University announces new Equity Center to partner with Charlottesville community

The center aims to establish partnerships that address local racial and socioeconomic inequality

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The Equity Center aims to redress centuries of inequality based on racial and socioeconomic background by collaborating with community leaders.

Courtesy City of Charlottesville

The University announced Friday that it has established the Democracy Initiative Center for the Redress of Inequity Through Community-Engaged Scholarship. Referred to as the Equity Center, the project will promote partnerships between faculty and community members, so that the University may better support the Charlottesville community and address issues of racial and socioeconomic disparity.

Dayna Bowen Matthew, a professor of law and public health sciences at the University, serves as director of the Equity Center. Matthew said the Center will initiate shifts in power, value and knowledge from the University to the surrounding community by promoting sustained collaboration and more equally distributing influence within the region.

Matthew said that by offering grants, consulting, services and mentorship, the Equity Center can reciprocate the value that Charlottesville brings to the University and bridge the inequality that separates the two.

“Instead of the community taking its value and giving it to the University, it will become two ways,” Matthew said. “We will give value to the community.”

Matthew made note of the statistic that Charlottesville black youth are twice as likely to be arrested compared to their white peers.

“We’re going to share our knowledge to solve that problem,” Matthew said. “The community has been trying to solve it for years — we’re going to join them.”

Matthew said the Equity Center will also equip University students with the tools to have a constructive relationship with the local community by promoting an anti-racist curriculm and the ability to work alongside local researchers.

“We’re going to teach them how to do community engagement research in a way that’s respectful, in a way that compensates the community, and in a way that proves a tangible benefit to the community,” Matthew said.

In its pilot year, the Equity Center partnered with Arts Mentors, Girls Are AllWrite and Project Pipeline programs to mentor local youth and provide educational opportunities. The Center received funding for its three-year incubation period from the Office of the President, the University’s Democracy Initiative and academic schools including the College, the School of Architecture, the School of Nursing, the Batten School, the Curry School and the School of Law.

The Equity Center’s goals and initiatives address local challenges that disproportionately disadvantage local residents based on race and socioeconomic status. Faculty directors from the University are paired with community directors to collaborate on local issues of inequality in areas such as jobs and wages, schools and childcare, food security, health care and housing.

For example, Shantell Bingham is City Schoolyard Garden’s program director for the Charlottesville Food Justice Network, which promotes a food system that allows all community members access to nutritious food options. Bingham is involved in the Equity Center as the community director of the Redressing 400 Years of Inequality initiative.

In this role, Bingham will work alongside Matthew and two other faculty directors — Susan Kools, a nursing professor and associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and assoc. music prof. Bonnie Gordon. Their work envisions a “400 Years of Inequality” observance to be held in Charlottesville and will establish a “Redressing Inequality” program for all of the Commonwealth’s public higher education institutions to commit to reparations for systemic inequality in their respective communities.

Other initiatives at the Equity Center include Grounded Theory of Structural Racism and Poverty, Democratization of Data, Community Research Review Board and Youth Educational Pipeline. The Center’s leadership includes 12 community directors and seven members of University faculty.

Bingham graduated from the University in 2015 with bachelor’s degrees in global development studies and studio art, then earned her master’s degree in public health. As an undergraduate, Bingham was involved in Madison House as head program director for Bridging the Gap — a program that provides mentorship for refugee youth resettled in Charlottesville. 

Bingham said that volunteering during her time as a student allowed her to understand how the University was falling short as a neighbor in the Charlottesville community. When she noticed that many of the University employees she interacted with on a daily basis were living in the same low-income housing communities where she frequently volunteered, Bingham said she started to take interest in initiatives like the living wage campaign to hold the University accountable.

“That's what started to kind of awaken me to the University having some pitfalls,” Bingham said. “We really shouldn't be. There shouldn’t be pitfalls where we're making so much money.”

Bingham added that she’s optimistic for the future of the relationship between the University and Charlottesville based on the development of the Equity Center project so far because it has included the voices of those who have been involved in work towards equity at the local level.

“It's definitely going down the right path, and I really hope that we can build it up in a way that catalyzes change in the Charlottesville area, because it's long overdue,” Bingham said.

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