A new university center couldn't come at a more fitting time.

Months before nationwide protests made public statements about racial disparity commonplace, Valerie Cumming peeled back Westerville’s prosperous veneer in a speech at Otterbein University. In February, the vice mayor of Westerville told the crowd that median household income is about $25,000 less for people of color than for the suburb overall, graduation rates are lower, unemployment is more than double and poverty more than triple. “There are two very different truths in Westerville,” she said.

Cumming was speaking at the introduction of Otterbein’s new Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Center, one of 24 nationwide under the stewardship of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Otterbein’s center is Ohio’s only TRHT, which isn’t a physical space but a program that works toward “dismantling the belief in a race-based hierarchy of human value,” says Otterbein provost Wendy Sherman Heckler, one of the center’s organizers. As part of its establishment, the university partnered with Columbus and Westerville schools on a project focused on inequality in education.

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First comes the truth. For the school districts, that will involve a select group of students researching redlining, zoning and school-system politics, says Cheryl Ward, the TRHT rep from the Columbus district, where she’s the director of social, emotional and student support services. The Rev. Vaughn Bell, Westerville’s rep and a school board member, says students will also examine how the area was settled, how the districts took their current shape, and how race and class have played a role. In turn, that history will be taught to students, teachers and the community, and it will help drive board policy.

The heart of the TRHT model is the racial healing circle, in which two facilitators gather a small but diverse group for prompted discussions on racism as well as what people share in common. The circles aren’t anti-racism workshops or one-time events to become “woke,” says Kathryn Plank, an Otterbein dean and another primary TRHT organizer. Instead, they’re an ongoing practice that emphasizes human connection, which “may sound fluffy” but is actually an intense, meaningful experience.

“Our society is so segregated that we don’t get a lot of practice talking and listening to people who are not like us,” Sherman Heckler says.

All the truth-telling and racial healing are in service to transformation in policy and practice, Plank says. The center’s transformational goals are still to come, but Ward wants the community to reassess the false narratives often placed on students of color and to stop devaluing public education. Bell hopes Westerville schools will have a more diverse teaching staff and more inclusive curriculum within the next few years.

The pandemic and racial justice protests have forced relevant issues—such as police presence in schools and problems with internet access along redlining divides—to the forefront of municipal agendas in ways they weren’t in February. It gives credibility to the case they were trying to make about inequities, and it helps that they had already established the center before the events of the year unfolded, Bell says. “This work is made perfectly to address what we’re facing right now.”

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