Can Virtual Reality Help Combat Negative Stereotypes?

Harvard’s president lost his job. So did a Google researcher. Mattel recalled a new version of “Barbie.” Each was a consequence of reinforcing the harmful stereotype that girls and women can’t compete with boys and men in science and mathematics.

The stereotype not only is damaging, it self-perpetuates. It contributes to the difficulty of convincing more young women to study and enter those fields—where they already are underrepresented—because they think they will do poorly, said Tabitha Peck, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at Sullivan Foundation partner school Davidson College.

Advances in science and technology fields happen when people with a variety of perspectives examine a problem. If some groups are underrepresented, if the perspectives are limited, then so is the creativity and innovation applied to the problem.

Related: Past Sullivan Award winner helps prepare girls of color for careers in science

Peck had a question: Is it possible to use virtual reality to minimize the negative effects of stereotype threat?

Virtual reality is helping her find the answer, and the National Science Foundation is putting money behind the effort through a coveted early CAREER grant awarded this year.

Coined by Stanford psychology researchers 25 years ago, “stereotype threat” is a phenomenon in which people unwittingly fulfill negative stereotypes about their groups. Even if they don’t believe the stereotype, just knowing about the stereotype and being in a situation where the stereotype is relevant—for example, a math class—can disrupt performance.

“If they care about a test—say, the SAT,” Peck said, “and it’s challenging and they are reminded of their membership in that group (women), their performance goes down. You have a fear of conforming to the stereotype and harming your entire group.”

The same phenomenon applies to any group that is negatively stereotyped—for example, white men in sports or marginalized racial groups in academics, said Peck.

But what if they see themselves differently, in a way that the stereotype would not affect them?

Tabitha Peck

Gauging the Threat
Peck studies the psychological effects of people wearing self-avatars inside virtual environments. She and co-researcher Jessica Good, an associate professor of psychology at Davidson and expert in how social identity affects behavior, wanted to investigate using virtual reality to let people see themselves as someone else: for example, as a different age, race or gender.

“Jess and I hypothesized that, if you take women and put them in male avatars,” Peck said, “they would be buffered from the stereotype threat.”

Through 2018 and 2019, they enlisted the help of eight student researchers and recruited almost 200 participants, mostly students from Davidson College and the Davidson community. Participants donned a VR headset and were given a virtual body of either a man or woman. While sitting in what appeared to be a classroom environment, participants completed a set of complex visuo-spatial tests.

Related: Dr. Sarah Imam of The Citadel teaches students the human side of medicine

Importantly, some participants were told that men and women scored differently on these tests, while others were told there were no gender differences. Just being aware of gender differences on a visuo-spatial test is enough to cause a “threat in the air” for women, making them concerned about performing poorly.

Photo by Julia M. Cameron of Pexels

“You could see yourself in a mirror in VR. You had a computer in front of you and you were going through this quantitative test,” said Sarah Hancock, a Davidson senior who participated in an early round of the research. “It threw me off that I was male, but I was interested to see how this affects me.”

Hancock, a math and computer science major from Richmond, Virginia, participated in the study as partial fulfillment of a requirement in an introductory psychology class during her freshman year. She wasn’t told her results, but her personal experiences highlight the importance of studying women’s experiences in math and science environments.

In high school she started sitting in the front of the class so that she did not see her underrepresentation in the class; instead, she focused only on herself and the instructor. After participating in Peck’s and Good’s research, her seat choice started making more sense.

“I don’t see [that] I’m a minority in a class of males. I’m just looking at the professor and the screen,” Hancock said. “Recognizing that, I really appreciate that they’re doing work investigating stereotype threat.”

Jessica Good

Switching Identities
Social psychological researchers have long known that de-emphasizing a stereotyped identity can help protect people from stereotype threat, but what about switching identities altogether?

More than a decade ago, researchers at Stanford identified the Proteus effect, named after the Greek god who could transform into animals or even water. The research demonstrated that a virtual reality user behaves differently in that environment based on their avatar.

