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A racial healing circle at the 2019 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Centers, hosted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Courtesy of AAC&U

A report about an initiative begun three years ago to address and resolve racial divisions at 10 American colleges and universities is being released at a moment when higher ed institutions are engaged in a challenging and painful national conversation about race and racism.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, a group that focuses on advancing liberal education, launched the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers in 2017 and charged them with training “the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to break down racial hierarchies and dismantle the belief in a hierarchy of human value.”

The work of those first 10 centers is featured in a new report from AAC&U released today. More centers have been announced over the past year, and "truth and reconciliation" efforts are now underway at two dozen institutions across the country.

Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U’s vice president for diversity, equity and student success and the executive director for the TRHT Campus Centers, said the centers complement other diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses.

“It serves a very particular role with an emphasis on racial healing as a core component of what it means to transform an institution into one that is antiracist,” McNair said.

A common element of the centers is the use of Rx Racial Healing Circles. Gail C. Christopher, the founder of the Rx Racial Healing movement, described the healing circles as a methodology for bringing diverse people together for extended, facilitated discussions intended to help participants experience their "interconnectedness as members of the human family" and "become more aware of the absurdity of the belief in a hierarchy of human value."

She said what sets this work apart from other racial justice and civil rights efforts is that this work is focused on challenging that false belief system.

"We haven’t done that part of the work ever," Christopher said. "We’ve dealt with the consequences of that belief, but we’ve never eradicated the belief itself.”

The TRHT Centers

AAC&U’s work coordinating the TRHT centers has been supported with initial funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and current funding from the Newman’s Own Foundation and the Papa John’s Foundation.

The framework guiding the TRHT centers has five components. The first two components focus on narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, while the other three components -- separation, law and economy -- focus on understanding and addressing broader economic, historical, legal, social and political constructs that perpetuate systemic and structural racism.

“Every campus that decides to host a TRHT Campus Center builds an action plan based on the TRHT framework,” McNair said. “The commonalities are that in some way, shape or form every campus is involved with understanding the narrative about race in their campus and their community. They also have a focus on racial healing by helping students, educators, community partners engage in sharing of their narratives so that they can create deeper connections with one another. There is a focus on deep listening, a focus on understanding experiences -- and that is a key part of building relationships and building trust prior to engaging in discussions and actions related to examining racism and racial incidents on our campuses and in our communities. We ask every campus to identify community partners, because we believe strongly that our institutions are not just in the community but of the community.”

The report, which features contributions from faculty and administrators at each of the first 10 host campuses, gives some examples of what this work looks like in practice. The TRHT Center at Rutgers University’s campus in Newark, N.J., partners with the eight locations of the Newark Public Library to reach into the community. The TRHT Center at the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, has a particular focus on interfaith dialogue and cultivating relationships with religious groups and institutions in the community. The Austin Community College District, in Texas, plans to work with K-12 partner schools to design developmentally appropriate programming focused on racial healing and transformation.

Leaders of the TRHT center at Duke University, in North Carolina, wrote in the report that they have been focused on five key areas: forming a steering committee and engaging the university’s senior leadership, partnering with the Duke Alumni Association, convening racial healing circles with students, training new racial healing circle co-facilitators, and creating designated racial healing spaces on the campus.

Leaders of the TRHT Center at Millsaps College, in Mississippi, wrote of the center's impact on the campus.

“Possibly the most significant impact of the TRHT Campus Center appears in the incremental shifts in approach to problems, questions, and even power dynamics on campus," wrote Susan Womack, Millsaps's associate vice president of development operations, and Anita DeRouen, the college's director of writing and teaching. Both are members of the TRHT Campus Center team at Millsaps.

The center is leading an effort to research and rewrite the history of Millsaps "to ensure that truthful narratives about our founding and the fact that our site once was home to Jackson College, an HBCU now known as Jackson State University, are told," Womack and DeRouen wrote. "Our TRHT Campus Center leaders are regularly called upon by the president and administration to weigh in on issues related to race, diversity, and inclusion -- and are asked to facilitate individual and group conversations to create stronger understanding and space for healing.”

Responding to the Moment

Much of the work described in the report involves in-person discussions and collaborations. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing students off campuses this past spring -- and with the prospects for an in-person fall uncertain -- McNair said AAC&U has provided training on how to conduct Rx Racial Healing Circles virtually.

AAC&U also moved its annual summer institute for faculty and administrators interested in learning about the TRHT model online. McNair said more than 440 educators at 41 institutions participated in the virtual institute held in June.

McNair said there was more interest in the institute due to the current racial unrest in the country.

"Every time there is an incident or an occurrence of racism, it reiterates or reinforces the need for our work," she said. "I'm more concerned with what we do with this level of engagement and focus right now to really lead to the transformation and change that’s needed."

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