Otterbein has been selected among a small group of universities to be a central point in starting conversations about racial healing and social justice.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities named Otterbein University as one of 13 new host institutions designated as Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Centers. The national group announced an initial cohort of ten institutions in 2017 all built around five pillars: narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law, and economy. The centers seek to prepare the next generation of leaders to confront racism and dismantle the belief in a hierarchy of human value.
"This will happen in the way that we know learning best happens at Otterbein and every other environment," Otterbein University president John Comerford said. "It happens in community. It happens in small groups. It happens in relationships. So we have folks that have been trained to facilitate these racial healing circles, where people will finally be able to have these conversations that we tend to avoid in our society. And we'll all walk out of those rooms transformed. That's the last idea here. We learn a new perspective or we see something from a new angle or meet someone who's different than us, and we see the world differently after that moment. And the beautiful thing is that after that moment of transformation, you cannot see the world the same way again."
Part of the process involves truth-telling. Otterbein sits in the town of Westerville, a city with a median household income approaching $90,000 per year, a city where 98 percent of students graduate from high school and 52 percent go on to receive bachelor's degrees. Westerville's poverty rate hovers around 5 percent, and the unemployment rate is 3.6 percent. While that sounds successful, Westerville City Council member and Vice Mayor Valerie Cumming acknowledged those numbers don't tell the whole truth.
"Here in Westerville, we are also about 87 percent white," Cumming said. "But if you are a person of color, your median household income is closer to $65,000 than $90,000. Your son or daughter is less likely to graduate from high school or receive a bachelor's degree. The poverty rate for people of color in our community isn't 5 percent, it's 18 percent - meaning that nearly one out of every five people of color here live in poverty. The unemployment rate for black residents is more than twice the rate for white residents, 8.4 percent rather than 3.6 percent. This is our collective community narrative also, it's just not the one that we hear very often."
"We must believe the stories that people are brave enough to tell us," Cumming continued. "We must recognize that truth is still truth even and perhaps especially when it contradicts our own lived experience because at the end of the day we are all one community. And this designation from the TRHT enterprise shows that we are a community that is willing to have these difficult conversations, admit to these uncomfortable truths, and do the work to build the best possible city for all of us."
Both the Westerville and Columbus City School districts are also partnering with Otterbein. Cheryl Ward serves as director of Emotional and Student Support Services with the Columbus district.
"This work is important for our district and our students because it sheds light on a false narrative that public education is less than, that our students’ value is lessened as a result of attending a public institution, and that their opportunity has limits based on their education," Ward said. "This narrative placed on our students and our district by these constructs is at the core of the necessity of the work that Otterbein is courageously embarking. We look forward to this journey and embrace the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue, courageous conversations, and create opportunities to learn and discover our commonalities while understanding and respecting what makes us uniquely different."
Columbus City Council member Elizabeth Brown sees the work as important to the entire region as it considers the present day racism that continues to divide communities and leads to disproportionate access. Brown suggested something all residents can do beyond the work of the campus centers.
"What my pledge to all of you today is to think about what our personal obligation is in this work," Brown said. "To think through what our personal choices are day to day and how we personally affirm or reject racism in our day to day lives."
The Association of American Colleges and Universities hopes to establish 150 Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers across the country to ensure that higher education plays a leadership role in promoting racial and social justice. Of the 23 named so far, Otterbein is the only institution selected in Ohio.