At a time when cultural and political upheavals in our country call for drastic changes, slowing down to focus on building a collective truth and healing racial division may not feel like the most immediate or intuitive path toward justice. But a new effort to establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation center, spearheaded by a consortium of St. Pete higher education institutions including University of South Florida St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg College, Stetson University College of Law, and Eckerd College, aims to do precisely that.
The process began in summer of 2020, when USF St. Petersburg’s regional chancellor Dr. Martin Tadlock first convened a taskforce of campus and community leaders focused on finding solutions to pervasive racial injustice in St. Petersburg. Stakeholders from local nonprofits, colleges and universities, and the City of St. Petersburg came together to explore models of social justice advocacy and discovered the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation™ (TRHT) framework.
The framework identifies “false beliefs in a hierarchy of human value” as central to creating and sustaining racism, and understands dismantling those beliefs as a first step toward achieving racial equity.
Initiated in 2016, the TRHT framework has already shaped racial healing and justice efforts in 14 communities across the United States. It was also at the center of Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s (D-CA) 2020 proposal to create the United States’ first Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.
In 2017, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) joined forces with the Kellogg Foundation to provide training and support for establishing 150 TRHT Campus Centers working in diverse ways to “prepare the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to break down racial hierarchies and dismantle the belief in the hierarchy of human value.” With 30 campus centers now online, the AACU hosts a yearly summer institute designed to jumpstart efforts at additional institutions, including the 78 who attended this year’s virtual conference.
A grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg enabled representatives from all four consortium schools to learn more about the framework, learn from mentors who have developed their own campus centers, and begin formalizing plans for their plans to bring TRHT to St. Petersburg.
At the heart of the TRHT framework is the scholarship of Dr. Gail Christopher, D.N., N.D., Senior Advisor and Vice President of the Kellogg Foundations and past Executive Director of the Institute for Government Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Christopher’s research highlights the profound connection between systemic racism and public health – a relationship which the COVID-19 pandemic has made all too clear – but the TRHT framework she created takes a very personal approach, focusing on small scale workshops (Rx Racial Healing circles) that allow participants to explore the impacts of racism and connect to one another on a human level.
Regardless of our racial or ethnic backgrounds, Christopher explains, “we have all grown up in an ethos grounded in a false hierarchy of human value. Everyone needs racial healing.”
Another important aspect of the TRHT framework is narrative change, or telling a more “complex and complete” story about issues and experiences of race within a community. As the Kellogg Foundation puts it, “the way we communicate that can influence people’s perspectives, perceptions, and behaviors about and towards one another so that we can work more effectively and productively toward community-based change.” This is where the work of the St. Petersburg consortium will begin, with each institutional partner conducting research to reveal a fuller story of its own history, especially in the context of racial justice in St. Pete.
Although telling these stories is fundamentally an academic project and there are plans to engage faculty and students in relevant fields such as history, journalism, and creative writing, it is also a vital part of what TRHT practitioners call “heart work.”
“Healing is hard work, deep work,” the Foundation wrote in a 2021 Racial Healing Statement. “It makes demands on the body, mind, heart, and soul – and it requires time, dedication, and real courage to pursue.”
Collaboration can also be challenging. Of the AACU’s 30 TRHT centers, only one, the Charlotte Racial Justice Consortium, represents multiple institutions. “It’s hard work to arrive at a consensus,” notes Caryn Nesmith, Special Assistant for Strategic Initiatives at USF St. Petersburg, “especially when our institutions are very different and have very different goals.”
But, she explains, those differences also create complementary strengths. USF is currently leading a study commissioned by the City on structural racism in St. Petersburg, while Eckerd brings strong programs in writing and communication that will serve the consortium’s goals. SPC brings a significant economic impact on the community, and Stetson was a founding member of the Florida Law Schools’ Consortium for Racial Justice, an important partner in this work. Collectively, the four schools serve a population of 36,000 students.
Working as a TRHT consortium will help each institution to work more effectively toward a collective goal of promoting racial healing and transformation in their shared city. Dr. Michelle Madden, USF St. Petersburg’s Campus Diversity Officer, said in a recent press release, “The consortium provides the opportunity to do this work more intentionally and deeply both internally among our students, faculty, and staff, and externally in the community to further the work of racial healing and equity transformation.”
Ultimately, the consortium hopes, the work of narrative change will go hand in hand with developing skills and curriculum for effectively teaching about issues of race, finding ways to catalyze racial justice efforts in St. Pete, and supporting the legislative advocacy efforts of the Florida Law Schools’ Consortium for Racial Justice. Most immediately, the consortium will launch a racial justice fellowship program with internship opportunities for students interested in deepening their skills in the field.
The work of racial healing and transformation may be difficult, but its aim is to build a better future for all.