Think of the phrase “racial healing,” and students sharing plates of tandoori or tikka masala in a college dorm room probably don’t come to mind. Perhaps as unlikely: That repairing centuries of trauma involves cadets at a once-segregated Southern military academy or a circle of people discussing their great-grandparents’ birthplaces.
Yet those scenarios, others like them, and the conversations around them, are elements of events happening in Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers, a network of facilitators and programs designed to help undo harmful stereotypes, rewrite damaging narratives, and train people to dismantle toxic racial hierarchies at the grassroots level.
Sponsored in part by the American Association of Colleges & Universities, Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers host a broad range of programs, workshops, and “healing circles” that tackles racism and the disparities that stem from it, says Dr. Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U vice president for diversity, equity, and student success equity and inclusion and TRHT Campus Centers executive director.
“It’s necessary work, because the false belief in a hierarchy of human values still exists within our country and within our systems and our structures and our policies and our practices,” McNair says. “So as long as that still exists, there is a need for us to continue to do the work.”
Adapted from a five-point framework the W.K. Kellogg Foundation developed in 2016 with civic leaders and academics, the program aims to establish a basis for lasting change that pivots from conflict and division towards healing through facilitated dialogue, workshops, and exercises.
Based on five main concepts — narrative change, separation, economy, racial healing, and law — campus groups discuss everything from generational trauma to economic disparities and mass incarceration, according to the foundation’s web page. Setting aside blame and castigation, participants are encouraged to share personal experiences, embrace history and practice empathy through “deep listening,” with an eye on achievable, real-world goals.
“The THRT effort is not about blaming one identity group as being the reason as to why another group is experiencing harm,” McNair says. “TRHT is about focusing and helping. It’s about healing and listening to one another, and engaging in deep listening and empathy and understanding our interconnectedness and our common humanity.”
“Yes, our (social) systems and our structures are flawed,” she adds, “but it is only together that we can actually do this work” of racial healing and societal progress.
According to the Kellogg Foundation, at the heart of TRHT is “community-led collaboration that is cross-racial, intergenerational, and cross-sector.” Open, honest conversations, the website says, are the best way to “gain an understanding of the predominant factors and conditions that are blocking (racial) progress.”
Although the Kellogg Foundation had initially deployed the TRHT framework to civic leaders from Buffalo to Los Angeles, the AAC&U signed on as a partner in 2017 after hearing that campus conversations around racial conflict had instead taken a disturbing, us-vs-them turn.
Seeing an opportunity amid the crisis, McNair and an AAC&U team, along with Dr. Gail Christopher, an esteemed facilitator, helped design a college-level version of the TRHT framework. It was an important decision: for most students, post-secondary education is a transitional period in life in which they are often more open to new ideas and perspectives.
With grant money from the Newman’s Own Foundation, AAC&U put out requests for proposals to create TRHT Campus Centers on colleges across the country. Although there was funding for just 10 grants, McNair says more than 100 schools applied.
“Our goal at AAC&U is to ultimately partner with 150 higher education institutions to serve as host sites for TRHT Campus Centers at their institutions and within their communities,” she says. “We have an annual TRHT Summer Institute, which has served hundreds and hundreds of institutions who are interested in learning more about the THRT framework, and the methodology. And we now have 70 host institutions serving as partners with us.”
While the framework is largely the same from one school to the next, those campus dialogues and outcomes are unique to the community in which they occur.
At Rutgers University, broader campus discussions began after three students involved in TRHT work — one white, one Muslim, and one Hindu — shared impromptu meals in their dorm rooms, sampling each other’s traditional foods.
The Citadel, a military academy in South Carolina, is rewriting its history to include stories of enslaved people working at the school as well as the attendance of cadets recruited from overseas, including Cuba and China.
And at the University of Maryland-Baltimore campus, TRHT meetings at the Shriver Center include prompts that encourage participants to family ancestry to promote empathy and shared experiences.
At a time when entire states have all but banned colleges from teaching about race and history, expanding TRHT Campus Centers seems like an effort that’s flying against the prevailing political winds. But McNair believes lasting change starts at the grassroots level.
“I believe in the possibility of change, and I believe in the goodness of people and the goodness of our communities,” she says. “I’m not naive, and I’m not going to say that I think this is going to be the one thing” that permanently eradicates racial hierarchies.
Still, “I do know that we have to try,” McNair says. “And I do know that any progress we make is progress that should be valued and appreciated, because this is a long journey. And I’m committed to that journey.”
This story was produced in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.