Emory Report
July 24, 2006
Volume 58, Number 35


Emory Report homepage  

July 24 , 2006
Project continues to transform community

BY Beverly clark

Emory’s Transforming Community Project (TCP), a five-year initiative to document the University’s past and confront current challenges around the issue of race, got people talking this year, which is exactly what organizers intended.

In its first year, the grassroots project drew a University-wide mix of faculty, staff and students—from freshmen to longtime staff—to examine the issue of race at Emory through research and community discussion. Nearly 400 participated in TCP’s “community dialogues” last fall and spring as well as this summer. More dialogues are slated for fall semester.

“The community dialogues have offered a window into how racial dynamics affect people differently. They’re also an opportunity for real conversations, and not just when there is an incident that causes tension on campus. This project is an attempt to actually do something. I was initially skeptical about how it would work, but so far TCP has been successful in its initial goals,” said Maureen Sweatman, assistant director of the Emory Scholars Program and a Candler School of Theology graduate. She has taken part in TCP since last fall.

The TCP is one of the most comprehensive initiatives ever undertaken by a major university, said co-leaders Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and chair of African American studies, and Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president. It is similar to programs in recent years at other schools, including Brown University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Alabama, but is unprecedented in its scale and scope, they said.

The “history making” aspect of the TCP will start coming to fruition in the fall. About 40 people—primarily staff as well as students and faculty—have taken part in the “tools” groups, learning about archives and how to conduct in-depth research. Led by Harris and Saralyn Chesnut, director of the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Life, these groups are involved in the nitty-gritty details of digging into Emory’s collective closets to document the history of race at the University, from its founding in 1836 to the present.

“The response has been enthusiastic—people want more discussion, engagement and action and we are working to give them that. I’ve been impressed by the energy and I think overall we created a safe space to talk about these issues,” said Harris, who co-founded the project in 2004 with Emory journalism professor Catherine Manegold.

Participants tackled a variety of topics: the n-word, racial identity, the controversial Oscar-winning movie “Crash,” self-segregation of students, misconceptions among people of different races, hip-hop culture, generational differences, prejudices, stereotypes, racism and difficult histories —both on campus and beyond. Discussions ranged from broad academic analysis to intensely personal anecdotes.

“It was deep, a lot more than I expected,” said Nicole Taylor, program coordinator in the Office of University-Community Partnerships, of her experience in a community dialogue spring semester. “I learned a lot about myself and other people, and the discussion did help to break down some barriers and walls for me.”

Richard Doner, associate professor of political science, co-facilitated two dialogues last fall and spring. He said, from his experience, continuity, in-depth assessment and honesty from participants are essential to the TCP’s success, as well as vigilance to maintain a welcoming environment for all viewpoints and questions.

“One of the most positive outcomes of the TCP in its first year was we gained a sense of how to address these difficult topics. It also helped to identify and empower people, especially staff and students, who can take on leadership roles within TCP and on race issues at Emory,” Doner said.

The community dialogues typically include 12 to 15 people from all corners of the University who meet regularly for lunch or dinner to talk about race, both in society as a whole and at Emory, while following a syllabus of readings and movie clips.

“TCP has been perceived as largely historical, but it’s not just a history project. It’s also about understanding how we live as a community now and face some of the issues we confront in the larger world. The relatively small percentage of people who have participated so far provide a significant leaven in the loaf of our community building,” said Hauk.

Emory received a competitive $100,000 grant for the TCP from the Ford Foundation last spring as part of Ford’s “Difficult Dialogues” initiative. The goal is to help institutions address contentious issues through academic and campus programs that enrich learning, encourage new scholarship, and engage students and faculty in constructive dialogue about political, religious, racial and cultural issues. Hauk and Harris said they are seeking more funding for the project, and hope to hire a full-time project director to handle day-to-day operations.

While the community dialogues will continue, TCP’s centerpiece will be the development during the next two years of a detailed history rooted in Emory’s involvement in African-American enslavement, segregation, integration, and the world that blacks, whites, and other racial and ethnic groups have created together in the South. Documenting the history will involve several hands-on research projects both in the classroom and out, and will include oral histories, archival research and multimedia presentations.

A handful of projects are already in progress. A faculty pedagogy workshop this summer involved eight participants from the College as well as the School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health, and provided faculty an opportunity to learn how to integrate the ideas of the TCP into their courses.
Emory College SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory) scholar Ilyse Fishman is working with associate history professor Eric Goldstein on an exhibition on the Jewish experience at Emory, which is slated for debut this fall.

“I greatly enjoy this hands-on research,” said Fishman, a double major in history and political science. “I feel that this project is an important contribution to the TCP. Exploring the history of minorities at Emory and making them known to the public will allow us to become more aware of what has shaped the experiences of minorities in our University’s past, so as to better evaluate how we can address these issues today.”

Another SIRE student, Monique Dorsainvil, is collecting oral histories from alumni who were at Emory before and after integration to create a documentary. A Founders’ Week panel on “Experiencing Race at Emory: The Desegregation Era” was held last February.

An art installation is in the works for the spring, which tentatively involves placing shadow boxes around campus that depict different aspects of Emory’s history. Other students are leading the development of a program for fraternities and sororities to examine their own racial histories and current issues around race. Several working groups, born from the community dialogues, also are developing ways to engage more people in the project, and mini-grants are available to help develop them.

Once the historical research is completed, the fourth year in 2008–2009 will be given over to reflection and analysis. The final year, 2009–2010, will be devoted to developing policies, programs and initiatives that will help shape Emory’s future.

The project so far has drawn more women than men, and a good mixture of races and ages, but more perspectives, especially from the more conservative end of the spectrum, are needed, Harris said. “The project is being defined by the community,” Harris said. “The more different perspectives we get, the more true to the Emory community the project will be.”

Participants in the dialogues say they’ve been encouraged by an exercise that has both informed them and created an atmosphere of trust.

“Even if it’s just the dialogues that needed to happen, I feel that we have helped create more of a sense of community here,” said Sweatman. “I’m curious to see how the ideas and plans that have come from these discussions and brainstorming will take root and grow in the coming year.”

Here are a few ways to take part in Emory’s Transforming Community Project (TCP):

Community Dialogues
Groups of 12-15 people from all corners of the University meet regularly for lunch or dinner for a series of discussions about race and follow a syllabus of readings and movie clips.

“Tools” Group
People interested in documenting Emory’s history learn the skills to do research, including oral histories, archival research and multimedia presentations. Ideas and proposals for independent research projects also are welcome.

Host an Event
Event cosponsors will be needed in the coming year.

Use TCP in Class
Faculty are encouraged to incorporate aspects of the TCP into their courses. Information and support are available.

For more information, contact tcp@learnlink.emory.edu or call 404-727-6198.