicole Robinson spends most of her time working to improve neighborhood drainage, organize health fairs, advocate for improvements to public safety and ensure that the drinking water of Port Gibson, Mississippi, population 1,189, is clean.

But ever since she attended the Advocacy Institute, a series of seminars launched a year ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center to provide a broad range of local leaders with the skills they need to create positive change in Mississippi, Robinson has been thinking bigger.

The barber who sat next to Robinson showed her how he uses the room behind his shop as a place to help mentor young people – part of his mission to improve his community after being incarcerated years ago for a felony. A furniture store owner who was once part of a gang shared his poetry, and his passion for introducing people released from prison to literature. And a public defender with 40 years of experience in the legal profession taught Robinson how hard it can be to protect the constitutional rights of defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers.

“I always wanted to make a difference in my community, but, for me, attending this, it was an eye-opener. I had no idea all this was going on around me,” Robinson said. “The people in my class, they gave me great insights into the things they’ve been through. It made me think that I want to do something outside of just being a city alderperson. I want to help everyone in my community, but I want to venture outside a little bit more, open up my mind. I want to agitate. I want to do more.”

In the video: Participants of the SPLC’s first Advocacy Institute discuss their hopes for the program.

The Advocacy Institute kicks off its second year today in Jackson, Mississippi. Led by the SPLC’s Mississippi state office, the Institute is a training ground for new organizers across the state focused on community education and transformative change. The curriculum includes lessons on how to push for change through the power of storytelling, advocacy and organizing.

“We are working to build power in Mississippi from the ground up, and instituting programs like the Advocacy Institute will drive that change by empowering participants to address the issues that most impact people in the state,” said Waikinya Clanton, the Mississippi state director for the SPLC. “Mississippi is ripe for change.”

‘Vibrant leadership pipeline’

This year, the Institute includes a newly formed partnership with the Change Collective, a national leadership network for changemakers who are passionate about solving issues in their communities and combating social isolation, political polarization and civic disengagement. 

“We are proud to support SPLC Mississippi’s important work of training the next generation of leaders to solve complex problems in their local communities,” said Kalisha Dessources Figures, senior fellow of the Change Collective. “In this newly formed partnership, we are honored to include SPLC Advocacy Institute graduates in future Change Collective cohorts in Jackson, Mississippi, in order to provide further leadership development and national networking opportunities. Our goal is to contribute to Jackson’s vibrant leadership pipeline and amplify the incredible program that SPLC has created for community organizers.” 

The Institute is one of a number of new initiatives and partnerships the SPLC is undertaking in Mississippi, as the organization founded more than 50 years ago builds on its landmark legal victories against discrimination, inequality and white supremacist groups to work more closely than ever with local communities. The initiatives in Mississippi are laying the groundwork for establishing similar programs throughout the Deep South.

A year since Robinson and 23 other fellows who were selected for their desire to bring progress to Mississippi graduated from the first-ever Advocacy Institute in July 2022, they are forever changed, several of them said. Some have embarked on ambitious new projects to reduce disenfranchisement. Some have taken their new advocacy skills into the halls of the state Legislature to lobby for funding for programs to help people with criminal records restart their lives. And others have brought community leaders to speak to young people in marginalized communities about how they can get involved to create change.

The first year was an extraordinary beginning for the SPLC initiative created to equip the people of Mississippi with the tools to raise their collective voice. The series of nine seminars Robinson’s cohort attended focused on the plight of formerly incarcerated people who, despite having been released from prison, are denied the right to vote, in some cases for the rest of their lives, by state laws passed after the Civil War to suppress the votes of Black people. This year’s seminars, as well as future sessions, are drawing from a broader group of impacted communities to teach skills that tackle economic inequality, poverty and white supremacy.

‘Head of the Class’

Rasheid Davis is the barbershop owner who inspired Robinson. He served six years in prison long ago, transformed his life when he got out and has long considered himself part therapist to the people who come to him for haircuts. Since graduating from the Institute, he has acted on a dream to do more.

