It is the last day of the Spring 2019 semester at Western Michigan University, and the first-ever Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) course at WMU has just wrapped up the final class.
While some students hurried out of the classroom in Sangren Hall to enjoy the rest of the sunny spring day, Shane Harden, Crea Taylor, and Jazimin Williams hang around, eager to speak about their experience in the TRHT course that semester.
Like many who encounter TRHT for the first time, Taylor did not know exactly what to expect. "'Truth and Healing' was so mysterious to me," says Taylor, a junior Graphic Design major from Chicago. "I kept wondering if this is going to be some therapy-type stuff?'"
Despite looming questions, each of the students decided to engage with the unknown and enroll in the course. And now, on the last day, they do not regret the decision.
"Honestly, this class was something I never knew I needed," says Williams, a senior Communication Studies and Sociology major from Taylor, Mich. "I didn't expect my eyes to be opened so wide. I knew I wasn't getting a complete education on American history. Getting that information now is beneficial."
The goal of the course was to offer students an opportunity to explore the national TRHT movement. The aim, according to the syllabus, was to expose students to how the movement is working to initiate deep societal transformation by changing the ways narratives around race are created and circulated throughout the United States.
The course was taught collaboratively by Dr. Douglas Davidson, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, as well as instructional leaders from the TRHT Kalamazoo movement. Mimi Abdul Bellamy, TRHT Arts & Education Narrative Change Design Team lead, was instrumental in creating the course curriculum and bringing it to Western. Bellamy, in addition to their work with TRHT Kalamazoo, works for the Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethic Relations at WMU.
Winifred Wilson, TRHT Youth Leader Coordinator and Evaluation Intern, taught the majority of the course and had a front-row seat to the students' growth and transformation.
Speaking your truth
The class met twice a week for a little over an hour to discuss various topics the students were familiar with, but did not have a complete understanding of the origins, in addition to topics they had never encountered. Within the course, an emphasis was placed on open and honest discussions rather than assignments. These discussions are what left a lasting impression on the students. The discussions brought light to concepts that they were acutely aware of but could not necessarily name.
"For me it was redlining," says Williams when asked which class discussion stood out to her the most. She remembers driving through her hometown and other cities in Michigan and noticing very clear distinctions between where people of different racial groups live and go to school. "You internalize it and you see it, but you don't really know what's happening or why. Getting the technical terms and the history of segregation was really eye-opening."
Harden, a freshman from Canton, Mich., was encouraged by his classmates' willingness to participate in conversations and speak their minds.
"You really have to be in this class if you want to be involved in the learning," he says. "You really won't learn anything if you just sit back and do the written assignments. This class wasn't necessarily about the work, but what you take away from it."
The discussion-heavy structure pushed the students to engage with each other, even when the topics were sensitive. Taylor applauded Williams for opening up about difficult discussions she had with her family about topics related to the class. Both students got emotional when talking about the bravery it takes to have uncomfortable conversations -- especially with people you love.
On the final day of the course, the students participated in a Racial Healing Circle, an experience characterized by sharing individual truths and stories in order to reaffirm humanity and increase consciousness, awareness and empathy.
"I had never heard of a Healing Circles until this class," says Taylor. "I think it's something that should be done within families and at school or at work. You get a chance to put everything out in the open. You don't feel judged. Today, I felt like I really got a chance to just talk and not be interrupted. I spoke my truth and it didn't matter whether somebody agreed or disagreed."
Harden says hearing other students open up about their experiences created a stronger sense of unity. "Hearing how many people had the same experience really stuck with me. As an African American, if you are always isolated, you feel like you're the only one really going through it."
All three students recommend the class to "anyone who wants to learn." Taylor added that it's exciting to see people learn and reevaluate their thoughts and behavior.
Harden, Taylor and Williams all identify as people of color, like the majority of the students enrolled in the course. They agree that it would have been interesting and beneficial to have more races in the class to share their viewpoints. They hope a more diverse group of students will enroll in the future.
Wilson was excited to report more students will have the opportunity to enroll when the course returns in the Spring of 2020. The inaugural class achieved its goal of teaching a more complete history to students and empowering them to get engaged.
"We had different members of the TRHT Leadership as guest speakers during the course and that provided tangible examples for students on how to get involved in the work," Wilson said.
"There needs to be a change and the change starts with us," reflects Williams. "It is time for us to point out and challenge these stereotypes. They are there because a lot of people don't see them -- and I was one of those people until I took this class."
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