PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As the nation continues to grapple with issues of racism and inequality, Brown University will become one of 10 colleges and universities across the country charged with addressing the historic and contemporary effects of racism and leading transformative change.
On Wednesday, Aug. 16, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) selected Brown and nine other universities as sites for the first Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers in the U.S.
With support from the Newman’s Own Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the AAC&U will guide the development of the campus centers as part of an initiative to educate, prepare and inspire the next generation of leaders to advance justice and build equitable communities.
“Last weekend’s events in Virginia offer a powerful reminder that the need to confront racism remains urgent,” said Brown President Christina Paxson. “Higher education has an essential role to play in creating positive change, and we’re proud to join with AAC&U and our fellow TRHT Campus Centers in taking action.”
Each TRHT Campus Center will receive an initial award of $30,000 to develop and implement the plans they proposed to “engage and empower campus and community stakeholders to uproot the conscious and unconscious biases and misbeliefs that have exacerbated racial violence and tension in American society,” the AAC&U announcement noted.
The Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University, said that Brown’s centuries-old commitment to religious diversity — Brown opened its doors to students without regard to religious affiliation upon its founding in 1764 — will be a critical element in promoting racial reconciliation and healing. She will lead a team of colleagues in advancing two initiatives proposed as part of Brown’s first year as a TRHT Campus Center.
Both initiatives — conversation groups focused on topics significant to the experiences of students who identify as black, or as Muslim women, respectively — will invite participation from all students across the University community, including undergraduate, graduate and medical school students. With a target launch of October for the weekly series, the Chaplain’s Office will in September extend an invitation to participate to all students on campus. Plans are also underway for faculty and staff to be invited to participate in parallel projects, Cooper Nelson noted.
“The diversity of individuals and experiences at Brown allows us to confront complex topics in a way that creates a wealth of opportunities to learn from each other,” Cooper Nelson said. “Our hope is that we have wide participation from across the community and that as students gain experience in navigating these issues, they can become conversation leaders themselves.”
The first program will expand upon a Spring 2017 pilot project focused on topics important to students who identify as black. The program will convene a weekly discussion over dinner in which participants can consider issues of identity, race, gender, colorism, classism, dynamics within communities of color and other topics in small, focused groups.
“This was initially planned as a four-week session for Black History Month, but the students found it an invaluable support structure and advocated for it to continue,” Cooper Nelson said. “Our TRHT project will maintain the hospitality, healing, empathy and discourse that were effective in the pilot but augment these with academic counsel, mentoring and leadership development to heighten its impact.”
Similarly, Brown will work to develop a conversation group that explores issues that affect the experiences of Muslim women on campus. Cooper Nelson said the vision is to create an intimate setting in which students whose identities have multiple facets — as students, women, persons of color, Muslims, American or international, for example — can talk through the complexities of their experiences and the dynamics of tradition and identity.
Cooper Nelson noted that educational theory has demonstrated that personal transformation for students is best supported in small settings and that students often cite intimate co-curricular engagement as among the most transformative academic experiences.
Both TRHT Campus Center projects, Cooper Nelson said, will involve many Brown resources — centers, services, faculty and staff — as well as periodic student assessments that indicate how students’ views of themselves change and whether they find the programs effective. A key aspect of each program will be the engagement of students as leaders who can go on to educate others.
“If our plan is effective, it will contribute to strengthened student performance and well-being,” Cooper Nelson said. “It will create new student peer leaders for support of these concerns, strengthen our understanding of the experience of healing and attitude change, and create new alliances, both on campus and beyond.”
Through a competitive process that resulted in more than 125 applications, the AAC&U selected Brown and the other nine universities based on the ability of their proposed programs to create positive narratives about race, identify and examine current realities of race relations in their communities, envision communities without entrenched racial hierarchies, and pinpoint levers for change and key individuals to engage.
AAC&U will provide strategic direction to each of the selected institutions with the support of the TRHT advisory board, a network of national advisors and experts. AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella said the multi-year initiative will only grow from here.
“In the aftermath of the horrific, heartbreaking events in Charlottesville, we must not be silent,” Pasquerella said. “Instead, we must harness our collective intellectual, social and financial resources to transform words into action. AAC&U is thrilled to partner with these first 10 outstanding institutions on our way to establishing 150 centers across the country to ensure that higher education is playing a leadership role in promoting racial and social justice.”
Brown’s selection builds on a commitment to diversity and inclusion as fundamentally critical to the University’s mission of education and advancement of knowledge. In 2016, Brown launched Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion, an ambitious action plan to create a more diverse and inclusive academic community that is now being implemented by faculty, staff and students across campus.
Teams from the 10 TRHT Campus Centers will participate in a project kickoff in September 2017 and attend AAC&U’s inaugural Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Institute in January 2018 in Washington, D.C.
[Editor's Note: Story updated on Sept. 19, 2017]