What do you mean by “racial equity”?
Racial equity occurs when resources, opportunities and burdens are not dependent upon race. Racial equity may also mean working to end racial disparities found in conditions inside the University (e.g., employment, curriculum, retention of faculty, as well as less personal but nonetheless pervasive conditions such as the portrayal of history and naming of buildings) as well as outside (e.g., infant mortality, criminal justice, housing, employment, education).
Why dredge up events from the past? Isn’t it best to leave well enough alone?
There are many reasons why it is important to learn from the past, but a moment’s reflection about the University of Virginia is worth considering first. UVa is an institution that is steeped in history; few institutions live with a past so clearly present as does UVa. The Lawn, the Rotunda, the Pavilions – all capitalized to emphasize their importance – remind anyone who might be inclined to ignore the past of our love of our history, and particularly of our connection to our Founder, Mr. Jefferson. These places provide a tangible link between generations of students and faculty and alumni who have walked among, lived within, and taught and learned from these spaces. Add to these the dozens of organizations, societies, endowments, chaired faculty, programs, and spaces that evoke the Jefferson name and legacy, and it is evident that our past is something that already takes up a good bit of our everyday consideration. Knowing the importance we place on our history, four answers to the above question come to mind.
1) In evoking our past, we are not doing anything that is not being done already. Rather, we are asserting that the ways this has been done have been too limited in scope, too concerned with image and not concerned enough with substance, and too readily accepting of a single narrative at the cost of broader truths. It does our students, our alumni, our faculty, our community, and even our visitors a disservice to assume that this imagined past is all that we can bear.
2) We must recognize how much more compelling is the totality of our history, and how much more in keeping with our mission is our quest to understand and grapple with that totality. For example, there are many buildings whose names honor individuals whose academic accomplishments are mixed against their record of white supremacy and segregation. Students, staff and faculty alike walk the halls of those buildings unaware of this contradiction; yet isn’t this an opportunity to challenge ourselves by confronting openly these dichotomies, rather than ignoring or hiding them?
We don’t learn by accepting an incomplete history, and especially such a history that has been manipulated specifically to maintain power of one group over another.
3) The past shapes the present. That is, conditions that most of us might regret – a dearth of faculty of color, for instance – are not accidental any more than are those conditions that we celebrate – e.g., our graduation rate of African American students. For us to comprehend and address current conditions, we need to understand the historical context in which these conditions occurred, as well as the lessons that can be learned from positive change.
4) A final answer suggests both ethical and instrumental ends. The ethical is not too difficult to recognize; as Martha Minnow in Memory and Hate writes, “Failure to remember, collectively, triumphs and accomplishments diminishes us. But failure to remember, collectively, injustice and cruelty is an ethical breach. It implies no responsibility and no commitment to prevent inhumanity in the future.”
The instrumental reasons may be less apparent. The hurt that lingers from past community wrongs that are not fully acknowledged and addressed leaves communities less resilient—less able to respond and adapt appropriately in the face of new harms. Minnow again notes, “Even worse, failures of collective memory stoke fires of resentment and revenge.” We see this again and again as incidents ranging from careless insult to appalling ignorance, active hatred, and even physical violence between and among university students and community members are replicated year after year on and off grounds.
Why issues of race? Why not deal with all issues of social justice?
From the Board of Visitors, to past Presidents of the university, to students, faculty and alumni, UVa leaders have acknowledged the particular problems of race due to the particular role that UVa played in the past. Racial issues are not the only issues that confront the University, including other issues of social justice, but no other issues have cast such a long, unrelenting shadow over our history, our reputation, and our sense of ourselves.
Why would UVa get involved in community problems? Isn’t the purpose of a university to educate its students?
Yes, that is a core purpose of the university. A university’s purpose is to educate, but to educate for what purpose, and with knowledge that comes from what sources? Educating students is inextricably woven with the issues of the communities we are in. If we want our students to be knowledgeable citizens dedicated to their communities now and in the future, the best thing UVa can do is lead by example.
