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Courageous Conversations

Racial healing and speaking across difference

By Ben Dedman

July 2, 2020

This year, the racial hierarchies in America are being laid bare. At the same time that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Arnaud Arbery, and others have been killed by white police officers or community members, COVID-19 is also killing people of color—especially Black and Hispanic people—at disproportionately high rates. According to the Brookings Institute, “In every age category, Black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.”

As the United States reckons with these contemporary tragedies, its people have never fully acknowledged the historical legacies of racism that continue to hurt people of color, such as poverty, mass incarceration, voter intimidation, redlining and segregation, and unequal access to high-quality education, to name just a few.

“The trauma associated with experiencing racism is real and must be addressed before transformation can occur,” said Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U’s vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the TRHT Campus Centers. “TRHT represents a comprehensive effort for sharing our truths, engaging in racial healing, and the possibility of transforming to an anti-racist society.”

Since 2017, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has guided the development of twenty-four Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers on college and university campuses across the country. Organized around five components—narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law, and economy—the TRHT framework addresses the historical and contemporary effects of racism within our communities.

Below, leaders of the TRHT Campus Centers at Spelman College and Hamline University share their efforts to promote dialogue across racial differences.

The TRHT Campus Center at Spelman College

Spelman College, a 139-year-old historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, has created generation after generation of leaders in intersectional projects focused on healing and transformation related to race and gender.

“We’ve been able to defy the narratives that would suggest that being Black, being female, and—in this context, representing an HBCU—are deficits” said Cynthia Neal Spence, director of Spelman’s Social Justice Fellows Program and TRHT Campus Center. “Through the intellectual capacity of our students, through the very strong reputation of our alums, we have been able to defy the odds and serve as assets to national discourses about race, gender, and sexuality.”

The TRHT Campus Center at Spelman is part of the college’s Social Justice Fellows Program, a social-justice entrepreneurship project primarily led and coordinated by students who integrate their intellectual interests and social justice concerns.

“The Social Justice Program is seen as a site for organizing and collaboration,” Spence said. “Our students are very focused and very sincere about engaging in intergenerational conversations about social justice, particularly at a time like this.”

Spelman’s campus sits just three miles from the Wendy’s parking lot where a police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in June.

Students on the Spelman campus

“As is clear from recent events, we still have a lot of work to do here,” Spence said. “Some of that work can be facilitated by some of these very hard conversations, conversations that I believe are revelatory for individuals as well as for communities.”

The center’s work is focused on Difficult Dialogues, a series of student-led conversations that draw from racial healing circle methodologies, which offer participants the opportunity to share stories and connect across racial differences in a nonjudgmental space. The series was founded by a student in the Social Justice Fellows Program who attended a conference with Spence featuring discussions with women from various community organizations.

“The conversation was actually about how race regulates our lives,” Spence said. “Whether you’re Black, brown, or white, race tends to be a regulating factor. And the student was just so enthralled and wanted to do something similar on campus.”

Spelman students reached out to peers at institutions across the Atlanta area, including Oglethorpe University, Agnes Scott College, and Morehouse College. On Saturdays, students from across the metro area gathered together to discuss topics ranging from voting rights to criminal justice reform. One Difficult Dialogue focused on immigration and included students from Freedom University, an institution for undocumented students, who cannot attend public colleges and universities in Georgia.

“These discussions have really opened up experiences that were in some ways painful, some ways joyful among cross-racial groups as they talked about how they came to know themselves as raced people, as individuals who had privilege, did not have privilege, or didn’t realize they had privilege,” Spence said.

In the fall, whether in-person or online, the Difficult Dialogues series will continue with conversations on politics, protests, the police, and reimagining public safety.

Working with local organizations, the TRHT Campus Center is also bringing conversations about race and racism into the community. In February, just before the campus closed because of COVID-19, the TRHT Campus Center participated in an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center, “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” which examined the historical legacy of voter suppression. Spence cohosted a dinner discussion about the exhibit with representatives from Atlanta organizations.

Another social justice fellow coordinates a book club project that regularly meets with women incarcerated at correctional institutions. Other social justice fellows are managing community engagement programs related to environmental justice or educational advocacy across the Atlanta area.

Though Spelman’s TRHT Center engages all five components of the TRHT framework, “I am one who pushes the truth-telling,” Spence said. “First you have to admit that the problem exists. It takes a lot of courage to engage in truth-telling, because truth-telling does, in fact, produce difficult, difficult conversations. But they’re courageous conversations.”

Hamline University

Hamline University, a liberal arts university in St. Paul, Minnesota, sits less than ten miles from the Minneapolis intersection where Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

A group from Hamline during the trip to Washington, DC

As protests gripped the Minneapolis and St. Paul area, Hamline students, faculty, staff, and board members participated in item drives and cleanups to help residents and businesses.

Hamline’s Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service, and Social Justice collected food, water, and sanitary and toiletry products. Volunteers delivered the supplies to a designated drop-off site, packing and loading bags for people who came to pick them up. Volunteers also assisted with deliveries across the St. Paul area.

Originally, Hamline’s TRHT Campus Center was focused on educating students across differences. Over the past few months, however, “we started to see that a much broader network is at our disposal, and we should be utilizing that to the fullest,” said David Everett, associate vice president of inclusive excellence at Hamline.

Hamline is also pulling together a George Floyd endowment fund, which the university aims to make available in the fall for incoming students interested in pursuing education, criminal justice reform, or social activism and in raising awareness of equity, inclusion, and diversity issues.

The TRHT Campus Center began its work in 2018 with a series of racial healing circles attended by students, staff, faculty, donors, and board members.

Because of the intimate, difficult nature of conversations and storytelling about race, Everett often feels a little anxious about “how individuals are going to respond.” But so far, responses have been overwhelmingly positive.

“We had some really good conversations and a lot of perspective sharing that probably would not occur had those groups been more homogenous,” Everett said. “We had a great cross-representation of Hamline constituent groups.”

In September 2019, the TRHT Campus Center took a group of forty-seven students to Washington, DC, to tour museums and monuments, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Throughout the daylong excursion, students journaled and reflected on their experiences.

“As a first-generation minority student of color, this [opportunity] helped me to voice my own story and culture more,” one student reflected. “It also felt good to connect with students outside of my normal circle. Just the fact that you learn more about someone’s culture leads to respect.”

Students involved in the TRHT Campus Center want to expand discussions beyond the university into the community through partnerships with alumni and nearby businesses such as the Hamline Neighborhood Association, Midway Association, and a local elementary school.

Before the campus shut down for COVID-19, students were also planning to host a TRHT week with a variety of activities and attractions featuring community minority-owned businesses that included food trucks, yoga instructors, and social service organizations.

Of course, the campus closure has made it more difficult to bring people together. “COVID created a logistical nightmare for us,” Everett said. “How do we create that sense of connection and community without actually physically being together?”

This summer, the campus center will host virtual healing circles that will continue into the fall.

“The hope is that we can bring folks together virtually, just to (1) decompress and process; (2) address some of the issues, concerns, and needs that have been revealed by COVID and recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd, and (3) talk about the implications for us as a community and as an institution,” Everett said.

Everett stresses, however, that the vital work of the TRHT Campus Centers is not needed only in response to a specific tragedy. The work to reverse the effects of systemic racism must continue all the time.

The TRHT Campus Center “is a space that already existed, an ongoing iterative journey where individuals, institutions, and networks get a consistent opportunity to talk about the implications of what’s going on,” Everett said. “The most important thing is creating a readily available space where people feel comfortable having these types of conversations and begin to build that sense of connection.”


  • Ben Dedman

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