UM’s SouthTalks Kicks Off With Virtual Q&A on Improving Health in the Delta.

Barnard Observatory

OXFORD, Ms. – The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi began its second annual fall SouthTalks series on Sept. 9 at noon with a live Q&A event featuring four community health experts who discussed how the medical and public health community play a role that is traditionally thought of as economic development and the importance of tailoring programs and policies to meet the unique needs of Delta communities.

The event, entitled “Our Body Tells a Story: A Pathway to Resilience and Wholeness,” was presented by Dr. Jennifer Conner, Dr. Brookshield Laurent, Dr. Anne Cafer, and Dr. Meagen Rosenthal. The group’s conversation expanded upon a prerecorded talk, currently available on the center’s website, in which doctors’ Conner and Laurent discuss how place, time, and health influence our bodies and how those three factors can create a pathway of holistic healing for individuals and communities.  

Laurent is the founding executive director for the DPHI and the founding chairwomen for the department of Clinical Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYIT-COM) at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. Conner serves as deputy director of the DPHI and is an associate professor at the NYIT-COM. 

Both Dr. Cafer and Dr. Rosenthal are UM professors and co-directors of the university’s Community First Research Center for Wellbeing and Creative Achievement (CREW). 

Cafer says CREW is an outgrowth of the Community Wellbeing – Flagship Constellations, an initiative created by Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter that includes participants from every school on campus.

“Crew set out to help communities build their own research capacities so that when they come to a university, and we hope it’s the University of Mississippi, they have their research needs identified,” Cafer said.

During the Q&A, Conner and Laurent of the Delta Population Health Institute (DPHI) explained how they consider different socioeconomic factors when building cultures of health in Delta communities.

“As a public health practioner, we often use the Social-Ecological Model realizing that, again, there are individual behaviors, but those individual behaviors are influenced by peers and social networks,” Conner said. “And that is all influenced by our organizational structures like schools, worksites, hospitals, and clinics; that is impacted more broadly by policy.” 

Conner also said that education must ‘talk to’ economic development because schools and hospitals help recruit new businesses. Additionally, Conner stated that economic growth is important for downtown redevelopment projects in towns and cities. In the Q&A, Conner explained how she killed two birds with one stone by adding edible landscaping to a downtown beautification project.

“We can make it pretty and beautiful for the downtown area and increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables and encourage other growing behaviors as well,” Conner said.

Since its establishment last year, the DPHI has worked to achieve greater health equality and community resilience in the Mississippi River Delta by creating a culture of health through research, education, policy engagement, and community engagement. The DPHI also values holistic thinking and follows the four tenants of osteopathic medicine to advance community and personal health. 

However, sometimes local resistance to the DPHI’s holistic solutions occurs. In the Q&A, Laurent mentioned that problems often arise when community stakeholders feel left out of the conversation or are not entirely on board with the Institute’s terms for improving health in their community. 

“I find that a lot of the time when we are bringing and convening multiple stakeholders to the table to discuss these very complex issues, we have to define the terms, and that will be different for each community,” Laurent said. “And so if we are not on the same page about what the terms are, what we are agreeing our expectations are, and what we agree our benchmarks and success marks are; then we will continue to have this resistance, the word that the questioner was asking for.”

During the Fall semester, SouthTalks explores different aspects of southern culture through panel discussions, performances, film screenings, and lectures. However, because of the pandemic, this year’s lineup of events will be presented virtually for free on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s YouTube channel, but registration is required. 

Afton Thomas, associate director of programs at the University of Mississippi’s center, said that she is proud she decided to host SouthTalks virtually back in April.

“I didn’t know where we were going to be, but I didn’t want to invite people here and then have to scramble for some plan b,” Thomas said.

While Thomas admits that nothing beats an in-person event, she says presenting SouthTalks virtually has its positives.

“The silver lining is that we can get national attention, our events have always been free and open to the public, but that has been limited to if you’re in Oxford, Mississippi on campus at noon, on a Wednesday,” Thomas said.

SouthTalks’s next event, “Why Dystopia Now? Exploring the Place, Value and Necessity of Speculative and Dystopian Themes in Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s ‘We Cast a Shadow,'” is on Sept. 16 at noon. For more information on future SouthTalks events or the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, visit or contact Thomas at or 662-915-3363.

Leave a Reply