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Campus-Community Dialogues and Partnerships: Lessons from Racial Legacies and Learning
Maria Maisto, Program Assistant, Association of American Colleges and Universities


In January 1999, AAC&U completed its ambitious project, Racial Legacies and Learning: An American Dialogue. Supported by the Ford Foundation's Campus Diversity Initiative, Racial Legacies and Learning was designed to foster learning and dialogue about America's racial legacies and its opportunities for reconciliation. the project funded more than 60 colleges and universities and advised scores of others all working to unite Americans through innovative campus diversity programs and groundbreaking campus-community partnerships.

The project began with participation in a national Campus Week of Dialogue on Race in April, 1998, continued with campus-community study-dialogues on project campuses in the Spring and Fall of 1998, and culminated with a televised Town Hall meeting involving over 300 campuses and co-sponsored with PBS Adult Learning Service in January, 1999.

Talking about race is risky business. But the returns on this investment in dialogue and learning proved enormous. For some participants, Racial Legacies and Learning provided the impetus for initiating campus-community partnerships that had long been desired but seldom enacted. The project helped other schools sustain and strengthen partnerships.

Many campuses also found that dialogues organized around specific racial issues frequently led to broader discussions of a variety of local pressing issues not previously discussed with both campus and community members present. These kinds of partnerships can open up discussion on the overall life of the community.

Racial Legacies and Learning projects across the country provide valuable lessons about the civic and educational value of campus-community partnerships, about the difficulties that can arise in forging such partnerships, and about the strategies that can sustain commitment and nourish continuing dialogue and action.

Building Trust and Reaching Out

At Bowling Green State University (BGSU), project participants viewed ongoing dialogues as a step towards reducing racist attitudes and behavior within the campus and the city and as a way of linking otherwise separate constituent groups. Spiritual leaders underscored the link between spiritual obligations and racial reconcilation.

Communications throughout the project attest to the value of reaching out to various campus and city constituents. Lorna Gonsalves-Pinto, project coordinator, received the following letter:

Dear Lorna Gonsalves-Pinto:
On Friday I received your letter inviting me to participate in the Racial Legacies and Learning Initiative. I am rather curious as to how you got my name for this since I have no real involvement in the civil rights or racial reconciliation movements. Nor have I had a lot of exposure to the BGSU community. This is not to say that I am not interested in being involved . . . I know the RLL is not intended to help bring diversity into a church specifically, but perhaps this could help me to be part of an even greater goal of fostering dialogue and unity in the community as a whole. I would like to be a part of this.
Sincerely, [Pastor] Oscar Stroede

Approaching community members as early as possible in the planning stage of any initiative proved to be an essential component of building a strong campus-community relationship.

Such outreach can produce very positive results. At BGSU, activities were planned early by both campus and community members, and attendance at events reflected these early collaborations. Outreach at the planning stage also demonstrates a willingness to build a foundation of trust into the relationship--a foundation that encourages continued and long-term collaboration. The responses of Oscar Stroede to Dr. Gonsalves-Pinto's outreach efforts illustrate the effectiveness of the collaboration between BGSU and members of area religious communities. It is important for campus leaders to help community members see that their involvement is important and that they have valuable insights to bring to the table.

At BGSU, spiritual leaders, BGSU students, and community members worked together to organize a Gathering for Racial Reconciliation. This Gathering encouraged dialogue about and commitment to addressing racism and developed concrete plans for campus-community activities including study circles and network-building with different Toledo-area congregations. The group has since become active in sponsoring continuing activities. In another letter, Pastor Stroede reflected on the impact of the project on his own community and its relation to the campus:

Dear Lorna,
. . . The day of the rally we had a guest speaker in our church, a black pastor from Toledo who challenged us in our attitudes and actions about race. He evoked a lot of emotion and discussion among our people. The following Tuesday I attended the regular meeting of Impact, a Christian group on campus for African Americans. Much dialogue has followed, and it looks like our church will be entering into a special relationship with Impact. . . . Although this may not seem like a big deal on paper, it represents an openness to build bridges that I haven't seen on a church-wide scale before. It is a starting point for us to do our part to go beyond dialogue and awareness to reaching across racial boundaries.
Sincerely, Oscar

Keeping Learning Central

Community members at other schools also seem to have benefitted from partnerships formed as part of the project. One participant from Oberlin remarked, "In a recent conversation with a member of the local community, I was exposed to what life in Lorain County is like for the first time. After being here for two years there is no reason I should have been ignorant of the social condition."

Barbara Chase Ribeaux, author of the historical novel Sally Hemmings, recently argued that the continuing controversy over the Jefferson-Hemmings relationship suggests that the academy has not adequately accepted its role in perpetuating ignorance about the role of African Americans in the development of America. Racial Legacies and Learning was built on the belief that in order to stop perpetuating this kind of ignorance, a new vision of college learning was needed.

Although teaching and learning are at the heart of college missions, it is easy to forget that teaching and learning are also at the heart of campus-community relationships--and that this teaching and learning can be reciprocal. When campuses commit to self-examination about their own role in contributing to racial discussion in their communities, they engage in a challenging form of experiential learning and teaching, and model it for their students.

Community members involved in Racial Legacies and Learning brought to campus-community events knowledge about local racial histories that was eye-opening to students and faculty alike. Oberlin College, for example, sponsored a dialogue on educational access and a workshop to create awareness about the historical roots of racism against Native Americans in the Oberlin/Cleveland community. In response, one participant affirmed that "in order to address racism, its true history should be addressed on campuses. That is, the story of racism, of the oppressor and the oppressed, should be told truthfully regardless of how uncomfortable it might make [us]."

Programs like these can do much to build trust and encourage self-reflection, both at individual and institutional levels. The result can be a long-lasting commitment to racial reconciliation.

For additional information about Racial Legacies and Learning: An American Dialogue, visit www.diversityweb.org. Click on Recommended Resources, Campus-Community Partnerships.


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Communication tips

A dialogue on race between students, administrators and community members may be of interest to local reporters. But, how do you encourage frank conversation and protect students' privacy with a reporter present?

In advance of the discussion, make sure that everyone involved feels comfortable sharing their views on this potentially diverse topic in front of the media. Find a couple of students and community members who are willing to be quoted by name. Then contact a responsible local reporter to suggest a story on the dialogue, offering a chance to sit in on the discussion and interview the selected spokespeople about their views. Be certain that the reporter agrees to quote only those participants who have agreed that their names can be included in the story.