The user knows that other people in the virtual environment ascribe certain characteristics to the user’s avatar, and the user’s behavior is affected by those perceptions, or stereotypes.

Peck’s and Good’s results were published in 2018 in a special edition of IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, with follow-on work published in 2020 in the proceedings of the ACM Computer-Human Interactions Conference. They first affirmed that the harmful effect of stereotype threat could be found in a virtual environment.

They showed that women’s performance on a visuospatial test suffered when they were placed in a female avatar and told that men and women score differently on the test, compared to when women in female avatars were told there were no gender differences in test scores.

Related: Sullivan Award winner overcomes racism, poverty to earn graduate fellowship from National Science Foundation

However, when the women were placed in a male avatar and reminded of a gender difference, their performance did not suffer.

It wasn’t just women participants who were affected, Good said. “Everybody who was in a female avatar under stereotype threat had lower math confidence than if they were not under threat.”

Photo by Sound On from Pexels

That means that men who were put in female avatars showed poorer performance on the visuospatial test when they were told there were gender differences on the test. In other words, just like the Proteus effect, when men were put in female avatars, they took on behaviors consistent with stereotypes of women.

Ultimately, the gendered avatar switch worked. It was capable of buffering against stereotypes, but people can’t walk around in VR headsets all the time.

Peck and Good argue that their work has promising and realistic future implications. For example, they are interested in understanding whether VR technology can be utilized in real classroom settings (both in person and remote classrooms) to address real experiences of stereotype threat.

The pandemic has expanded the use of virtual tools, including virtual environments and virtual identities. We have all played around with changing our virtual background in Zoom, and lots of virtual educational institutions use avatars as stand-ins for live teachers. Our familiarity with virtual tools, developed out of a tragic global necessity, has paved the way for use of the kinds of technology that Peck and Good are researching.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Davidson College website.

Furman University Student Helps Her Home Town Acknowledge Its Painful History

By Kelley Bruss

Emma Jones of Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University knew she came from a place steeped in history. But she didn’t know pieces of that history had been left out.

“There’s a lot of memorials there,” Jones said of Walker County, Georgia, “just not for the man that we lynched.”

It’s been more than two years since Jones first heard the story of 24-year-old Henry White, a Black man who was hung by a white mob in 1916. For two years, she initiated and helped lead an effort to install a memorial to White in the county where he was killed. The memorial was dedicated in September.

Related: As white churches confront racial injustice, Davidson College researchers seek to create model for change

Jones grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, but moved to rural northwest Georgia in high school. She came to Furman to study psychology. She wanted an education that would feed her passion for justice, especially within prison populations.

In summer 2018, Jones took a research internship at Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University in eastern Alabama. She worked for the school’s Juvenile Delinquency Laboratory, splitting her time between the lab and a local prison.

During that time, she visited The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum, both projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The memorial commemorates documented lynchings throughout the United States. That’s when she was surprised to find her own county represented in the display.

EJI works with community groups to create local memorials to lynching victims and to foster conversations about race and justice. Jones decided she’d help to examine Walker County.

Her initial efforts with local officials didn’t generate results, but her luck changed when she reached out to the Walker County Historical Society. Its president, David Boyle, connected Jones with Beverly Foster, president of the Walker County African American Historical and Alumni Association.

Foster was busy compiling a family history, but Jones was persistent.

“Finally, I said, ‘Let me see what this little girl wants—she’s about to wear me to death,’” Foster said, laughing.

Related: Ole Miss freshman Tatiana Davis advocates for minority students everywhere she goes

Foster sent Jones on a mission to find any existing records of White’s story. Jones used old newspapers, county archives and death records to piece together what happened to White in 1916. The research showed he was found by a mob on the same day that reports had surfaced of an assault on a white woman. Later information suggested White and the woman were in a consensual relationship. Records state that White begged for a proper trial. Instead, he was hung from a tree with a log chain.

Jones represented the Walker County Remembrance Coalition when she signed a contract with EJI, which sponsored the memorial as well as several $1,000 scholarships. The scholarships will be available next year through an essay contest at the county’s two public high schools.

