Prairie View A&M University has received approval to launch a race and justice center after first announcing its desire to do so this summer.
The Texas A&M University System’s Board of Regents on Thursday approved the plan to construct the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice, named after Prairie View A&M’s president, the Houston Chronicle reported.
The center will “encourage teaching and scholarship that contributes positively to overturning systemic biases” that hurt people of color and deny them their rights, according to a June 1 letter from Simmons to the community.
Simmons issued the letter after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police in late May. In the letter, Simmons highlighted the urgency of taking a proactive approach to racial injustice and preparing students to contend with it.
“Fighting racism and discrimination and upholding justice must always be among our highest callings,” Simmons wrote.
Political science and African-American studies professor Melanye Price was appointed by Simmons in June to lead the center.
“Our hope is that students and our larger community will get out of it a sense of understanding of how race works in America, why it works that way, and ways that we might diminish the impact of racial discrimination on the lives of everyone in this country,” Price said.
The center will offer a required course on the history of race and class in America for all students entering Prairie View as well as undergraduate research opportunities. Prairie View officials plan to host lectures and other events through the center and work with outside organizations on implementing best practices for their work environments.
As a historically Black college, Prairie View is in a unique position to address issues of racism in America, Price added. She pointed to an increase in white nationalist groups, hate crimes and prominent shootings or killings of Black people by police.
The school has had intimate experiences with such social justice issues, she said.
Sandra Bland, a Prairie View alumna, was returning to campus for work in 2015 when she was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation. She was jailed after a confrontation with a state trooper and died in police custody days later.
Robbie Tolan, also an alumnus, was in his parents’ driveway with his cousin in 2008 when police officers apprehended him, claiming that the young men were suspected of having stolen a vehicle. One of the officers shot Tolan in the chest, nearly killing him.
“We want to be sure that we are helping our students process those moments and empowering them to make life different for everyone in the future,” she said.
The school plans to have an “activist in residence” position, bringing in nationally known activists to speak to students about civic participation. The center will also create the Sandra Bland/Robbie Tolan Award to honor those working on criminal justice reform, Price said.
The goal of the center is not only to ensure students are well educated, Price said, but to also create a safe space on campus for students and to improve the world around them along the way.
“Why have all of these amazing students that we have, train them in excellent ways, build up their self esteem, make them think that they can conquer the world, and then not do everything we can to make sure that the world they enter is fully prepared to welcome them?” she said.
The center will phase into operation starting with some socially distant programming in spring 2021 with plans to be fully operational by the fall.
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