The Transforming Community Project

Practicing Diversity in the Academy
Uncovering and engaging Emory’s racial past and present
Leslie Harris, Associate Professor of History; Director, Transforming Community Project; Chair, African American Studies; and JoNell (Jody) Usher, Co-Director, Transforming Community Project

Experiencing a community dialogue at Emory

Vol. 10 No. 2
October/November 2007

Return to Contents

Measuring Up
Quantifying the quality of an Emory education

Selected Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement

“Our goals are so complex that learning outcomes assessment will measure only a small part of what takes place while our students are with us.”

“I think it’s important for students to know a lot of facts [and] figures. . . . If you haven’t acquired that basic, empirical knowledge, the structure of reflection you build upon collapses.”

The New Curriculum
Medical student education in the twenty-first century

The Transforming Community Project

Practicing Diversity in the Academy
Uncovering and engaging Emory’s racial past and present

Uncovering the Past, Looking to the Future
Experiencing a community dialogue at Emory


How can we be a better community? How can we talk more honestly and openly about race—both incidents of racial insensitivity and racism, but also positive aspects of racial difference and diversity, and what race means at Emory, and in our lives? And how can we move from honest conversations and dialogue to actions that will help us transform the way we see and move through the world at Emory and beyond?

A series of difficult events in Emory College in 2003-2004 inspired several groups of people to begin asking these questions, giving rise to the Transforming Community Project. The project is a five-year program to provide spaces in which members of the Emory community (staff, faculty, students, administrators, alumni) can come together to deliberate on and develop creative responses to issues of race on Emory’s campus—both issues that come up in our day-to-day work lives, and the long history of race at Emory, and how that history impacts this institution’s identity.

To that end, a year-long planning process in 2004-2005, during which several hundred faculty, staff, students, and alumni weighed in on the shape of the project at various points, resulted in the dual prongs of the Transforming Community Project: Exploration of racial issues in “Community Dialogues” that cross racial and hierarchical lines; and the recovery of Emory’s racial history. The project, part of the university’s
strategic plan, is funded through the “Creating Community, Engaging Society” initiative.

The Community Dialogues are currently the most popular aspect of the project and the main engine of its work: small groups of Emory community members commit to eight meetings over meals to learn about parts of the university’s racial history, to discuss the impact of race on their lives at Emory today, and to work towards individual and collective leadership and action that will build on the positive aspects of racial diversity, addressing areas where Emory can still grow. These groups are moderated by members of the Emory community who have already participated in dialogues and who themselves demonstrate diversity—so you might have a student-staff, male-female, white-black pairing. To date, more than five hundred individuals have participated in the two years of Community Dialogues; we expect to have had close to one thousand participants by the end of summer 2008.

The second area of the project is the recovery of Emory’s racial history. Emory community members can sign up for Gathering the Tools, which meets on the same schedule as the Community Dialogues. Groups receive basic training in archival research and oral history as well as an introduction to Emory’s racial history and help with formulating a research project. The goal of these research projects can be to publish an essay in a traditional format, but often participants go for more creative choices. At the moment, individuals or small groups are planning to write a play about the history and mystery behind Kitty, the slave woman whose controversial ownership by Bishop Andrew of Oxford College led to the northern-southern split in the Methodist Church; a public art installation that will identify specific places on campus with signal moments in Emory’s racial history; and a project based on the StoryCorps idea tentatively titled “Story Stream,” in which participants will enter a booth on campus and relate their experiences of race at Emory.

In addition to Gathering the Tools, the TCP has worked with the summer Scholarly Inquiry and Research Experience program to fund four students on topics to uncover Emory’s history. In 2006, Ilyse Fishman ’07C worked with history professor Eric Goldstein to complete research for the fall 2006 exhibit “Jews at Emory: Faces of a Changing University.” Monique Dorsainvil ’09C began work on a documentary film about the first generations of desegregation at Emory. In summer 2007, Megan McDermott ’08C completed research on the Latino/a student population at Emory, while Amber Jackson ’09C completed a play based on three moments in Emory’s history during and after desegregation.

Emory faculty members have the opportunity to participate in the Transforming Community Project’s Summer Pedagogy Seminar, which brings together many of the aspects of the project: discussions about race, exploration of Emory’s racial history, and the rediscovery of aspects of Emory’s history that have been forgotten or ignored. This seminar is funded by a Difficult Dialogues grant from the Ford Foundation. Faculty members from across the university—Emory and Oxford colleges as well as the health sciences and the law school—meet for two weeks to learn about Emory’s history. The group travels to the original campus at Oxford and learns to view Emory’s campus in Atlanta with new eyes. Faculty also meet with archivists Ginger Cain in Woodruff Library and Ann Hulton in medical school library to gain awareness of what materials are available to construct a course. By the end of the summer, participants produce a new syllabus or add material to an existing syllabus that focuses on Emory’s history and encourages students to do more research and uncover new facts to add to what will be a publicly available common record.

The Transforming Community Project is rooted in the belief that Emory University will demonstrate how innovative leadership on issues of race and diversity locally, nationally, and internationally can create change. Emory’s place in Atlanta, its long and complicated racial history, and its current assemblage of staff, faculty, students and alumni all contribute to this unparalleled opportunity. Such leadership possibilities are not limited to one group in the university, but can grow more fruitfully out of engagements across traditional lines of hierarchy. Relationships among students, faculty, staff and alumni, as well as across departments, schools and divisions, will generate new ideas about the meaning and practice of diversity and race in academia today. At the end of this process of engagement, we hope to have created a community that is more aware of its constituent members and more positively and constructively engaged across new lines of communication.