As the events in Charlottesville demonstrated, colleges and college towns can easily become sites of racial tension. Could they become areas of racial healing? A set of grants just issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and funded by two left-leaning foundations, aims to find out. This summer, AAC&U selected ten schools to serve as sites for the first Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers. The selected schools include both an Ivy League college (Brown University) and a community college (Austin Community College in Texas) and are the first step towards AAC&U’s goal of opening 150 such centers around the country.

The ten schools–Brown University, Hamline University, Rutgers, Austin Community College, Duke University, Millsaps College, Spelman College, The Citadel, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and University of Maryland Baltimore County–will each receive a one-time, $30,000 grant. The grants will fund three-year-long programs to create “Centers for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation” on college campuses. The AAC&U and its donors have the goal of establishing 150 of these centers across the country as a means of addressing the history of racism and inspiring transformative change in both the colleges and surrounding communities.

In July, the association issued a call for proposals, asking colleges and universities to submit plans for how they would serve as Campus Centers for the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation initiative. The application process asked the schools to develop plans to create “a positive narrative about race in the community” by pinpointing “critical levers for change” and implementing a vision of what their communities would look like after jettisoning their belief in racial hierarchy.

“Positive narratives about race in the community prioritize inclusive, community-based healing activities and policy designs that seek to change collective community narratives and broaden the understanding that Americans have of their diverse experiences,” the AAC&U explained in its application materials. “We want our Campus Centers to develop comprehensive programmatic approaches to addressing racism, including trying to heal perceptions, beliefs and attitudes.”
However, when it comes to explaining the methods these centers will use to bring about such healing, both the AAC&U and the awarded parties have been somewhat vague. Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn., will create practice spaces “focused on creating new narratives and new relationships while naming and honoring the ongoing pain and trauma wrought by belief in racial hierarchy, structural racism, and white privilege.” Rutgers in Newark, N.J., will create programs to bridge the town and gown divide that exists between the school and the city of Newark. These programs will include “five main sets of activities: Story Circles; Intergroup Dialogues; Public Art; Public Access Communication; and Youth Leadership Development,” the school says.
“We see the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation campus center as a way to deepen our relationships with Newark’s residential communities,” said Rutgets Assistant Dean Sharon Stroye.

Duke University is also planning to use its grant money to bridge perceived tensions between the school and the surrounding community. Duke is planning to use the money to create a center that will both conduct research and host events, which the university describes as “moderated conversations” involving members of the Duke-Durham community.

“The goal of our Duke TRHT Campus Center is to strengthen Duke University’s position as a catalyst of change in partnership with the City of Durham to help eliminate deeply rooted beliefs and societal structures that perpetuate racism,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth in a Duke Today release. Kornbluth, who said that the decision “could not be more timely,” expressed her hopes that the TRHT centers around the country would be instrumental in fomenting change.

At this stage, more specific plans as to what these programs will look like or what precisely the centers will use the money for are sparse. Some of the schools, including The Citadel, in Charleston, S.C., have yet to release statements addressing the award.

Money for the program came through grants from two foundations: the Newman’s Own Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF). Newman’s Own donated $520,000 for a three-year collaborative initiative with WKKF to create the centers for truth and racial healing. WKKF gave an additional $399,763 to supplement.

“College campuses offer a productive place to examine and confront the deeply held, and often unconscious, beliefs created by racism. The Kellogg Foundation is optimistic that AAC&U will bring together critical thinkers and our next generation of strategic leaders to help us all abandon the belief in a hierarchy of human value and transform our society for the future,” said Dr. Gail C. Christopher, senior advisor and vice president for TRHT at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, who explained that the TRHT program helped to address the ways that racism prevented people from relating to and valuing one another.

WKKF primarily supports efforts to help children and families, providing grants for childhood development support and anti-poverty programs. It has been a regular supporter of the AAC&U, with donations in support of programs supporting racial justice stretching back more than 25 years. However, WKKF’s donations also extend to openly left-leaning groups, including the Tides Foundation and the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which received nearly half a million dollars in grant money in 2017 alone.

The impact of programs such as the TRHT centers may be hard to gauge. The AAC&U addressed this issue in a Q&A aimed at helping schools craft their applications. In its answer, the AAC&U stressed that there was not “a minimum number of students a Campus Center should impact to be competitive.” Instead, it hoped that applicants would focus on impact, sustainability, and what it deemed “moving the needle.” How this will translate in practice is unclear, especially since the groups have so far shied away from a heavy reliance on data. Duke has already hastened to clarify that its programming “will not be using empirical evidence to study human variation, but rather people’s knowledge about human variation.”

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