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Higher education institutions in Pinellas County unite for racial justice

By Robbyn Hopewell
Published June 3, 2021
Categories: About Eckerd
Aerial view of Eckerd College campus with St. Petersburg in the backround

Eckerd College sits at the southern tip of St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, home to a consortium that also includes Stetson University College of Law, St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. Photo: Joe Salcedo ’23

Representatives from four higher education institutions who collectively serve 36,000 students in St. Petersburg, Florida are joining together to create a consortium focused on dismantling racial hierarchies.

After working for months to create a shared vision and reaching out to community and campus stakeholders, their efforts have been recognized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities as one of 78 institutions (and the only consortium) across the nation selected to participate in a four-day Summer Institute to learn about the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) framework and develop an action plan. The consortium includes Eckerd College, Stetson University College of Law, St. Petersburg College (SPC) and the University of South Florida (USF) St. Petersburg campus.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has been partnering with higher education institutions since 2017 to prepare the next generation of strategic leaders to break down racial hierarchies through the TRHT framework developed by the Kellogg Foundation. TRHT Campus Centers implement action plans with the aim of moving toward the transformative goal of erasing structural barriers to equal treatment and opportunity on campuses, in communities and for the nation around the pillars of the TRHT framework: narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law and economy.

Each institution of the St. Petersburg consortium will send three members to the TRHT Summer Institute that will be held virtually from June 22-25, where they will participate in capacity-building workshops. At the end of the institute, the group will present its action plan.
Some of the initial goals the representatives hope to develop further include how the consortium will:

  • Play a pivotal role in racial healing and transformation in St. Petersburg by presenting a collective truth to build a collective future;
  • Engage faculty on incorporating issues of race into curricula and providing more truthful narratives about racial history;
  • Develop community seminars related to racial justice from a national, state and local perspective and partnering with local media;
  • Create student opportunities with a racial justice component with community organizations; and
  • Engage in legislative and community advocacy around issues that have been identified by community organizations as key to racial progress.

The idea for the consortium originated in 2020, when USF’s St. Petersburg campus and community leaders in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County convened a task force to explore how to connect efforts to address inequalities that exist in the region. Task force members met monthly to discuss current initiatives, as well as gaps that might present opportunities for collaboration.

Through their discussions, task force members identified the TRHT framework as a beneficial tool that could help strengthen each campus’ commitment to community and inclusion.

Each institution had unique circumstances and reasons for wanting to engage in this work.

USF announced many initiatives in 2020 to foster anti-racism, access, equity, cultural inclusivity and cultural intelligence, and its St. Petersburg campus initiated the exploration of the consortium concept as a way to strengthen its commitment to the city and region in the areas of social and racial justice.

“I am very excited to work alongside others to create a campus community, city and county that eliminates racial inequalities, becomes a model for educating the community around issues of social justice and social action, and ensures that all USF St. Petersburg campus faculty, staff and students understand, appreciate and live the ideals of an inclusive community,” said Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor of USF’s St. Petersburg campus.

Meanwhile, Eckerd College is at an inflection point. Founded in 1958, the small, national liberal arts college recently welcomed its fifth president whose focus on the future of the institution also includes a deeper look at its relationship with the surrounding community.
“When we first learned of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Centers and their framework from our colleagues at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, we were awed at the streamlined approach to a subject we have deeply considered in our five-year strategic planning efforts,” said Robbyn Hopewell, director of media and public relations at Eckerd College. “Eckerd College joined the consortium to attend the Institute and learn out how to turn our current programs addressing racial justice into a resource for our whole community.”

Stetson University College of Law joined the consortium with the intention of expanding the work of the Florida Law Schools’ Consortium for Racial Justice (FLSCRJ), as well as broadening community collaborations and sharing its expertise around advocacy issues particularly as it relates to social and racial justice. Judith Scully, co-founder of Stetson’s Social Justice Advocacy program and co-chair of the FLSCRJ, hopes to provide law students with legal pro bono and community service opportunities with community organizations that are working on issues related to racial justice and the law, including issues regarding economics, policing, housing, environmental justice and/or public education.

“A TRHT Center could also provide training for our students and the community on how to have difficult conversations about race, provide opportunities for us to learn about the legal racial history of St. Petersburg and to connect our legislative advocacy work as part of the Florida Law School Consortium on Racial Justice to community advocacy,” Scully added.

St. Petersburg College’s goal is to strategically align current diversity, equity and inclusion practices with other local higher education institutions.

“SPC is committed to serving as a leader, convener and a catalyst for positive change and our partnership with the TRHT center will connect and enhance resources that cultivate healing and learning,” said Tashika Griffith, provost for the SPC Downtown and Midtown Center. “The establishment of a TRHT Center will assist with ensuring all stakeholders have an opportunity to thrive in an environment that fosters inclusive growth,” she added.

While each institution has been making positive steps to identify and address gaps in equity and elevate minority voices, the TRHT framework presented a way for each institution to streamline a shared process and unify fragmented strategies across campuses, Michelle Madden said, USF St. Petersburg’s campus diversity officer.

“The consortium provides the opportunity to do this work more intentionally and deeply both internally among our students, faculty and staff and externally in the community to further the work of racial healing and equity transformation,” she added.

Outside of the four higher education institutions, the consortium has received support from community members and organizations, such as the Foundation for a Health St. Petersburg, which has provided a local planning grant for the consortium.

“Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg supports the work of the consortium and believes the implementation of the TRHT model will transform longstanding institutionalized systems rooted in racism,” said Carl Lavender, chief equity officer for Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. “The prospective framework for discovering truths about racial harm, jointly working to heal resulting trauma and supporting the role of higher education to uplift the narrative and voices of Black, indigenous and people of color will yield multiple pathways to collectively manifest race equity within the consortium and community at-large.”

Learn more about the TRHT framework and the summer institute.

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