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UW-Eau Claire establishes The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Students held a silent protest on the UW-Eau Claire campus mall in November 2019 after it was discovered that a series of racist social media posts had been circulated among some students.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has established The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice on campus to better prepare graduates to foster equity in all areas of society.

The center will open this fall as a clearinghouse for research, scholarship, advocacy and action for the UW-Eau Claire community.

“The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice will be a national model of how universities can provide opportunities to their students to enhance critical understanding of race, justice and equity,” says Chancellor James Schmidt. “Blugolds already receive a world-class education, and the transformational high-impact experiences provided by The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice will ensure our graduates have the tools to be leaders in this ongoing social and cultural change.”

The center aims to educate students and the greater Eau Claire community about the history of race in America and the barriers to upward mobility for people of color in areas such as education, criminal justice, health care, commerce and housing.

“I think it’s going to be well received,” says Dr. Warren Anderson, UW-Eau Claire’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity, inclusion and student affairs. “I think it’s something the entire UW-Eau Claire community can get behind. I think it’s something we’ve been hungering for. We have the will to get this done. We’re going to make it happen.

“This will provide an opportunity to engage our community. This is really going to set the tone for how we deal with race for generations to come.”

National protests across the country after the May death of George Floyd, who was killed by police while being arrested in Minneapolis, and other acts of social injustice show the need for education on racial issues, Anderson says.

“Words are no longer enough,” Anderson says. “This center will be the centerpiece of UW-Eau Claire’s mission to define what racial equality means at the collegiate level.

“It’s not just how we are going to make this place comfortable for Black people but how we cultivate a climate where race is not a scary topic.”

The university’s executive staff was supportive of The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice concept when Anderson brought the idea to their attention earlier this summer.

UW-Eau Claire Foundation staff members were equally supportive and were joined by Foundation supporters, says Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation president.

“We have many alumni and donors who have a great interest in, and passion for, supporting the key initiatives of the center,” Way says. “I also had been getting inquiries from donors — especially some corporate partners — about what the university was doing in response to and after George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter.”

UW-Eau Claire is a leader in undergraduate research, and it’s a natural extension to establish a center for research and action on issues such as racial and restorative justice, Way says.

“I believe it shows that UW-Eau Claire is doing more than paying lip service to its commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity,” Way says. “That we are willing and able to lead on some of these issues and that we have an obligation to create an educational experience that prepares all of our students to be active contributors and leaders in diverse communities and workplaces.”

The foundation has received more than $75,000 in startup funds for establishment of the center and is working on a number of proposals to support specific initiatives, especially during the first year, Way says. The initial founding donors are Betsy Kell, a UW-Eau Claire graduate and trustee emerita of the Foundation board, and Xcel Energy. They, along with other founding supporters, will be members of the center’s advisory board.

Anderson marveled at donors who stepped forward when the center still was in the conceptual stage.

“People are putting their money where their hearts are,” Anderson says.

The center will be under Anderson’s leadership and a permanent space for the center will be identified this semester. A national search for a center director will take place this fall with hopes of having someone in place during the spring semester.

Anderson says The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice can become a regional center that can “help us grow as a community, not just as a university.”

“In the community it’s absolutely needed,” Anderson says. “It’s about making Eau Claire as a region more welcoming for people of color, for women, for families.

“This is needed and can really set us apart if we do it right.”

Dr. Marquell Johnson, a professor in the kinesiology department, says the center is another example of UW-Eau Claire distinguishing itself from its peer institutions in programmatic and service offerings.

“The Center for Racial and Restorative Justice will provide students transformative experiential learning and a heightened awareness of pertinent social justice issues,” Johnson says. “It will also provide an impetus for increased awareness and engagement of the greater Eau Claire community, as community engagement is a requisite for impactful restorative justice efforts.”

Strategic goals

The center’s approach to preparing graduates for life has several strategic goals as its centerpiece for social and cultural change:

  • Provide a space for research on race to advance and enhance a comprehensive UW-Eau Claire education.
  • Develop a body of research, scholarship, advocacy and action regarding Indigenous Peoples.
  • Present speakers, researchers and practitioners on the topics of race.
  • Coordinate, develop and implement universitywide trainings, workshops and engagement opportunities to enhance critical understandings of race and justice.
  • Secure funding to support strategic and operational initiatives that advance the impact of the center.
  • Provide opportunities for student engagement to create sustainable change.
  • Sponsor mentoring and professional development opportunities for students of color to ensure they are prepared for success and leadership in various settings.

New monthly program to begin

The center also is establishing a new monthly program highlighting speakers on topics of race and social injustice, plans to provide micro grants for student programs or initiatives committed to advancing racial justice and will sponsor diversity fellows each academic year.

The monthly programs, “Racing Toward Justice,” begin with a virtual presentation at 6 p.m. Sept. 29 by New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay, who will examine race through an intersectional lens and against a backdrop of current events.