Confronting Racism and Hate through Civil Discourse and Empathy
During a recent conversation with a dear friend and mentor, Dr. Gail Christopher, founder of the Ntianu Garden: Center for Healing and Nature and former senior advisor and vice president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, she recommended that I read Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow, given AAC&U’s efforts to advance Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) through the development of at least 150 TRHT Campus Centers at higher education institutions across the country. The book tells the story of Derek Black, the godson of David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) and son of the founder of Stormfront, a large racist internet community. Reading the book was not easy, but necessary. It provides intimate details of the white nationalist movement and the beliefs that fuel extreme levels of hatred in our society that led to the Charlottesville rally and murder, the Tree of Life tragedy, the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and countless killings of black men and women. Sadly, the list is too long.
The book also tells the story of Derek Black’s transition from his indoctrinated beliefs of hatred to his courage to disavow those values and beliefs that shaped him for the first part of his life. This is relevant because his transformation took place during the years he was a student at New College of Florida. Education is power.
At AAC&U, our efforts to advance Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation are not just part of a funded initiative, but a long-term commitment to preparing the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to dismantle the belief in the hierarchy of human value that has fueled racism in our society and permeates our systems, structures, and policies in ways that are so deeply embedded that they are part of our conscious and subconscious. With initial support from Newman’s Own Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AAC&U has been working with the first ten TRHT Campus Centers to develop and to implement comprehensive action plans to achieve this goal, but also to examine how the legacies of racism are represented at their institutions. In June 2019, AAC&U will hold the next Institute for TRHT Campus Centers with the existing centers and institutions interested in hosting a center. The institute will include workshops, discussion and reflection sessions, racial healing circles, and a preparation process for new facilitators. As Dr. Christopher has stated, “Racial healing circles provide opportunities to engage with perceived others in ways that enable self-reflection and nonthreatening acknowledgment of one’s own previously unquestioned assumptions and biases.” Racial healing circles are the foundation for the TRHT framework. However, you have to acknowledge and understand the truth before you can begin to heal. This understanding of the truth is what led to Derek Black’s transformation along with friends who didn’t ostracize him but engaged with him through civil discourse, patience, and love.
In March, AAC&U will host its Diversity, Equity, and Student Success conference, “Engaged Inclusivity: Perceptions, Realities, and Aspirations,” in Pittsburgh, a city that has joined a long list of places where hate crimes have occurred. We recently held a conversation with the conference’s planning committee to discuss ways, as Shai Butler from the College of Saint Rose said, “to honor and to educate” during our time together and, as Richard Prytowsky from Marion Technical College urged, “to build and to strengthen our alliances across differences.” While we are still finalizing our plans, I am constantly reminded through Derek Black’s story that education can lead to transformation. Structures, programs, interventions, and policies are important, but true transformation comes as a result of our relationships, our alliances, and our willingness to see ourselves in others. People drive change. People will eliminate racism and hate in our society. We are committed to doing our part with the platform we have at AAC&U, and we look forward to engaging with all of you in our shared effort to honor and to educate across differences.