Higher Education and Racial Justice • St Pete Catalyst

know about Higher Education and Racial Justice • St Pete Catalyst

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The painful legacy of slavery has resulted in lasting systemic inequalities in the United States and around the world. Education is said to be a great leveller, the key to upward mobility, with the ability to change the trajectory of a person’s life. But our racist historical context leaves us with manipulated systems. The weight of the responsibility of learning institutions to level the playing field for our citizenry becomes clear.

According to Randall Russell, executive director of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete, which focuses on racial equity to achieve healthy equity, higher education institutions should conduct an internal policy review.

“What are the hiring policies, the research priorities, the acquisition policies, the admissions recruiting? What is culture? Russell added. “When you record all of that and decide you want to change the power structure, then you’re moving toward racial equity.”

At a community meeting and virtual panel discussionLast year, Devona Pierre, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at St. Petersburg College, agreed with Russell’s premise.

“Scholars serve as thought leaders, educators, and conduits for our community. First of all, we must acknowledge the role we have played in systemic racism and move forward in transforming our own systems,” said Pierre. “We have to look at our own policies and procedures and funding with the intention of transforming our systems.”

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Many people refer to a shift in consciousness that occurred in 2020, in the face of global civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Institutions and corporations promised action by examining and rectifying their part in systemic racism and systems change. The University of South Florida promised in 2020 to take a series of actionsincluding establishing a Vice President for Institutional Equity position, targeting Black student recruitment, focusing on provider diversity, and organize a series of debates on race. He also assigned $500,000 for 23 anti-racist research projects, in which the faculty collaborated with community partners.

Last year, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg championed the work of institutions of higher education in Pinellas County who have committed together to anti-racist work, forming the St. Petersburg/Pinellas Racial Equity Higher Education Consortium – also known as SPHERE – which would complement the many initiatives in our city and county that work to create more equitable systems. SPHERE was the result of a USF St Petersburg community task force convened to seek ways the campus could contribute to solutions to heal historic racial injustices at the local level.

The SPHERE consortium includes St. Petersburg College, Eckerd College, Stetson University College of Law, and the USF St. Petersburg campus. SPHERE’s mission is to create an accessible space for sustained scholarship, conversation, service, education, activism, and legislative advocacy around the issues of racial equity and racial healing to build a more equitable collective future. We want to equip our youth to participate and advocate for issues of equity and racial justice. We want our scholars to be equipped to teach a larger narrative about race. We want to connect with our community partners who are very committed to this work. We want to own our racial history and corresponding roles and responsibilities to change the false narrative of racial hierarchies and begin the process of racial healing and relationship building.

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I have been involved in this effort since it began and have been working with a amazing team of staff and teachers in all our institutions. In November, Dr. Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College; Damian Fernandez, president of Eckerd College; Michele Alexandre, Dean of the Stetson University School of Law; and Martin Tadlock, USF St. Petersburg Campus Regional Chancellor Regional Chancellor affirmed their commitment to the objectives of the SPHERE Consortium.

“Formalizing our connection as a regional consortium empowers us to be agents of change in Pinellas County, actively seeking to right wrongs, resource people, and restore relationships destroyed by an inherited and institutionalized caste system,” reads a letter signed by these leaders. “As a consortium, we also have the power to build stronger relationships with community organizations already working on racial justice.”

In September, SPHERE launched a scholarship program for racial justice students with an initial cohort of eight scholarship students, two students from each institution, who are learning more about the work of correcting racial injustices. These students have engaged in a curriculum that includes community experts who discuss racial history and issues aimed at correcting past injustices. They developed their own projects, such as the community forum on race and policing that student Destiny Gomez imagined and executed.

They are participating in community internships focused on racial equity, including one at the Mayor’s Office on a committee that will further assess how to implement the 200-page report’s recommendations. study on structural racism issued by academics and the USF community, combining the experience of the lived experience with the academic. Others are serving with the NAACP, Urban League, The Well, Black Health Equity Alliance, and St. Pete Youth Farm. Were accepting requests now for next year’s cohort.

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In December, the SPHERE Consortium received a national designation of the American Association of Colleges and Universities as the Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, or TRHT.

Our goals for the coming year include hiring a shared director to advance the Consortium’s vision, grow student racial justice scholarship, increasing partnerships with community organizations, and collectively creating a racial history of local higher education. Each organization is contributing resources and funds for the action of these goals.

“Higher education institutions have a strong desire to connect with the community, but to do so, you have to listen, not tell,” Russell said. “Externally, institutions need to think about how to be a host to the community, how to be a thought leader, and how to listen to inform how you want to be.”

This is what we hope to do.

Caryn Nesmith is director of community relations at USF, a position jointly funded by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, the St. Petersburg Innovation District, the city of St. Petersburg, and USF. This is a series focused on USF and its role in our community, serving to strengthen the prosperity of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. You can contact Caryn at [email protected]