Institutions of higher learning have long rejected the notion of a student as an empty vessel to be filled with information. Indeed, one finds strong support within UVa planning documents for a broader purpose, beginning with Jefferson himself and continuing today. Consider these statements:
“to prepare students to become the informed citizens and effective leaders of a democratic society” (Ten Year Academic Plan, Dec. 13, 2006 Draft) “Jefferson wanted his new university to educate free people to enjoy the fruits of
national freedom or independence, a purpose that evolved early toward educating leaders to work for the benefit of their fellow citizens—for the common good.” (Strategies for the Future of the University of Virginia — February 2008, italics added)
In UVa’s Ten Year Academic Plan, 2 of the 5 initiatives directly address community and service learning:
“C. Expand and leverage the capacity of the University’s professional schools to train leaders and bring the knowledge of their disciplines to bear on public life around the world.
E. Expand the University’s capacity to influence society’s responses to pressing issues facing communities today.”
This is a movement that is taking place around the world as scholars and administrators recognize the importance of community engagement and service learning.
We’ve already seen too many fruitless efforts for racial equity, beginning with energy and promise and ending with little or nothing actually changed. What’s the point any more? How is UCARE any different from past failed efforts?
The University has had many commissions and reports that have addressed issues of race and equity. Indeed, we have collected reports from nearly a dozen or so such efforts, and would wager that others might be found upon further research. As we have analyzed these reports, three responses come to mind:
1) There has been progress. That may seem obvious to those who lived during the era of de jure segregation, but it is not apparent to many. We frequently hear the refrain “nothing ever changes” and its counterpart, “nothing ever will change,” despite evidence to the contrary. Although we disagree, we understand that argument, because of response number two:
2) It is striking how often one can find in these reports the same problems and concerns, the same solutions, and the same hope that this time a lingering problem will be solved. Calls for a living wage, a more hospitable climate, attention to community responsibilities, curricular changes, and other actions may be found repeatedly in these reports alongside concerns by staff, students and faculty who do not feel welcomed here and skepticism that the University leadership takes racial equity seriously.
3) Each of these reports is an end point, the fulfillment of a group’s charge. As such, each relies fully upon the University administration to make the changes that need to be made.
Without diminishing in any way the intentions and efforts that have been made in the past, and the courage and hard work that often was required to make necessary change, it is evident that our transition from our segregated past remains woefully incomplete and, in some cases, is even backsliding.
UCARE has taken a different approach than these previous efforts, as follows:
1) This effort has not been created or led by the University administration. While welcoming their participation, and recognizing the essential role the formal leadership structure plays in issues of policy, this more grass-roots effort has allowed absolute freedom to explore a wide range of issues of concern. This freedom has also encouraged a necessary and illuminating candor, particularly among community members and those University employees who may not otherwise have felt able to say everything that was on their mind. For those who may assume that the University administration censors documents such as this, we can state flatly that this is not at all the case.
2) UCARE is not just a University project; it is centered on Charlottesville, of which UVa is a part. Gathering a diverse array of opinions and experiences has been our priority. We have spent many hours listening to the concerns and ideas of residents whose families have been here for generations as well as newcomers who have brought ideas and perspectives from other places. This community perspective has been invaluable in helping us understand how the university is seen in the community and community members’ aspirations for university-community relations.
UCARE has looked beyond the University in its focus on the larger impact of the University on the community and, importantly, the current and potential roles that the University community does and could play in that larger community. Much of the UCARE leadership, which includes members of the community who are not affiliated with the University, also was active in the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, serving on the Steering Committee, facilitating sessions, or joining as participants in the small group dialogues and action groups.
3) Rather than focus alone on what is wrong and what it would take to fix it, a focus that ends up fixating on a set of policy recommendations alone that awaits action by the highest levels of University leadership, we have made a deliberate effort to integrate history, teaching, and action in our framework of truth and understanding, repair, and relationship. We take care to note the many positive contributions of the University to the larger community and we make clear that our goal is for us to become a stronger, more just, more effective institution AND to be known for those qualities.