Last October, Davis hosted a series of Monday night lectures at his barbershop in Canton. He called the lectures Justice Shop Talks, offering free haircuts and hot meals over conversation to spur interest. The executive director of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP came to speak. So did SPLC leaders Davis met through the Advocacy Institute, along with police officers and local officials. Davis said the number of participants grew from about 30 people at the first lecture to more than 150 at the last.

The lectures are just part of the initiatives Davis has been involved in. At the Advocacy Institute, Davis met Alicia Netterville, a lawyer and consultant. Now he is a member of Netterville’s Mississippi Reentry Coalition, a group of volunteers from around the state who advocate for legislation to support formerly incarcerated people with housing and child care assistance. He has joined her in lobbying state legislators and has spoken at a press conference at the state Capitol.

“I approached Rasheid (at the Institute) and asked him if he wanted to join,” Netterville said. “He has been a member ever since. Having him work with us, it’s like bringing an expert to the table. This year I am going to work with him on actually building out an advocacy plan.”

Back at home, Davis is expanding his barbershop, with plans to make it part of a community center he is calling “Head of the Class.” A few months ago, he started renting a large building that once housed a historic nightclub, with plans to buy it when he has funding. He is setting up his business in part of it and devoting the rest to a gathering place for young people, outfitted with video games, TVs and other activities.

In another property he owns, Davis hopes to offer rooms for free to formerly incarcerated people reentering society. He envisions establishing a six-month life skills program for them.

“When I got involved with the SPLC institute, I considered myself a barber that wanted to help,” Davis said. “Now I consider myself much more than that. I have grown a lot and gained connections and confidence. It really showed me a path to what I want to do.”

‘Drive and passion’

Concrete information the Institute provided to participants bolstered their inspiration. It made all the difference for Salatheo Perez. He owns a furniture store in Greenville that he started out of a garage following his release from 20 years in prison on a charge of felony murder. Perez had been sentenced when he was 16, when a gun he gave away was used as a murder weapon.

Several years ago, Perez started an organization he called the Book and Street Smart Movement, BASS for short, offering business and life skills classes to help people released from prison. But until he participated in the Advocacy Institute, Perez said he didn’t know how to structure a nonprofit. The seminars taught Perez how to turn BASS into a tax-exempt organization. He is also working with another nonprofit, Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, based in Illinois, where Perez grew up. Perez said the organization, which promotes voting rights for formerly incarcerated people and buy-back programs for guns and ammunition, is expanding to Mississippi and other states.

“The SPLC, they are the ones who changed my mind on the direction I was taking with these organizations,” Perez said. “Their help allowed me to put the people in place with the drive and passion for the vision of the organization. The advocacy program taught me that was the important thing, that was what was needed.”

Gail Wright Lowery, the public defender who participated in the Institute, has also leveraged her involvement into a new initiative. She developed an advocacy plan she called “Booked In But Not Blocked Out.” It seeks to address the difficulties people who are detained before trial have in exercising their right to vote.

In Mississippi, as in many states, the right to vote is yours until you are convicted of a crime. But on any given day, Lowery said, more than 700 people are detained, some for as long as 300 days, before their cases come to trial.

Lowery’s initiative is designed to provide people who have been detained in such situations with voter registration and education materials. Eventually, she hopes to ensure a systematic way to be able to cast ballots. With the help of the SPLC, Lowery has been able to host forums with subject matter experts, provide necessary information to families of detained persons and provide staffing to further the initiative.

“The SPLC has been a godsend in appreciating and supporting my idea by wanting to be an integral part of it and providing avenues for implementation. They believe that this effort can make a critical difference,” Lowery said. “This whole institute has been an exercise in the value of coalition building. So often we’re working in our separate silos. But when we bring it all together, bring all these perspectives together, you can draw on a much broader set of tools that can actually effectuate positive change.”

Photo at top: From left: Rasheid Davis, Gail Wright Lowery and Salatheo Perez were among the 24 graduates of the first Advocacy Institute, held last year. (Photo illustration by SPLC)