Foster helped recruit eight other people to join her, Doyle and Jones on the coalition, including three other college students. She viewed the older members of the group, including herself, as mentors to the younger ones.

this is a photo of two women unveiling the Henry White Memorial marker in Lafayette, Georgia

The Henry White Memorial Marker was unveiled in Lafayette, Georgia, on September 19. (Photo by Equal Justice Initiative)

“In 20 years or so, we’re going to retire, and these young people have got to take over for us,” she said.

The coalition focused on education and community awareness. Jones spent a lot time on foot, spreading the word in the community. The work required patience.

“Delicate things like this you have to approach in a delicate way,” Foster said. “We approached it from the standpoint of bringing the community together in a loving situation.”

But it wasn’t enough for Jones to have the county’s Black community behind the project.

“I really need the white people here to know this happened,” she said. “If they’re [members of the Black community] the only people at our ceremony, then we’ve done something wrong.”

She learned that a slower pace is worth it when it allows enough time to engage and involve a broader group. “I probably learned more from working with Beverly than I did from the actual technical work,” Jones said.

The memorial to White, and to the broader story of racial terror, was installed in LaFayette, Georgia, on Sept. 19. Jones is working now in Washington, D.C., for the Capital Fellows program and was unable to travel for the ceremony due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Related: Cadet leader at The Citadel walks 24 hours straight to learn empathy with black Americans

Foster hated that Jones had to miss it. “She got us moving, she got our attention,” Foster said.

Jones’s father delivered her speech on her behalf.

“How was I familiar with the origins of this land, the battles that occurred here, the Civil War officers esteemed and commemorated throughout this town, and yet I did not know about the man who had been lynched here without any acknowledgment of his fundamental American rights to due process?” the speech read, in part.

On the day of the dedication, leaders from all walks of life came to remember White together.

“It is really important to see things and feel passionately about them—and not let it end there,” Jones said. “Acknowledging our history is a really big part of that, but that won’t be the end—that won’t be the fix for us.”

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Furman University website.

Mercer University Joins Consortium Examining History of Slavery at American Colleges and Universities

Sullivan Foundation partner school Mercer University has joined Universities Studying Slavery (USS), a consortium of more than 70 institutions created and led by the University of Virginia, also a Sullivan partner school, to collaborate in sharing best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.

Mercer will be joining more than a dozen Sullivan partner schools that are already USS members. These include Clemson University, The Citadel, the College of William and Mary, Elon University, Furman University, George Mason University, Guilford College, Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Mississippi, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of South Carolina, Washington and Lee University and Wesleyan College.

Related: Mercer University team creates 3D yearbooks for visually impaired high schoolers

All USS member schools have committed to research, acknowledgment and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice.

USS hosts semi-annual meetings to allow member institutions to work together to address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities. Members seek to address the complicated legacies of slavery in the modern world and develop ways for institutions to address equity in the 21st century.

“With 28% of the current student body identifying as African-Americans, Mercer has done a remarkable job at recruiting and retaining students whose experience varies greatly from Mercer students of an earlier era,” said Dr. Douglas E. Thompson, professor of history and Southern studies and director of Mercer’s Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies. “We recognize that a fuller accounting of the university’s history will affirm for those students the university’s commitment to a better understanding of its past.”

Related: New Mercer University center could provide millions with access to clean water

The Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies will lead the work of examining the historical record to narrate with greater clarity Mercer University’s engagement with slavery. It will also draw upon models established by student research projects in Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Africana Studies and History departments.

The Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies fosters critical discussions about the many meanings of the South. As the only center for southern studies in the United States dedicated to the education and enrichment of undergraduate students, the Center’s primary purpose is to examine the region’s complex history and culture through courses, conversations and events that are open, honest and accessible.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Mercer University website.

George Mason University Alumnus Recognized as Racial Justice Leader

For Nicole Lynn Lewis, a 2006 graduate of Sullivan Foundation partner school George Mason University, completing her undergraduate degree as a single mom not only opened doors of opportunity, but symbolized how far she had come despite the challenges involved.

