Sunday services had been going for a while at the little white Unitarian Universalist church on a country road in Oxford, Mississippi, when the presiding minister announced that the congregation had its first Rhodes Scholar.
That scholar was 21-year-old Jaz Brisack, a University of Mississippi senior who sat near the back that morning in November, a couple of days after learning she’d won the scholarship. She listened as the applause washed over her. Then she told the forty-person gathering that she felt she belonged there, and with the group of progressive women who introduced her to the UU Congregation of Oxford. “When I’m with this congregation or when I’m with the Wise Women,” she said, “I know I’m home.”
Indeed, Brisack—who will begin two years of Rhodes Scholarship studies at Oxford University in the fall—had been pursuing UU values even before she joined the congregation in early 2017. She worked with the United Auto Workers in an unsuccessful campaign to unionize the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi; she joined oil pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota; and she would soon help shield women from demonstrators at the only clinic left in Mississippi that provides abortion services.
It’s been a fine match, even for a young person who was not religiously inclined. Brisack realized she was an atheist when she was about 11, and that was just the beginning of discovering many unconventional leanings. She read a lot, played chess, and loved watching Liberty’s Kids on public television. “I was a super nerdy kid,” she said. “The most introverted kid. . . . I was very awkward.”
She’s outgrown the shyness—she had to in order to help organize auto workers—but not the bookish enthusiasms. Hence the sterling college grade point average, the Harry S. Truman Scholarship she won as a junior, and the glowing Rhodes Scholarship recommendation letters from professors.
“Ms. Brisack is one of the best students I have ever had in my twenty-eight years of teaching at the University of Mississippi,” wrote Professor Joseph Atkins, who teaches courses in journalism, literature, film, and social justice—six of which Brisack has taken. “In every course she did excellent work, very often scoring the highest grades in the class in both tests and research papers. I have kept several of her papers on labor issues in my own files for future reference in my research,” wrote Atkins, who has published a book on the news media and organized labor in the South.
Brisack’s passion for organized labor began in a non-union Panera Bread franchise in Alcoa, Tennessee. She worked there as a dishwasher for four months when she was 16 and was troubled by the harsh working conditions. “I was supposed to lift heavy trays of dishes and ice; I was hurting my back,” she said. “I was watching my colleagues go through much worse.”
At about the same time she was reading an autobiography of lawyer Clarence Darrow, who listed among his clients American socialist Eugene V. Debs, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World. She read about Debs and soon about Joe Hill, the American labor organizer who was convicted and executed (wrongly, it now appears) for murder in Salt Lake City in 1915.
“I was just swept off my feet by the labor movement,” said Brisack.
As a college student she combined studies in politics and history with activism. At a College Democrats event in 2017 she met Eunice Benton, a member of the UU congregation in Oxford and a retired UUA district executive. Benton invited Brisack to join her group of progressive women, the Wise Women of Oxford, and eventually the UU congregation.
“She’s a real fit for us the way she lives her values in the world,” Benton said.
While Brisack has taken a dim view of organized religion in the past, she said the UU ethic suits her impulse to challenge conventional thinking. “The way Unitarians value questioning everything speaks to this,” she said. “The emphasis on free thought and asking the right questions, you’re not going to take anything for granted.”
She plans to take that inquiring spirit from Oxford, Mississippi, to Oxford, England, hoping to return to the South as a labor organizer. While she’s concerned that the scholarship takes her away from the battleground, she hopes the Rhodes imprimatur will provide a platform she can use “to empower people, to give voice to people who are never heard.”