Winter Institute in Prominent Position as National Momentum Toward Change Builds

In President Obama’s address to Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church last month, days after nine Bible study participants were murdered there, he famously sang “Amazing Grace.” It was such an extraordinary moment that his remarks preceding the song have gone largely unmentioned.

Speaking of one of the deceased, Clementa C. Pinckney, a member of the South Carolina State Senate and a senior pastor at Emanuel, Obama said that Pinckney “knew that the path of grace involves an open mind. But more importantly, an open heart. That’s what I felt this week – an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now.”

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, formed at the University of Mississippi in 1999, has recently been called upon with increasing frequency to work with communities to open hearts, and the world is taking note.

After 11 years working in Mississippi communities, the Winter Institute heard from those working in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed. Citizens in South Carolina reached out this summer and work is beginning there on a racial reconciliation institute modeled on the Winter Institute. Last year, the Winter Institute helped establish Welcome Table New Orleans at the request of that city.

Through a series of discussion circles and retreats, the Winter Institute’s Welcome Table helps community stakeholders “build bridges of trust to hold the weight of the truths they must tell one another.” People develop trust and work together with open hearts to effect lasting change in their communities. Word is spreading: The program works with 18 partner communities, and recent demand nearly exceeds the Winter Institute’s capacity.

Kathleen Parker, a Washington Post columnist, met with the Winter Institute’s leadership. She was so taken by the Welcome Table’s local, person-to-person approach toward reconciliation that she mentioned it on TV the morning of Obama’s Charleston speech (MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” linked here) and has since placed the Welcome Table prominently in two columns:

  • The first calls the Welcome Table “a blueprint for changing the way we talk about race.”
  • In the second, Parker quotes Susan M. Glisson, the institute’s executive director, who extols the Welcome Table’s “politics of invitation” rather than “politics of opposition” and jokes that the program might help solve congressional gridlock.

The Welcome Table also was mentioned on National Public Radio’s “On Point” program in an episode about the sudden movement in the South to take down the Confederate flag.

Momentum is growing toward change, which begins locally, person-to-person, in communities where trust has frayed as separation has grown. The Winter Institute’s Welcome Table is being recognized as a useful tool in helping communities beyond Mississippi heal and pursue equity. A recent column in the online magazine Salon cited the institute’s work as a model way to “lift the burden of race” in America. (The subhead of the piece is “A national effort toward racial reconciliation needs grass-roots support. Look at what’s happening in Mississippi.”)

Obama’s final words before he began singing “Amazing Grace” touch on the goodness that grows from an open heart, and the ability of individuals to effect change: “It’s what a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls ‘that reservoir of goodness beyond and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.’ That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible.”

To contact the William Winter Institute, call 662-915-6734 or email chris@winterinstitute.org. You can also visit www.winterinstitute.org.

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