After graduating, Lewis had an overwhelming desire to help other young parents earn their degrees but couldn’t find any organizations in the Washington, D.C. area with such a mission. So she founded Generation Hope in 2010.

Related: Stunning works of racial justice art submitted for Duke University contest

Since then, the organization has reported helping more than 200 teen parents in college and their children with mentoring, emotional support and financial resources. Generation Hope has provided more than $800,000 in tuition assistance and celebrated 93 college degrees.

For her impact, Lewis was recently named one of 31 inaugural awardees of the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund, an initiative championed by actress Kerry Washington and philanthropic leader Wes Moore, among others, that draws on $10 million to invest in Black leaders across the U.S. working on issues of racial justice.

Nicole Lewis, founder of Generation Hope

“It means everything to have someone say, ‘We see you, and we honor the work that you’re doing and what your vision is for the world,’” Lewis said. “It’s a validation of [teen parents’] experiences and how important it is that we support their dreams for their futures, because that is so connected to the journey that we’re on as a country for racial equity and justice.”

About 90% of the students Generation Hope works with are students of color, said Lewis, who has also been named a CNN Hero, a Minority Business Leader by Washington Business Journal and a member of Washingtonian’s “Top 40 Under 40” in 2017. Funds from the Black Voices for Black Justice award will be used to support Generation Hope’s mission and continue to tell the story of why teen parents’ success matters.

“[Teen parents] have so much to offer their communities, [and they] tend to have higher GPAs than their peers, but there are so many systemic barriers and hurdles to their success,” Lewis said. “As we talk about higher ed, as we talk about solutions to poverty, and as we talk about racial equity and justice, we have to be talking about helping this population thrive.”

Lewis is no stranger to those barriers. Although she was raised by college-educated parents and was an honors student and president of several clubs in high school, she grew up in a turbulent home environment that made her feel “really uneasy and insecure” in her life. And when she became pregnant with her daughter at 18, she suddenly became a social outcast. “People stopped talking to me,” she told CNN. “I lost all of my friends. It didn’t matter that I was an honor roll student. People pretty much wrote me off.”

Related: This George Mason University alumnus has dedicated her life to bringing peace to the Middle East

But Lewis was determined to go to college, and she did exactly that, graduating with honors and going on to earn her master’s degree, all while raising her little girl.

According to Lewis’ listing on the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund website, she has authored a book about her life called “Pregnant Girl,” which is scheduled to be released by Beacon Press in the spring of 2021.

In her professional career, Lewis said she still draws on the skills she learned at Mason. “A big takeaway for me was understanding the unintended consequences of legislation,” Lewis said. “As students, we were encouraged to uncover and ask the right questions, and that’s been really helpful in the work that I do now when we’re thinking about free college efforts, financial aid reform, or how do we increase SNAP benefits to cover college students and be more accessible to college students.”

Related: Ole Miss freshman advocates for minority students everywhere she goes

“Nicole is changing lives for the better every day,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “With her ability she could have chosen any other path professionally and made a lot of money, but instead she followed her passion to help people.”

“It’s gratifying to see people who never sought personal reward be recognized for doing good,” Rozell said. “I’m very proud of her. She represents the best of Mason.”

This article has been adapted from the original version appearing on the George Mason University website and from an article on

Stunning Works of Racial Justice Art Submitted for Duke University Contest

From the anger and grief following the killings of several unarmed Black citizens to difficult conversations with younger family members about how the world will see them when they grow up, Zaire McPhearson had many moments this year when she saw in stark terms how far society has left to go before it truly confronts its racism.

“The last couple of months have been extremely difficult, especially being a Black woman living in the American climate that we’re in,” said McPhearson, who graduated from the Master of Fine Arts program at Sullivan Foundation partner school Duke University in May.

Related: Duke University student Bella Almeida turns trash into sustainable art

Those emotions motivated McPhearson, now an an instructor in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, as she designed the stunning digital art piece that was selected by judges to accompany the new “Working Toward Racial Justice” recurring story series, which launches in the Working@Duke magazine in February.

