Statewide Impact of Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center at Rutgers-Newark Informs Resolution Introduced by Sen. Booker

When U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a concurrent resolution on the floor of the Senate on December 3 to establish a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT), his proposal sounded very familiar to some fellow New Jerseyans. That’s because his bill is a federal model that lays the framework for actions and conversations already occurring at Rutgers University–Newark’s TRHT Campus Center. Established in August 2017, the TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers-Newark is one of 24 campus centers formed to engage and empower campus and community stakeholders to dismantle racial hierarchies and create transformational and sustainable change that addresses the historic and contemporary effects of racism in the United States.

Similarly, according to the press release issued by Sen. Booker, his resolution urges “Congress to form the first commission acknowledging and examining the systemic racism that has disenfranchised Black Americans throughout U.S. history and the racial inequities that persist today.” Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced the resolution in the House of Representatives in June 2020.

“This year has brought to bear the harsh reality that systemic racism is ever present in our political, legal, environmental, economic, health, and social institutions,” said Sen. Booker. “As a nation, we must acknowledge and grapple with the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continues to persist in our laws, our policies, and our lives to this day. The first ever Congressional commission on truth, racial healing, and transformation will be a critical complement to legislative efforts to build a more just and equitable future, including the recent George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the long-time movement to establish a commission to study reparations.”

On November 9, 2020, Sharon Stroye, director of the TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers-Newark, and several Rutgers-Newark executive administrators briefed representatives of Sen. Booker’s office on the statewide effectiveness of the center’s initiatives, particularly in the wake of the nationally televised killing of George Floyd.

“After the civil unrest surrounding the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, and many others, municipalities and organizations contacted the TRHT Campus Center to collaborate and implement specialized programming for staff, constituents, executive and governing board members, and community partners,” stated Stroye. “The TRHT Campus Center responded by designing programs that fostered safe and responsible spaces in which individuals could share their thoughts and concerns openly without fear of reprisals. We hosted listening tours and facilitated healing circles/conversations and interactive workshops,” continued Stroye, who has been the director of the TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers-Newark since its founding by the Association of American Colleges and Universities with funding from W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Newman’s Own Foundation. “We also are assisting institutions in developing or revising their policies and procedures to promote more diverse and inclusive cultures.”

The Joint Committee for TRHT of Scotch Plains/Fanwood in Union County exemplifies the TRHT Campus Center’s efforts beyond Essex County this year. From June – July 2020, the joint committee launched a listening tour with a series of weekly, hourlong sessions to hear local residents’ views of race relations in both townships. Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School current students and alumni who presently attend Rutgers-Newark, Kean University, New York University, and Stanford University moderated two sessions that focused on the high incidence of racial disharmony at the school. 

Coinciding with Fanwood’s police chief stepping down amid controversy over alleged racist and sexist remarks attributed to him, the listening tour revealed that policing was one of the major concerns for residents. The other was education.

After the joint committee has compiled data from the listening tour, it will schedule a series of community conversations and racial healing circles for council and staff members and residents, as well as develop a plan to review municipal policies and procedures to determine discriminatory practices. Moreover, on January 19, 2021, the National Day of Racial Healing, it will release a video of the listening tour findings, part of the daylong activities hosted by the TRHT Campus Center at Rutgers-Newark.

Similarly, the Somerset County Diversity Steering Committee contacted the TRHT Campus Center to develop a series of virtual town hall meetings for county employees to discuss feelings evoked by George Floyd’s death. With a goal of building empathy for those who have experienced racism firsthand and sensitizing others who do not understand the pain of racism, the sessions explored the history of slavery in Somerset County, reviewed a timeline of police brutality cases in New Jersey and Minnesota, and examined the perceived racist climate in Minnesota that has persisted for many years. The series also provided a comparative analysis of civil unrest in both communities in 1967 in light of social unrest across the country now. 

In Middlesex County, ReThink Theatrical, TRHT Campus Center also leaves an imprint as far south as Atlantic County. Avanzer is a nonprofit organization founded in the 1970s in Pleasantville, New Jersey, to support women, children, and men suffering from sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking.  Avanzer’s Executive Board and president approved a social justice focus for the organization’s policies, procedures, and staff training to address perceived implicit and explicit biases. Consistent with that thrust, Avanzer’s director of social justice contacted the TRHT Campus Center to coach employees in becoming racial healing circle practitioners.

“I am encouraged by our state university’s leadership in actively working to examine the systemic racism and racial inequalities that still exist today throughout New Jersey and America,” stated Sen. Booker. “I am grateful for the statewide efforts already taking place through Rutgers University-Newark’s TRHT Campus Center to address our history and help heal communities disproportionately impacted by systemic racism.”

“We were honored to brief Sen. Booker’s team and look forward to future opportunities to collaborate. We will continue to host briefings and build a community of partners who face crucial challenges in developing a racial equity lens,” Stroye shared. “We look forward to supporting the work of members of Congress as they seek to form a national Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.”

The full text of the United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation concurrent resolution can be viewed here.