For three years, the Millsaps College Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation has been working to improve race relations on campus and in the metro area. Susan Womack, associate vice president for advancement and information technology operations at the college, recently discussed the program with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren. Womack is a graduate of the Mississippi University for Women. She and her husband David reside in Belhaven.
What is the center?
“A lot of people think of the center as a physical space on the campus. It is an initiative for engaging members of the Millsaps campus community and broader community in truthful dialogue around race and social justice issues, dismantling racial hierarchies, and providing experiences that result in racial healing and transformation among individuals and the community at large. The center operates across various academic and non-academic divisions across campus.”
But you do have a physical space, right?
“We have several that we use. I don’t know if you said, ‘go to the TRHT,’ we would have a place where people could congregate. We don’t’ have that. But we do have several spaces that we use for our programs.”
How does the TRHT work to address racial challenges?
“At Millsaps it is to engage people in dialogue about racial issues, in particular, the focus that the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) has brought to this type of work is breaking down hierarchies of human value. We all know there is a hierarchy of value and has been in this country since the beginning. We want to continue to break down that hierarchy.”
What is this hierarchy and how is it manifested today?
“The hierarchy of human value is the notion that one group of people, based on race, is better than or deserves more than another group of people based on their race. Based on those differences, a value is assigned to people. The way that it plays out in today’s society is through opportunity. COVID-19 has really brought that to light. It’s crystal clear that in this country black and brown people do not have the same opportunities for quality health care as white people. The hierarchy is not always obvious. It’s not something we stop and think about every day. It really requires something like COVID to make us say there is something to this.”
That being said, how can the center use the COVID-19 crisis to bring light the hierarchy and improve race relations?
“We bring that into our conversation, so that we include it in our dialogues. We do more than dialogues, though. We also bring speakers to campus – nationally known speakers, statewide and regional speakers – to talk about specific issues like COVID and healthcare disparities. We try to educate the campus community and the broader community about truthful situations that are happening now. There are inequities, and real challenges based on a person’s race. We were on a network call with other centers across the country and agreed that this has to be a big part of the conversation. We don’t have specific plans for the 2021 academic year, but COVID and healthcare will be a big part of that.”
How do you get students involved in the center?
“We try to engage them in a number of ways. We have a retreat to engage students in the dialogue process, so they can learn what the process looks like, and hopefully get other people involved. That has happened in some cases. Our challenge as a campus community is making sure when one class graduates, the next class is ready to take it on. We move people in and out on a four-year rotation, so we have to be constantly engaging new student leaders to take on the work. We also host a day of racial healing, that is part of a nationwide activity that happens after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On the campus, we engage faculty, staff and students in the national day. Millsaps also partners with Tougaloo College every year, a tradition that has gone on longer than the center, to celebrate Martin Luther King Day as two campuses.”
How many centers for truth, racial healing and transformation are there in the United States?
“When we received the grant three years ago, we were one of 10 in the country, and we were very honored to be part of that select group. This year, AACU has added another 13 or 17, so there are around 20 to 25 centers now throughout the country. They’re campus centers, on college and university campuses.”
Is this the only center in Mississippi?
“Yes; there is some work being taken on by other groups, such as the William Winter Institute, which we have partnered with.”
How is the program funded?
“We received our initial grant from AACU, through the Kellogg Foundation. They, the AACU, also received money from the Newman Foundation and Papa John’s Pizza, which are both sponsors of this work. Our current funding is from Papa John’s Pizza. That goes through the AACU and then to all the campus communities. We’ve also partnered with some local groups, including the Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits and Philanthropy, who has helped us bring in public speakers. We have opened up those events to the broader Jackson community.”
What is the AACU?
“It is a national organization that supports colleges and universities in a number of different ways. They did some research and created networks around the country where colleges can learn from each other and improve their undergraduate education programs. They are structured primarily around liberal arts colleges, which kind of focus on ‘whole person’ education, rather than technical educations or career-focused educations. They are headquartered in Washington, D.C.”
Has the center for truth made a difference on campus and in the community?
“That is a really good question. One thing we realized was that this work is really, really hard and requires a lot of time and intentionality. We are happy with incremental progress, and we don’t think we’ll ever be done. We’ll never reach a point where we can say, ‘we succeeded.’ We’re talking about humans and about changing societies.
“We think we have made an impact on campus. The work we were doing prior to the center is now being recognized. When people see the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center on campus, they know what we’re about. We have created a place on campus. We have gotten people involved from all over the community, and we have a committee of leaders who plan and think about what we need to be doing next. People on campus have called on us to help us resolve issues about race.”
Without sharing too many details, can you give me an example of where has the center helped on campus, in terms of assisting students, faculty and staff in addressing race?
“We’ve met with a certain group on campus who expressed some discomfort in talking about race. We convened the group of people and allowed them to set the stage to talk about what they wanted to talk about and why they were uncomfortable talking about it, and they had a valuable conversation about race.”
Why would people be uncomfortable talking about racial issues?
“Some people are very concerned about saying the wrong thing and about offending someone, that they don’t even try. We’re helping our white students and faculty and staff develop some language for talking about race, about understanding micro-aggressions and how we might have biases that aren’t clear to us, and getting over those so we can have constructive conversations. That’s one thing we’ve worked on – giving individuals the language to use and a safe space where they can ask questions and make comments without feeling they’re going to be attacked.”
When you talk about what language to use, can you give me an example?
“Imagine you’re in a conversation with someone and they say something you don’t agree with. You can say, ‘you’re wrong,’ or you could say something along the lines of, ‘tell me more about what you’re saying, because I’m not sure I can relate.’ When we have a dialogue, we establish ground rules: everybody is going to be respectful, every voice is going to be heard and we’re not going to be mean. No name calling. This is a safe space, where people can feel free to say what they’re thinking without being criticized.”
How many students have participated in these dialogues since the center was started?
“I don’t have a number in front of me, but before we got the grant we were doing dialogue circles with a portion of each incoming freshman class. We did this for two or three years leading up to becoming a campus center. So, we can safely say that we have had hundreds of students participants over the last few years through our various events. This year, we had a faculty member who integrated some of the center’s work into her classroom and into one of her classroom assignments.”
What was that assignment?
“New Stage Theatre performed the play Pipeline. We bought tickets for students to see the play and write about it. COVID hit and we had to revert to reading the play and having a dialogue about it. That is a movement in the direction we want to go. Ultimately, we want the center to be a regular part of campus life and integrated with our academic and community life experiences.”