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Blues Thread Workshop Inspires Students and Educators

Students interviewing a source in the Delta. Students broke into teams of two or three to tell stories in various towns near Cleveland, Mississippi.

In April of this year, eight universities participates in a multimedia immersion program: Allegheny College, American University, Delta State University, Guilford College, Jackson State University, Ohio University, West Virginia University and the University of Mississippi.

When Meek School professor Alysia Burton Steele wrote to their representatives asking for participation no one hesitated in contributing. They knew, that collaborative efforts, when done well, give wonderful practical experience to students, produce strong local content, support local businesses, engage communities and cultivate long-lasting working relationships.
The beginnings of this collaboration started years ago at Ohio University with a project called “Dawn to Dusk,” where students documented stories for a day and published them in the local paper. Several years later, Ohio alumna Cheryl Hatch, then a professor at Allegheny College, brought it to her school so students could become engaged in the community, and the community would spend time on campus. With this inspired approach, Hatch invited various schools to participate and in 2015, she invited Steele to not only speak and share her work, but also to bring Ole Miss students. They loved the experience.

Josh Birnbaum, Ohio University professor, goes over best practices for collecting audio with Ole Miss students Veronica Mejia and Marlee Crawford (right).

Meek School associate dean Charlie Mitchell was so impressed, he asked if it would be possible to alternate locations and bring it to Oxford. The Meek School committed to funding a majority of the costs, including travel and hotel accommodations for four speakers who are accomplished photojournalists – Hatch, who specializes in documenting international conflicts; Smiley Pool, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist at “The Dallas Morning News;” native Mississippian Jerry Holt, a staff photographer at the “Minneapolis Star Tribune;” and Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association. They all agreed to speak as well as mentor students that weekend. Students are still talking about what an inspirational experience they had as a result.
“We traveled 13 hours to get to the Delta,” said West Virginia University Professor Mary Kay McFarland, “and I worried the students would be exhausted and have a negative experience. But when they began to work on their stories with students from other schools, they got energized.”
Ole Miss student Cady Herring sets up lighting while photographing food at Senator’s Place restaurant in Cleveland.

The students learned new ways of editing, and used different equipment, but most importantly they had to work through the story vision and direction with a team of people. They saw different approaches to storytelling, and learned to be assertive about sharing their own. When they were at breakfast on the day they left the Delta, the students couldn’t stop talking about their experiences and what they learned.
Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, wanted to help with an authentic Delta eating experience and sponsored meals, which also invested back into the Delta community and highlighted local businesses.
Lens Collective organizer and Ole Miss Assistant Professor of Journalism Alysia Burton Steele has all 28 students come on stage to receive a standing ovation for work well done.

“You cannot come into the Delta without experiencing the food; as we know, people and communities bond when sharing a meal because it creates cultural connections,” Steele said. “The students are still talking about the food.”
This year the theme was about blues music and how it influences all aspects of Delta life here — including art and culture. The students saw that it wasn’t just about feeding people, but investing back into the community.
Brittany Brown (left) and Kamera Gri n, Ole Miss students, test their equipment before recording a story.

Feedback from the students was exceptional. Ohio University student Sarah Holm said, “The feeling of community in both Cleveland and Clarksdale was so strong and thriving.
Even though I was in a completely unfamiliar environment, I felt this sense of belonging and comfort while in Mississippi. Everyone that passed me on the street said hello and cars honked and waved as they passed us by on the streets. This kind of positive human interaction just makes your day more pleasant.”
Students dressed up and enjoyed the screening of their videos at the Grammy Museum Mississippi. A private reception was sponsored by the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the International Delta Blues Project.
Ole Miss Instructional Associate Professor Ji Hoon Heo (left) and Ohio University Associate Journalism Professor Stan Alost listen to music for a video.

Feedback from the audience and the students participating were overwhelmingly positive. One comment read, “I loved the overall experience. I was impacted on an emotional level during the entire conference. It touched me to hear stories from people I can relate to and also be a part of a community of international photographers.”
Another said, “I have just learned so much being here … I have gotten to know some of the best and kindest people I have ever met. I have learned about a culture and have absolutely fallen in love with the Delta. Truly an amazing experience.”
When asked about her favorite part of the experience, Steele replied, “I enjoyed seeing the sense of accomplishment from all of the students. Seeing them smile when they received a standing ovation made me super-proud of them. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Mentor Akili Ramsess shares a laugh with Ohio University students after lunch on the Delta State campus.

The program will take place again next year with another addition — the University of Missouri has asked to participate.
Steele expressed special thanks to Delta State University President William LaForge for hosting this unique conference in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.


By Ellen Kellum. Photography by Alysia Burton Steele and workshop participants.


The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 5 (2017-2018).


For questions or comments, email us at hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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