Equity First: Trailblazing Prairie View president turns Black pain into social change
When Lumina Foundation decided to put $15 million toward fighting systemic racism in response to the killing of George Floyd, we imagined funding the efforts of leaders like Dr. Ruth Simmons and institutions like Prairie View A&M University in Texas.
At Lumina, we are well aware of the influential role that historically Black universities such as Prairie View have played in pursuing racial justice and equity. Nevertheless, we did not yet know Dr. Simmons, the university’s president, as we have come to know her since we relaunched our Racial Justice and Equity Fund.
We learned about Dr. Simmons’ trailblazing efforts from a widely circulated, heartfelt letter that she wrote Prairie View’s students and the campus community in response to fear and outrage she felt after Floyd’s brutal killing in custody of the Minneapolis police. This horrific homicide galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and a summer of demonstrations across the country.
By releasing the letter, Dr. Simmons demonstrated professional bravery and commitment. She acted without consulting the board of her land-grant university and firmly asserted that Prairie View must be part of the solution. “Fighting racism and discrimination and upholding justice must always be among our highest callings,” she told students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
Simmons won our hearts by empowering her campus to turn pain into positive change — to confront racial injustice not only from George Floyd’s death, but also from the death of Prairie View alumna Sandra Bland, who has been called “the first Black casualty of police brutality whom the world could know and deeply love postmortem.”
Bland was on her way to the Prairie View campus near Houston to start a new job at her alma mater when she was stopped for a minor traffic violation. Bland, then 28, was later found hanged in a Texas jail cell in July 2015 after her arrest during a traffic stop; her death was ruled a suicide.
Prairie View is well acquainted with the heartache of police interaction that turns to tragedy. There is a memorial to Bland near the school. “Students pass it on their way [to class],” Simmons said in a recent discussion with my colleague Danette Howard, Lumina’s senior vice president and chief policy officer. “What a thing to be reminded of daily.”
Prairie View alum Robbie Tolan was unarmed and mistaken for a car thief in 2008 when he was shot by police in the driveway of his home. He survived a gunshot to the chest, and went on to graduate from Prairie View with a criminal justice degree.
As we talked to Dr. Simmons about her letter, we were impressed with how she had distinguished herself by leading Brown University, an Ivy League institution, before returning to her native Texas to serve Prairie View. We admired her leadership of a historically Black university profoundly affected by racial injustice. We respected her clear vision for what needs to be done. In many ways, she was the human face of efforts we hope to fund over the next two years through our Racial Justice and Equity Fund.
She is such a straight-talking, solutions-driven leader that students call her “Ruth the Truth.” Under her leadership, Prairie View is combatting racial injustice by:
· Establishing the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice to encourage teaching and scholarship that overturn systemic biases that hurt people of color and deny their rights. Dr. Melanye Price, Prairie View’s professor of political science and African American Studies, will lead the center.
· Enhanced its role in shaping policies that eradicate voter suppression, police misconduct, discrimination, and other persistent social ills.
· Required students to take a course on the history of race and class in the United States and engage with “Activists in Residence,” who will share their advocacy experiences and lessons.
· Created awards named for Sandra Bland and Robbie Tolan to recognize student activist exemplars.
In pushing for these changes, Simmons emphasized how urgent the challenges are. In her letter, she said: “For too long, we have been content to have others dictate the limits of our ability to act: individuals who call for a different course of action, those who are concerned about controversy, those who advocate ‘staying in our lane.’ While the proposed measures may not in the end have the desired impact, we will by instituting them affirm to our students that we are awake, that we are concerned for their future, and that we are the Prairie View of our lineage.”
Lumina is doing its part, too. In January, we announced 11 new grantees of the Racial Justice and Equity Fund, and Prairie View was among the first grantees, once again highlighting the invaluable contributions of our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The grant to Prairie View will support the school’s Center for Race and Justice as it combats racism and bias, and trains a new generation to lead inclusively.
We are proud to collaborate with Dr. Simmons and her team to advance racial justice, eliminate discrimination, and begin to heal the nation’s wounds. As she so eloquently says, doing this work “is therapeutic and it nourishes even in the darkest time.”
Katherine Wheatle is strategy officer for federal policy and equity at Lumina Foundation and is on the team leading Lumina’s Racial Justice and Equity Fund.