Dayna Bowen Matthew wants to get universities back to their original purpose, as she sees it, and the University of Virginia officially is on board.

On Friday, UVa announced a new center called the Democracy Initiative Center for the Redress of Inequity Through Community-Engaged Scholarship — or, the Equity Center. 

The new center aims to repair economic and racial inequity by changing the way university researchers operate through putting their resources at the service of community questions and needs.

“Our resources as a public institution are for this very purpose — to make society better, to make society more just, to make it more fair, to make it more equal. This is an important way in which we serve the very essence of what it means to be a public university,” said Matthew, who will serve as the faculty director of the center. 

Matthew studies racial disparities in public health and is affiliated with the UVa School of Law. Matthew founded the center alongside Nancy Deutsch, of the Curry School of Education; Bonnie Gordon, of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Barbara Brown Wilson, of the School of Architecture. 

As important as the founders are, they see the center’s community partners as equally important and have attempted to build that equality into the structure of the new center.

The Equity Center is launching with five key initiatives, each led by at least one community director and at least one faculty director. Some initiatives focus on supporting community programs that are already addressing systemic inequities, while some focus more specifically on the university’s role in those inequities.

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One initiative that has come up in recent weeks at a Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority meeting is the creation of a Community Research Review Board, which would be a community-led partner to the university board that signs off on research proposals. 

The Public Housing Association of Residents started the idea as an antidote to continuous exposure to researchers that they had no control over and saw few direct benefits from. Residents of the public housing site Westhaven have counted researchers from up to 28 different projects knocking on their doors per semester.

“Truth be told, UVa has not been a very good neighbor to the community. That’s just the reality. There’s so much more that needs to be done and that can be done,” said Don Gathers, a deacon at First Baptist Church and co-founder of Charlottesville Black Lives Matter.

Gathers is a community director with Matthew on an initiative studying how structural racism and poverty affect health, safety, wealth and education outcomes. 

The Equity Center’s first focus is on working with African American, Latino, immigrant, low-income and other minority groups in the neighborhoods next to the university.

Knitting together

ZACK WAJSGRAS/THE DAILY PROGRESSCharlottesville City employee Daniel Fairley.

Daniel Fairley, the city of Charlottesville's first youth opportunity coordinator.

Credit: Zack Wajsgras/The Daily Progress

Many of the Equity Center initiatives build on relationships and partnerships that have been going on for years between community leaders and university professors. The change is in how the university supports that work. 

“This is Barbara’s language, so she probably already said it. We’re knitting together things that have been around,” Gordon said.

Gordon was sitting at a table at the new Farm Bell Kitchen on West Main Street with Wilson, Deutsch and Susan Kools, of the School of Nursing. Over the course of an hour, Gathers joined the table with fellow community directors Daniel Fairley, Charlene Green and Karen Waters-Wicks. 

Although the topic of discussion was the launch of the Equity Center, its existence also came down to the individuals involved. 

“For me, it’s really the trust that I have in Dayna and Nancy and Barbara and Susan and Bonnie,” Fairley said. “If that wasn’t there, then I wouldn’t have joined, because I’ve heard about things like this before.”

Fairley is the city’s youth opportunity coordinator focused on Black male achievement. Fairley said that he had been working with Deutsch since he started in his position in late 2017. 

Fairley is now co-directing the Equity Center’s youth pipeline program with Gordon, Deutsch and three other community directors, including Tamara Wright, who has helped the Charlottesville Food Justice Network create a low-income food justice leadership cohort.

The center’s national advisory board includes luminaries like housing human rights activist Willie J.R. Fleming and Richard Reeves who studies class and inequality at the Brookings Institution. 

Fleming, for example, has helped advise the new center on what works and does not work in community partnerships elsewhere — is the university providing equal wages to university and community researchers or providing stipends that allow community members to take time off from the rest of their work. 

“I’ve worked over the years with many faculty who venture off grounds to do community work, and to see it happen institution-wide is a great shift that I largely attribute to President Ryan’s leadership and the leadership of the equity center,” Waters-Wicks said. 

Waters-Wicks is on PHAR’s advisory board, works in the community education department for the Albemarle County Public Schools and is an adjunct faculty member at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Waters-Wicks also is on the Equity Center’s national advisory board.

A wake-up call

2019-Gathers

Community organizer Don Gathers stands next to his portrait during the “Inside Out: This Is What Community Looks Like!” photography installation that commemorated Charlottesville activism two years after Aug. 2017.

Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Matthew has found that UVa professors and students came to the school to do good. When UVa graduates organized the white supremacist rallies on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, it made many at the university realize that they can give students better tools to make a more just society.

“I think it was a wakeup call to find out that we in the past have educated white supremacists, who go out and do evil,” Matthew said.

When Jim Ryan became UVa president a year ago, he formed a University-Community Working Group to determine priorities for university action to heal its relationship with Charlottesville and surrounding counties. 

One of the recommendations in the group’s report was to establish an equity institute “to infuse principles of accountability and responsible community partnership throughout the university.”

The president’s office, the university’s Democracy Initiative and several university colleges have funded the Equity Center for three years. The founders hope to fundraise to make that funding last five. At the same time, they hope to convince the university that the center would be viable as a permanent institute. 

Matthew said that the center hopes to create formal incentives to encourage the community-engaged scholarship that the founding faculty members have already been working in. However, she said there is already extensive buy-in from faculty and she doesn’t think they need much more of a push.

The Equity Center plans to launch formally on Nov. 14 and 15. 

The first day would be full of “FAFSA parties” in the community, where the university works with local youth organizations to help potential students fill out financial aid paperwork through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and get their college applications done. 

The second day would be a public dinner at a location easily accessible to the community, hosted to thank community partners and all the years of work that led to this moment.