Campus News

February 8, 2010

Transforming Community Project creates agents of change

For the past five years, the Transforming Community Project (TCP) has encouraged participants to take comfort in the uncomfortable and open up about race.

The initiative has attracted a mix of faculty, staff, students and alumni in examining the issue of race at Emory through provocative dialogue and original research. A five-year effort funded by the Provost’s Office, Emory’s strategic plan and the Ford Foundation, TCP has lent a voice to a slave named Kitty and her owner, the first chairman of Emory’s Board of Trustees, along with the first Latino, Jewish and Asian students who contributed to the University’s cultural mosaic.

Apart from recovering Emory’s complicated history with race, the initiative encourages hundreds of participants to be active agents of change. Previous attendees have gone on to develop diversity programming on campus and in DeKalb public schools, conduct oral history interviews to examine an aspect of Emory’s racial legacy, lead youth movements in Atlanta, or share insights with their families around the dinner table.

“A lot of diversity training is a weekend or a workshop,” says TCP Director Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and African American studies. “We wanted to set up something where people stayed in conversation over time.”

TCP celebrated its fifth anniversary during Founders Week, and collaborated with the Emory Visual Arts Gallery to feature renowned portraitist Dawoud Bey’s photographs of students across the nation, a cross-section of a generation.

Throughout the year, TCP facilitates three tiers of groups to develop creative responses to issues of race on campus, from day-to-day interactions to long-term challenges to the institution’s identity.

Community Dialogue Groups members commit to meeting eight times a semester with trained peer facilitators. They are encouraged to move from intimate conversations about race to constructive public action.

Gathering the Tools Groups engage in excavating Emory’s racial history, dating to the University’s founding in 1836, through oral histories, archival research and multimedia presentations.

Summer faculty pedagogy seminars explore ways to incorporate Emory’s strategic theme of “Creating Community, Engaging Society”  into new or existing course material. TCP also works with the summer Scholarly Inquiry and Research Experience (SIRE) program to fund student projects.

Mary Catherine Johnson, assistant director of the Visual Arts Gallery and department, was instrumental in bringing Bey to campus for an artist residency this spring. A former TCP participant and two-time facilitator, Johnson says the Community Dialogue groups “were some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had here at Emory.”

Vice President for Campus Services Bob Hascall signed up for a TCP Community Dialogue last year and encouraged his department to participate. More than two dozen Campus Services employees were “introduced to one other in a different way,” he says, from exploring color divisions within the African American community, to learning about Emory’s early struggles with racial division.

“It was sharing some of who we are, and how we came to be in our working environment,” Hascall says.

TCP is working with the Provost’s Office to secure funding for the next five years. Plans  include developing an extracurricular curriculum on racial diversity for youth at Druid Hills High School and the local YMCA. In fall semester, TCP piloted a dialogue on the Middle East conflict and this spring is collaborating with the Center for Women to explore gender issues. A dialogue on sexuality is slated for next fall in coordination with the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life.    

When will the community be fully transformed?

“Progress is not a word I ever use,” explains Harris, who founded TCP with former Emory journalism professor Catherine Manegold. “We go back, we go forward and we go around. Communities are constantly transforming. The question is do we want to be swept along with that transformation or have an active role in guiding that transformation?”

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