4) We think that making change is a shared responsibility. Even with good intentions, it is too easy to lose the collective energy and creativity of active group deliberation once a report is completed and it is ‘somebody else’s’ responsibility. Furthermore, although policy changes generally require administrative action, difficult policy changes will not happen without widespread understanding and support by students, staff, faculty, alumni, and members of the community-at-large. Other measures will benefit from, or even require, actions by this wider constituency. There is a place for everyone’s voice to be heard and everyone to take a part in the change process.
5) We recognize that the project of racial equity does not end with a report. The report is merely the beginning of a new phase of sustained, broadened deliberation and action. The report is intended to open up, not close, thinking, reflection, and commitment. UCARE will continue to operate after this report is published to make sure that the issues it raises do not fade into our memory.
Where can I find out more information?
How can I help?
Give your support to the action items, spread the word in your community and be an active part of the process. First, read the “Call for Action and Reflection” document, and give us your feedback. Have a look at the action items for yourself and see where you might get involved at a deeper level. Some suggestions include:
1. Community Members:
- join the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race
- visit the Office of Community Engagement
- tour the Grounds and give feedback to the tour guides about what you do and do not see and hear
- attend University events and get to know the faculty, staff and students you meet there
- participate in cultural competency training
2. UVa Students
- join the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, and consider becoming an intern for the Dialogue
- join one of many student groups working on issues of racial equity, such as the memorial for enslaved workers
- share results/reports of your research on the community with the community
- participate in cultural competency training before you volunteer in the community
3. UVa Faculty
- volunteer in the community and include that opportunity in the classroom
- participate in cultural competency training
- to the extent possible seek authentic community partnerships and participatory action research when conducting community-based research, and always share results/reports of your research on the community with the community
- support community projects like Westhaven Day with time and resources
- seek opportunities for collaboration on community initiatives
How did the UCARE project get started?
In the Spring of 2001, the Virginia General Assembly issued a statement of regret for use of eugenics. (H.J.R. 607. Expressing the General Assembly’s regret for Virginia’s experience with eugenics) In 2003, the Virginia General Assembly issued a statement of regret for school closings. (H.J.R. 613. Expressing the General Assembly’s profound regret over the 1959-1964 closing of the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia)
In February of 2007, the Virginia General Assembly issued another, broader statement of regret, but this time for the use of enslaved labor and treatment of Native Americans. (H.J.R. 728. Acknowledging the contributions of varied races and cultures to the character of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and expressing profound regret for slavery and other historic wrongs rooted in racial and cultural bias and misunderstanding)
In April of 2007, the UVa Board of Visitors issued a statement of commendation for the General Assembly’s action and their own ‘particular regret’ for the use of enslaved persons. (University of Virginia Board of Visitors Resolution Commending the General Assembly’s Resolutions on Slavery) At that time, a small engraved stone was laid at the foot of the Rotunda commemorating the workers, enslaved and free, who helped realize Thomas Jefferson’s vision.
These actions prompted several people from within the University who saw these actions, not as closing the door on this era and these wrongs, but as an opportunity to start talking seriously about those parts of our history that were largely forgotten or hidden, any continuing impact on the community of that history, and current efforts to sustain racial equity. Later in 2007, the UCARE project was created to bring community and university members together to collaborate on what might make an apology more real, more relevant, and more effective. Eventually, generous support from the Andrus Family Fund ensured the project funding through February of 2012.
Since that time, UCARE has either spawned, supported, or initiated many activities. Three Action Groups formed: Truth and Understanding, Repair, and Relationship. Networking breakfasts, community meetings, interviews, student research, classes, trainings, and case studies of other communities and colleges have all been part of our effort. The “Call for Reflection and Action” released in Fall of 2011 encapsulates all of those efforts even as it defines these efforts as only a beginning.