The sight of torch-bearing crowds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists invading a college campus last summer was bad enough. But finding that some of the rioters were students—and thinking about what that meant—spurred us into action. We had to find a way to support improvements in campus climate.

We invested $2.5 million in new efforts, including the Fund for Racial Justice and Equity, in response to the violence we saw in Charlottesville and its deeper implications.

This project, in partnership with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, supports projects at 19 colleges and universities across the nation. We seek to address not just the violence itself—one woman was killed and more than a dozen injured in Charlottesville—but the overall climate on campuses.

We learned, just through the Racial Justice and Equity Fund applications, that there are many more colleges and universities already working to improve conditions for students of color. We received more than 300 applications from institutions across the country, representing 42 states.

These institutions understand the scope of their problems. They need to address faculty and staff bias, curriculum that often doesn’t reflect diverse cultures, and how non-minoritized students engage with and support students of color.

There is a direct link between how comfortable and welcomed students feel on campus and their ability to be successful in coursework and complete their degrees. They need faculty who support them, and fellow students who create an open, welcoming environment.

The institutions that submitted successful applications to the Racial Justice and Equity Fund are as diverse a set of colleges and universities as one could find—they represent community colleges and flagship universities, rural and urban campuses, predominantly white institutions and minority-serving institutions. But they share some common approaches that we believe are promising.

  • They unabashedly admit that the institution itself has the responsibility to ensure that all students deserve a safe, welcoming environment—and they accept the responsibility for creating that environment.
  • They do not place the burden of advocacy on the shoulders of students of color—students are empowered and have powerful voice in the work, but these institutions recognize that non-minoritized students have to change their behaviors as well.
  • They move beyond programs and forums to culture change—without exception, the Fund awardees are prepared to not just have difficult conversations, but to take action as a result of those engagements.
  • They recognize the connection between negative campus climate and student success—equity has moved to the core mission of these institutions, where it should be.

In time, I think some of these institutions will tell us that they’ve been able to build on the good work they started before receiving the Lumina grants. I believe we have supported work that can be sustained after the funding is gone—efforts that can serve as examples for other institutions across the country.

While Charlottesville is still imprinted on our memory, the truth is that too many incidents have taken place at other campuses since. These events may be less publicized, but are still deeply hurtful, especially to students of color at those institutions. Indeed, these events damage our country.

We can do better. We must do better. Our nation desperately needs the talent of every single person enrolled in college right now. These learners are our best and brightest—they certainly deserve our best in return.

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