By Talbert Toole
Cam Calisch knew of the educational and environmental opportunities awaiting her at the University of Mississippi. However, in a recent turn of events, she also found her voice as an activist. During her tenure at the University of Mississippi, she has facilitated movements and vocalized topics deemed controversial in the political landscape.
Originally from Pensacola, Florida, Calisch followed her mother’s family’s roots back to Mississippi nearly four years ago to pursue an education at the flagship university.
Although she hails from the sunshine state, her family’s history runs deep through Mississippi – her third great grandfather fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Now, Calisch rallies against issues like Confederate symbolism in the LOU community; however, her voice gained clarity once she truly discovered the power of education in the hallowed halls of the university.
She didn’t always value her education, though. Calisch was not ashamed to say she failed out of high school. During that turbulent time though, she knew her grades did not reflect her desire to learn and lead.
“I felt like the system was very unjust,” Calisch said regarding her high school years. “I felt like it was me versus the world then.”
Now she says that Mississippi is her “place,” which she clarifies is the ideology of staying in one area and dedicating herself to improving it. Literature and materials studied in class helped bolster her desire for activism, she said, because they showed an abundance of individuals fighting for a just system.
Gaining an understanding of those accounts helped mold her into the social activist that has marched through the streets of the community countless times, she said.
Some of the issues Calisch protests against include capitalism and colonialism.
“Those issues are huge, structural, systemic problems that affect all of us,” she said. “If you don’t have literature to articulate that it can feel isolating.”
Calisch has become quite vocal about the rest of the issues she finds unjust, too. Learning in the classroom how to understand social issues, in addition to joining a group where collective power was beginning to emerge, Calisch said this combo was ultimately the catalyst that led her to activism.
“We can’t challenge these power structures by ourselves,” Calisch said.
In the past two years, Calisch has marched and protested a plethora of times. In November, she was joined by students, faculty and staff who advocated that the Confederate monument that stands tall in the Lyceum-Circle either be taken down or relocated. Their efforts eventually led to administrative decisions to relocate the statue to the Confederate cemetery near the Tad-Smith Colesium.
Calisch said she credits the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the incident with former UM benefactor Ed Meek with fueling her dedication to activism. The Facebook post by Meek pictured two African American females, one who was in a class with Calisch. She said when the class discussed both the incident and the current political stigma that floods Washington, D.C. that something clicked.
“There was something about that environment that empowered a lot of people in that room to know that we had agencies and to know that we could propel ourselves forward,” Calisch said.
From protesting local issues like the Confederate monument to national ones like ICE immigration camps at the border, Calisch’s actions and viewpoints are vilified by those who oppose her beliefs.
“There’s this very messy iconic view of activism because of the Civil Rights movement,” she said.
During that era, the movement received immense backlash from those who disagreed with one another.
“When we see pictures of the Little Rock Nine who were integrating and see the push back they received…I think that just comes with the territory,” she said.
Calisch was spotlighted in the local media landscape most recently on Oct. 4, the day the Institutions for Higher Learning board convened at the Inn at Ole Miss to announce the university’s newly-hired chancellor, Glenn Boyce. Students, faculty and staff felt like the IHL’s decision disregarded their viewpoints collected at the listening sessions and lacked the amount of transparency needed to make the hire credible.
Along with members of Students Against Social Injustice and UM Solidarity, Calisch stood strong in the heart of the Inn’s ballroom protesting the formal announcement. The protests stalled board president Ford Dye’s announcement for more than half an hour. Then tension during the protest took a swift turn as Calisch was hauled away by University Police Chief Ray Hawkins.
“You’re really picking me up right now?!” Calisch said. “That was my first thought.”
Although the photographs of Hawkins hauling Calisch away could be misconstrued as abrasive, she said that is honestly not the case. She works closely with Hawkins to be transparent with the community about what protests she is spearheading and when.
“We read about the role of police and the institution of police…this idea that the police is the human scale expression of the state,” she said. “Whatever the state—that is, violent—is how the police are going to act.”
Those who oppose her beliefs have pigeonholed Calisch into the category of someone who doesn’t love Mississippi. She said that is not the case.
“The people here are really incredible,” she said. “They have made this place feel like home.”
Her love runs deep for the state and she plans to use her role as an activist to transform Mississippi into a better place. She said she loves the resilience that blossoms from people—especially people of color—since her ancestors helped to perpetuate the power structure of the state.
“I love the narrative of the resilience of many Mississippians of color,” she said. “I love that I have the opportunity to follow in those footsteps at any capacity. That has to be the overarching theme.”