A year after the Ferguson unrest, Washington University’s then-Chancellor Mark Wrighton convened a commission to explore what the university could do following the movement. The commission tossed around various ideas, but the primary suggestion was to open a university-wide center to study racial and ethnic disparities.
Now, five years later, the university plans to open the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity this October with the goal of becoming a national leader in research and learning when it comes to issues of race.
Adrienne Davis, Wash U’s vice provost and a professor of law, will lead the center as its founding director. She said one reason the university created the space was that St. Louis has become a research destination for examining problems of racism.
“Missouri has been, literally, at the heart of the nation's national crisis about what it means to be a full-functioning democracy, where everyone is a citizen and can be a full citizen at the same time,” Davis said. “But, at the same time, when you look at some of the specificity of St. Louis, we're emblematic of the challenges of the urban core around the world.”
The center’s focus is to shape new ideas for interrupting racial disparities and to establish vocabulary for how we understand and represent race.
Davis said the center’s efforts will incorporate three pillars: research, learning and engagement.
She also wants the center to have a local footprint.
Race and ethnicity are central to the major problems confronting St. Louis, she said. “What I like to think is, wherever people are in St. Louis, that our center will be able to help them connect up with colleagues who are doing that research in some way."
As the country approaches the 2020 presidential election, the center is looking to influence policy on a regional and national level, she said. It also seeks to open up conversations within the university and the region around race and politics.
“Hopefully, if we add disruptions [to policy], then the effects would also be felt here,” Davis said. “So, we're hoping that local policymakers will be coming to us and partnering with us.”
Although informing policy is a component of the center’s mission, research is at the core of what it will do.
Davis invites departments within Wash U, local agencies, community groups and organizations to collaborate with the center to learn ways to intervene and disrupt racial and ethnic disparities.
“We want the [university and community members] to see our center as a possibility to help them think it through in terms of our research, policy design, diagnosing problems and in terms of being thought partners to help them think about best practices,” she said.
Davis also anticipates the center’s research being used to improve race relations in St. Louis, city and county.
“What I'm hoping that this center will be able to do, specifically in St. Louis, is to really help people see race and racism and ethnic disparities not only as intractable problems, but to see this as an opportunity to really model for the world what attacking this [looks like]. But only if we continue to press forward on it,” Davis said.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.
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