As Ohio celebrates Black History Month, Otterbein University announced Feb. 19 that it has been designated as a community resource in starting conversations about race and social justice in central Ohio and changing the way community members think and talk about race-related issues.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities named Otterbein as one of 23 universities that will be host to Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers across the United States, according to Wendy Sherman-Heckler, Otterbein's provost.

As part of this program, Jenny Hill, Otterbein's director of communications, said the university would work with the Westerville City School District and Columbus City Schools on a three-pronged approach to dismantling the hierarchy of human value assigned to school districts and universities in central Ohio according to their racial composition by:

* Changing narratives of racial hierarchy in educational systems by conducting historical research and collecting individual stories.

* Promoting racial-healing activities, including racial-healing circles within and among the campus, the school districts and the community.

* Changing policies and practices to erase structural and economic barriers to equal treatment and opportunity in educational systems.

"In order to get selected as a TRHT Campus Center, Otterbein had to send a team to a summer institute held by the Association of American Colleges and Universities," Sherman-Heckler said. "Our team had to include at least one community partner. It couldn't just be about our campus. We sent a team of six to the summer institute last June: four Otterbein staff members plus a representative from Columbus City Schools and from Westerville City Schools."

Sherman-Heckler said the team has been trained in the "Rx Racial Healing Circles" methodology, which is a way of holding facilitated conversations with diverse groups of individuals to help them connect across their common humanity: what kinds of experiences, hopes and dreams are shared across the "identity" lines that sometimes divide people.

The Rev. Vaughn Bell, pastor of Triumphant Church in Westerville, is a member of the team, representing Westerville City Schools as a community partner based on his position on the school board.

"I have been a member of the team from the beginning of the process as a community partner along with Cheryl Ward (director of emotional and student support services) from Columbus City Schools," he said. "Together we will explore opportunities to implement TRHT principles throughout the Westerville and Westerville Schools community."

He said the TRHT's focus on dismantling the belief in a hierarchy of human values is completely consistent with the mission and values of Westerville City Schools.

"It is our hope that this new TRHT partnership will be beneficial in helping us as we create welcoming, diverse and inclusive learning communities in our two new buildings as well as in the other schools across our district," Bell said.

He said the team would work with Westerville and Columbus schools to implement the five pillars of the TRHT framework -- 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 to dismantle the belief in a hierarchy of human value," he said.

"One of the ways that we see a false 'hierarchy of human value' play out in higher ed is that students are often pre-judged by the K-12 school district they attended," Sherman-Heckler said. "Our students tell us this happens to them. So Otterbein's project is to work with our campus and the extended community to dismantle the belief that peoples' inherent value is a function of their home school district."

She said it would take a lot of listening to one another to help unpack and dispel myths.

Sherman-Heckler said Otterbein leaders are excited and humbled that the university was chosen for this important work.

"We hope that people in the community will take part in the racial-healing circle conversations," she said. "And, we hope that ultimately, people will learn to think about how institutions and individuals might be perpetuating or dismantling a belief in a hierarchy of human value. We hope that each of us will learn to look critically at what we do and reject those actions that falsely divide us as humans."

Otterbein President John Comerford said diversity and inclusion have been strong pillars at the university since its founding in 1847, but Otterbein recognizes there is still work to do.

"We believe that higher education should be the great equalizer in our society, so we are grateful to partner with the Association of American Colleges and Universities in this capacity," he said.

For more information, go to aacu.org/trht-campus-centers.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla