Student activist named first UM female Rhodes Scholar

Posted on Nov 28 2018 - 5:50am by Blake Alsup

Jaz Brisack has been an active part of the Ole Miss community during her nearly four years at the university, affecting change inside and outside of the classroom. Now, she has been named the university’s 26th Rhodes Scholar — and the first female from Ole Miss to receive the honor.

Her initial reaction to receiving the scholarship was shock, a feeling that still remains more than a week after getting the news.

“My (first) thought was really, ‘How am I going to be able to use this institution that’s so deeply rooted in white supremacy and all those things to try to advocate for causes that are very different from what Cecil Rhodes envisioned?’” Brisack said.

Brisack credits professors like Joe Atkins, Kiese Laymon and Vaughn Grisham, as well as advisors Tim Dolan and Debra Young in the Honors College.

Jaz Brisack was recently named the university’s 26th and first female Rhodes Scholar. Photo by Christian Johnson

“I am thrilled to have had the privilege to work with Jaz, and I’m ecstatic that her Rhodes Scholarship shines a light on what a vibrant and excellent community of scholars and human beings attend the University of Mississippi,” director of the University of Mississippi Office of National Scholarship Advisement Tim Dolan said.

On Wednesday, actor Jim Carrey posted a tweet encouraging Mississippians to vote for Mike Espy in the Senate runoff election attached to a hand-drawn portrait of Brisack.

“Brilliant young women like Jaz Brisack, 2018 Rhodes Scholar from the University of Mississippi, give me hope for the future,” Carrey tweeted along with the portrait he created.

Brisack, a senior general studies major at Ole Miss, is studying public policy, journalism and English. She is president of Ole Miss College Democrats and is a member of Wise Women of Oxford, a local activist group, and a student in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.

Brisack developed an interest in labor unions while she was working part-time at Panera Bread in East Tennessee at age 16. She said she hurt her fingers every day washing dishes, hurt her back trying to carry heavy things and saw coworkers enduring worse conditions than she was.

“That’s how I got interested in labor unions in the first place,” Brisack said.

Reading the works of Eugene V. Debs and Mary Harris Jones shed some light on the history of labor unions and led Brisack to the theory that unionizing is “the only solution that can actually lead to worker empowerment.”

Brisack has advocated for social and political causes through her work as an organizer with the Nissan unionization campaign, the Workers United union and her work as a defender at Pink House in Jackson, the state’s last abortion clinic.

“We’re literally on the front line of the fight for women’s reproductive rights, standing in between the women getting into the clinic and the protesters screaming at them that they’re going to hell,” Brisack said. “That makes all of the work seem tangible and meaningful.”

Brisack grew up in a family of “conservative Democrats.” She developed an interest in politics and activism at a young age.

“When I was three years old, my mom lifted me up so I could push the button to vote for Al Gore for president,” Brisack said. “I was writing protest letters about the Iraq War at four or five because we had a neighbor who was a soldier. I didn’t want him getting killed, and so I think I came about it pretty honestly.”

The university has undergone major changes throughout Brisack’s time here, including the removal of the Mississippi state flag in October 2015 during her freshman year.

She said the campus is going through a lot of convulsions, similarly to the rest of the country, and is in a transition period as a result of “incredible progress” when the flag came down that has resulted in “some of the furthest right elements gaining power” as backlash.

She said the state flag coming down and Dan Jones being chancellor were “real milestones” that were immediately undone with the presence of the Our State Flag Foundation and the appointment of Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter.

“I think that the university is really at a crossroads where they can choose to keep catering to the most conservative elements in the state or they can actually embrace progress and represent all Mississippians,” Brisack said.

There are several opportunities for continued progress on campus right now, Brisack said, including taking the Confederate statue down, making the admissions process more representative of the minority population in the state, making sure financial aid reaches students who need it most and appointing a progressive and representative chancellor, since there has never been an African-American or female chancellor at Ole Miss.

In April, Brisack received another prestigious scholarship when she was named the university’s 15th Harry S. Truman Scholar — one of 59 students chosen from a pool of 750 who applied across the nation.

Dolan said Brisack uses her social and intellectual gifts to connect students with peers and community leaders to benefit all parties.

“This is a special place, and each year I am astounded at the talent and the quality of people who attend the university and the faculty and staff who make it successful,” Dolan said. “Jaz was challenged along the way, and those challenges helped make her the person who impressed the Rhodes committee.”

As a Rhodes Scholar, Brisack is tentatively planning to study political theory at the University of Oxford in England. She’s excited to meet the full class of Rhodes Scholars, spend time traveling and understand how labor issues affect Europeans so she can bring those lessons back to Mississippi.

“I want to be a labor organizer in Mississippi,” Brisack said. “I want to come back and make sure that I can help workers figure out that they do have power but only when they organize collectively.”

Brisack said what she has valued most at Ole Miss has been mentoring other students to become young leaders.

“I think I’ve been able to help them realize their own ability to make a difference,” Brisack said. “And so anytime that I can help other folks empower themselves, that’s been my greatest achievement.”