Young people are more likely to take risks and demand changes in their surroundings — hence the stereotype that college campuses are full of activism, according to University of Virginia researcher Nancy Deutsch — but UVa has historically not harnessed that power to benefit the surrounding city.
A $25,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, though, will help Deutsch and a team of UVa researchers develop workshops and a short-term class to help undergraduates team up, connect with and help Charlottesville residents to address longstanding inequalities. Deutsch said she hopes the project will build trust between town and gown and prepare students for future civic engagement.
“One part that sometimes is left out of the narrative of last summer is the amazing activism of the youth,” said Deutsch, referencing Charlottesville High School student Zyahna Bryant, who led the call for the removal of the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and counter-protesters of a white nationalist march at UVa on Aug. 11, the night before the Unite the Right rally downtown. “It felt like to me, as a university, we should do more to provide young people with the support they need to do that work.”
Deutsch studies youth development and ways that schools and organizations can encourage civic engagement.
“Young people are often willing to take more risks to change their social environment,” she said. “But because we are focused on the negatives of those risks, we constrain their environment and often don’t give young people the chances to channel those constructive beliefs.”
By providing instruction outside the boundaries of a traditional classroom — journals, workshops, tours and, hopefully, volunteer work with the Piedmont Housing Alliance, International Rescue Committee and residents of Westhaven, a public housing site in Charlottesville — Deutsch hopes students will take on constructive roles and learn leadership and partnership skills.
The grant is specifically in response to the violent white supremacist march and rally last August, according to the Lumina Foundation. The foundation has historically focused on boosting college completion rates, but the newly created Fund for Racial Justice and Equity gave out $1 million to support universities that are improving racial climates.
“When things crystallize like they did [at UVa] in August, we need to support the type of work that helps everyone,” said Haley Glover, Lumina’s strategy director. “We were galvanized by that event, but one event is too many.”
UVa is among 19 private and public schools selected from a pool of 312 applicants nationwide. The University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, will develop racial justice and bias strategies for its curriculum. Ilisagvik College, in Alaska, will work on updates to its curriculum to include more cultural understanding of Alaskan native peoples. Illinois Central College will host community dialogue sessions to discuss segregation and racism in Peoria. Proposals that focused on faculty development and curriculum were compelling, said Chad Ahern, Lumina’s strategy officer.
“If the burden falls only on students of color to improve climate, that doesn’t work,” Glover said. “All students, faculty, staff have to be actors in creating a better environment.”
UVa faculty couldn’t simply hold listening sessions or speeches after the Unite the Right rally, said Dayna Bowen Matthew, the lead investigator on the project and a law professor at UVa, because the rally was led by two former UVa students, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler.
“We had to grapple with the fact that graduates of the University of Virginia are leaders of the alt-right movement,” Matthew said. “Before we can change students outside the wall of our university, we have to change the students within our university.”
While UVa classes often send students to schools or organizations to volunteer, “we are not giving the students the opportunity to work in a community on par,” Matthew said. “Often, students are just extractive.”
She said she hopes the class will teach students and faculty to approach community members as equals with valuable insights and offer students a chance to work through how they contribute to racism and inequity in Charlottesville.
Matthew and Deutsch are both part of a university-wide initiative of community-engaged scholarship. The pilot program is part of a series of efforts to get the university into the community. If successful, their initiative could lead to the establishment of an institute.
“We waited until tragedy occurred, and then everyone scurried into reaction,” Matthew said. “But we have a responsibility as a university to educate and serve the commonwealth and the world.”