TRHT group in conversationUniversity of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
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Building Relationships and Changing Narratives at Rutgers University–Newark and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

By Ben Dedman

April 1, 2019

Since 2017, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has guided the development of Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers on college and university campuses around the country.

Established by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, TRHT is a national, community-based process to engage citizens in racial healing and catalyze efforts to address inequities grounded in notions of a racial hierarchy. With initial funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Newman’s Own Foundation and recent funding from the Papa John’s Foundation, AAC&U hopes to create 150 centers in the coming years.

Using techniques such as racial healing circles, which were adapted from the practices of indigenous communities, the TRHT framework prioritizes relationship building and narrative change.

Below, two inaugural TRHT Campus Centers, Rutgers University–Newark and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, share their work to cross barriers and change perceptions.

TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers University-Newark

If you ask ten people their perception of the city of Newark, New Jersey, at least six will say something based on negative stereotypes (e.g., poverty, gentrification, violence), says Sharon Stroye, director of public engagement and director of the TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers University–Newark. Historically, local Newark residents have had negative perceptions of Rutgers–Newark, seeing it as an ivory tower aloof to the needs of the surrounding communities. Changing these narratives is a primary goal of Rutgers University–Newark’s TRHT Campus Center.

Unlike other Campus Centers, the TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers University–Newark is not housed on campus but in the seven branches of Newark Public Library.

“Rutgers saw that we would be a good fit since we touch on so many aspects of what TRHT is supposed to address,” said Dale Colston, principal librarian for Newark Public Library. The library’s branches, which span every ward of the city, are deeply engaged with diverse communities including preliterate children, senior citizens, high schoolers preparing for college entrance exams or filling out financial aid papers, newly arrived immigrants, and people who are deaf or visually impaired.

The library branches have been introducing racial healing circles, in which participants sit in a circle and share their experiences based on a series of prompts from the session facilitator. Circles for the community are held in the six branches, not the central library, because less traffic creates a more intimate setting. These circles are “designed based on the ward or the area of Newark. Each ward requires something different,” Stroye said.

“The racial healing circles are about people sharing their common humanity,” said Stroye. “When we started, we thought people wouldn’t receive the racial healing circle because of its title, because of the word ‘racial.’ But that’s not the case at all. Once they participate in a circle, the title becomes insignificant because the human connection supersedes the words.”

Often, the narratives people bring to the circle may be painful, but “the prompts don’t allow them to stay in that space of pain,” Stroye said. “The prompts allow them to transform the conversation. ‘Okay, so now you have experienced that. Have you learned anything? Has this made you a better person? How has this affirmed your identity?’”

A student intern and a staff member from Rutgers–Newark facilitate racial healing circles at two library branches—Van Buren and Weequahic. At the North End branch, many patrons speak Spanish as their first language, though they may come from different geographical regions like Central or South America, Mexico, or Europe. The Van Buren branch has a large Portuguese-speaking community from Europe and Brazil.

“Their community has different needs, and they had racial healing circles based on their experiences coming to the United States, perhaps growing up here, and how that affects who they are and how they interact with other people,” Colston said.

To introduce library staff to the TRHT framework, Stroye’s office also held a racial healing circle for branch managers, and they will conduct training for branch staff to be circle facilitators.

The university-library partnership has hosted many public activities for adults and families related to the National Day of Racial Healing in January, the Black History Celebration in February, and the Hispanic Heritage Celebration from September to November. These programs have included media presentations, skits by theater groups, and well-known speakers like author Salman Rushdie, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and anti-racism activist Tim Wise.

“We are able to present great programs with some of the best and brightest minds here in Newark and the surrounding communities, all through TRHT,” Colston said.

The effect on the library branches has been profound. While much of the library’s programming was previously focused on the central library, there is new momentum and staff in the branches.

“They are becoming more popular in their neighborhoods, and they’re becoming destinations for families, community groups, teachers, educators, and people from neighboring communities,” Colston said.

Though the library partnership is a large part of the TRHT Campus Centers, Rutgers students are also leading several initiatives on campus, including “Healing Sounds of Newark” (spoken word and music events focused on student/community narratives) and “ImVisible” (a monthly program for undocumented college and high school students). Students also participate in racial healing circles.

“Our students are ready to have this conversation,” Stroye said. “My role as a director for the center is really just to provide structure and format, then allow students to lead the conversation on the topics of their choice. If they want to talk about it, the TRHT center provides logistical, administrative, and nutritional support—food and refreshments are always a common denominator.”

Beyond campus, the center is also working with Elizabeth Public Library and New Brunswick Public Library, which received grants from the American Library Association to host teen book clubs with a racial healing circle component. Rutgers University–Newark students provide research and marketing assistance to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice as they work with legislative officials on restoring voting rights to people on parole or probation, closing juvenile detention centers, or combatting income/wealth disparities among racial and ethnic groups in New Jersey, which has the seventh largest income disparity in the nation.

“We are fortunate that the city of Newark has political leaders, business leaders, cultural and educational leaders all operating on the same page about creating access and equity for the residents, citizens, and communities in Newark,” Stroye said.

