JSU’s Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food, and Justice Summer Program enriches lives through cultural immersion and education

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Students in the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food, and Justice Summer Program traveled to Philadelphia, MS to visit Choctaw Native American Grounds. (Photo: Aron Smith/University Communications)

JANS – Jackson State University hosted the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food, and Justice Summer Program (CCI) for the second year since its inception in 2023. From June 2 – June 8, the camp hosted emerging high school writers from across the state to engage Mississippi’s rich legacy of creative writing, the tradition of southern food practices, and the history of social justice movements.

Founded by Kiese Laymon, a MacArthur “Genius” Award-winner, the CCI immerses campers in the literary, culinary, and historic Mississippi through a series of writing workshops, excursions, and food demonstrations by local chefs. 

“We really want to make the connection between the creativity of visual art, written art, food preparation, and culture,” said Shanna Smith, Ph.D., program director. “The students want to be here; they are creative artists, and they are using this experience to further their creativity, and we’re just trying to encourage that.”

This year, the students worked alongside Chef Enrika Williams to learn about food preparation and presentation. They also visited the Mississippi Museum of Arts to view the “Thank You Please Come Again” photo gallery by Jackson-born photojournalist Kate Medley. Laymon wrote the forward for the exhibit.

The display captured everyday southern institutions, including five in Mississippi, that offer resources to travelers while meeting an array of local needs. Many establishments in the photographs were located in rural areas and food deserts. The images showed gas stations that either abandoned their original functions or doubled as lunch counters, grocery stores, pool halls, taverns, and more.

On June 7, the CCI took the 27 high school students to the Choctaw Expressions Museum for their final outing. The students had a unique and transformative hands-on experience while exploring the traditional Native American way of life.

Victoria Washington, a graduate assistant from Texas Christian University, said the day was a profound exploration of cultural heritage and personal growth. “Last year was great, but I felt even more immersed in the Choctaw culture this time,” she said.

The Choctaw Native American Grounds, Food Systems Change Excursion was a new addition to the camp itinerary. The day began with a Chahta Immi Cultural Center tour, where a skilled Choctaw potter introduced students to traditional Choctaw pottery-making techniques.

“Many of our students are born and raised Mississippians who might view the world as black and white, overlooking other cultures. This visit allows them to tap into their indigenous ancestry and discover new aspects of their heritage,” Smith explained.

Students also experienced the traditional Choctaw stickball game called Kabucha Toli. The campers learned how to use the hickory sticks to catch and toss the ball before ending the tour exploring traditional Choctaw cooking methods known as “Hoponi.”

Chahta Immi Cultural Center’s Visitor Relations Coordinator, Cynthia Massey, emphasized the importance of sharing Choctaw traditions with diverse groups.

“Learning about other cultures and their thriving traditions is essential. We hope the students take back the knowledge of the Choctaw people, understanding that we are here, thriving, and our culture is steadily expanding,” she said.

Following the museum visit, students visited Choctaw Fresh Produce, a Community-Supported Agriculture program located in Choctaw, MS, to learn about food sovereignty and justice. 

Liz Red, co-steward of the Center for Mississippi Food Systems, expressed her hopes for the students. “I hope they walk away with an awareness of the rich indigenous cultural legacy in Mississippi and feel inspired by the work happening here to improve access to healthy food.”

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JSU’s Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food, and Justice Summer Program enriches lives through cultural immersion and education

By Jackson Advocate News Service
June 30, 2024