The Campus Center also hosted fifty high school and college students during a three-day program called “Undoing Racism” in summer 2018. Students made a documentary on racism in Newark, brought their knowledge to their peers in other meetings, and engaged in conversations about racial justice with the superintendent of Newark Public Schools.

“Our approach to changing the narrative and the perception about the city of Newark is through the young people. They want to have these conversations and they want to engage and understand,” Stroye said.

The change in perception has been rapid, building on gains made by the city and university over the last five years, where the university has increased the number of Newark residents who attend Rutgers–Newark by 85 percent. Before, Stroye said, students would graduate high school and college and hope to leave Newark.

“That conversation is changing,” Stroye said. Instead, students are now saying, “‘I want to get my degree. I want to stay in Newark and I want to make a difference.’”

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Two hundred years ago, Hawaiians lived in harmony with their natural environment, living off its resources while prioritizing its health through cultural practices, laws, and economics.

Now, Hawai‘i faces a host of threats to its natural environment. More than 90 percent of food on the islands is imported, and rising sea levels and catastrophic storms have submerged an entire island.

“We have to ask ourselves, why the drastic change in our ability to feed ourselves as a community and in our ability to care for our island home?” said Kaiwipuni Punihei Lipe, Native Hawaiian affairs program officer and TRHT lead at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Several events have led to the challenges Hawai‘i faces today. Beginning in the late 1700s, foreign diseases decimated the Native Hawaiian population. In the 1800s, American missionary advice led Hawai‘i to adopt private ownership of land, allowing foreigners to buy land and displace Native Hawaiians. These twin challenges led to the 1893 coup d’état, when white businessmen, backed by the US military, deposed Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani and took over her kingdom. In 1898, the United States illegally annexed Hawaii.

According to Lipe, Hawaiian language, culture, knowledge systems, and practices were banned, which led to the mismanagement of natural resources, among other things. Hawaiians, as well as the Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese immigrants that worked on plantations, were expected to assimilate into American culture, a process that was aided by new education and university systems.

“The best ways to care for Hawai‘i, based on Hawaiian knowledge systems of about a hundred generations, were largely erased. So now we’re in this recovery mode of saving our languages, saving our knowledge systems, recovering the ways we can be in relationship with each other and our place. This is an important step for everyone who now calls Hawai‘i home,” Lipe said.

For the TRHT Campus Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, this recovery begins with the idea of Aloha ʻĀina, or a love of the land that “is like a relationship between a parent and child, so that you want to care for it in every way you can,” Lipe said.

To build these relationships, honest conversations about race, racism, and colonialism are very important.

“In Hawai‘i, we don't often talk about race and racism,” Lipe said. “There’s a false narrative of Hawai‘i being a melting pot, and that we're all perfectly happy and getting along. But there are still some pretty divisive power structures here that physically look different than places on the US continent or anywhere else in the world, largely due to intermarriage, but they're still rooted in racism and settler colonialism.”

The initial narrative change work of the TRHT Campus Center is focused on the campus community in three ways: (1) embedding language from the TRHT initiative into guiding campus documents; (2) developing campus tours based on archival documents (including many written in the Hawaiian language) about local people, places, and communities and how the university has interacted with them; and (3) bringing campus constituents together to discuss how they can begin to change the narrative in Hawai‘i.

“We believe that if we can transform and heal our university then we can take lessons from our work and really do that in the larger community,” Lipe said.

The largest part of the Campus Center’s work focuses on three cohorts of external community members with (1) students; (2) faculty and staff; and (3) executive administrators. The cohorts go through a twelve-week curriculum covering topics such as the TRHT framework, race and racism, climate change, and the Hawaiian concept of mo‘okū‘auhau, often translated to genealogies, including family genealogies, genealogies of place, genealogies of the education participants have experienced, and genealogies of relationships. In spring 2020, the cohorts will come together for deeper, campus-wide conversations about the long-term transformation of the campus and surrounding communities.

“Our focus is not necessarily on speaking about race and racial formation, and racial healing, but more of healing our disconnect to the land and disconnect from one another,” said Sonya Zabala, a graduate research assistant in the Native Hawaiian Place of Learning Advancement Office, who helps to facilitate the student and community cohort. “So, in the hierarchy of human value, we’re seeing that relationships are essential, relationships that are driven by Hawaiian epistemologies, cosmology, and science.”

Each session brings participants together “in community over food, which in Hawai‘i is really important,” Lipe said. After eating and discussing the week’s theme, participants join in a racial healing circle.

Circles invite participants to listen deeply and share stories to connect with others. Circle prompts are created in a way that also helps individuals recognize their own agency and can include questions like, What was powerful about that experience for you? What did you learn from that experience?

“It doesn't matter if you’re part of the group that’s recognized as the oppressed or part of the group that’s usually recognized as the oppressor. Racism has touched all of us, and it sucks,” Lipe said. But the beauty of TRHT is that it helps people move through and past this pain. “We get stuck a lot of times in narratives in which one’s a victim, one’s in pain and hurt. We have to feel those things, but also to see how we survive that, to see how we learn from it, and to be able to share that.”

Lead photo courtesy of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.