McPhearson’s art was one of 12 submissions from Duke staff and faculty members that were voted on by nearly 1,000 Duke community members. Five submissions that received the most votes were reviewed without any identifying information by Director for Continuing Education at the Center for Documentary Studies Michael Betts II; Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture Director Chandra Guinn; and Visual Arts Program Coordinator for Arts & Health at Duke Bill Gregory.

“Art, in whatever form, can really inspire and provoke change,” Guinn said. “It can change minds and provide alternative perspectives, which can be a powerful tool when relating to racial justice.”

Zaire McPhearson’s piece won the judges’ award in an art contest focused on racial justice.

The judges chose McPhearson’s haunting image of three figures in front of a field of blue shapes because it reveals several deeper layers the more you look.

The background features the colors of Duke, interlocking shapes that evoke the stonework on campus, and fragmented depictions of Duke University Chapel. All of it is covered in a rough texture that suggests scars of the past.

“Duke wants to be a safe space for students, and I think, in order to be a safe space, you have to address what’s happening recently but also what’s happened in the past,” McPhearson said.

Related: Guilford College art professor’s paintings capture plight of systemic racism

The three figures in the foreground wear shirts in the colors of the Durham flag and masks that cover half of their featureless faces, representing both the coronavirus, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans, and the feeling of voicelessness.

“There are all these different elements at play in a very quick and easy, accessible way,” Betts said. “As we looked at this piece, things started to unfold and avail themselves to our understanding. We loved the simplicity and complexity of it. That’s the beauty of thoughtful work. That’s the beauty of art.”

Sydney Mitchell’s contest submission won the most votes from Duke community members.

Sydney Mitchell was still figuring out how to process the racial justice movement when she saw Working@Duke’s call for original artwork to accompany the series. She decided to channel her emotions into a design, creating a digital mosaic of 750 headshots of Duke employees forming a black hand and white hand clasping together. Mitchell’s piece received the most community votes among the entries.

“I read the description for the contest and how it focused on inclusion, community and us supporting each other and our colleagues who are people of color,” said Mitchell, an occupational therapist for Duke University Hospital. “It came to me that Duke is such a diverse place where people of all backgrounds come together. I wanted to show that with this piece.”

Mitchell created the design by asking colleagues from various departments and units in Duke University Hospital to share photos of themselves to include in the mosaic. She received about 250 photos, many of which were used multiple times in the mosaic.

Related: Artist-run hotel aims to revitalize struggling Mississippi Delta town

Mitchell worked on editing the photos so everyone’s head was in the center of the shot. She purchased the image of the hands clasping together from the stock photography provider Shutterstock and used Mosaically, a free website, to create mosaics and to put the final piece together.

The photo now hangs in the Duke Physical and Occupational Therapy Clinic gym, where Mitchell and other occupational therapists work with patients.

“Art is a springboard for conversations,” said contest judge Gregory. “It’s not about telling someone exactly how you should think. It’s about inspiring us to have open-ended conversations, to stand and reflect on moments in our lives like this pursuit of racial justice.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Duke University website. Click here to view all of the art contest submissions.

Two Sullivan Partner Schools Join Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance

Sullivan Foundation partner schools Washington and Lee University and Wofford College are two of 51 higher education institutions that have joined the Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance (LACRELA), an initiative launched by the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center.

LACRELA will provide resources that help member institutions develop and achieve equity goals, better understand and correct climate problems, avoid and recover from racial crises, and foster sustainable cultures of inclusion.

Beginning in January 2021, LACRELA will hold a dozen eConvenings, or in-depth training sessions, each addressing a particular aspect of racial equity. The sessions will mostly focus on strategies and practical approaches, based on and learning from contemporary cases of equity dilemmas and racial crises on college campuses. Participants will learn how to get ahead of situations and reduce the risk of crisis while also developing equity leadership strategies.

“Washington and Lee is proud to join the Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance,” said W&L President William C. Dudley. “USC’s Race and Equity Center has a track record of offering high-quality learning opportunities for higher education professionals and has developed expertise and tools that will be invaluable as we continue to assess our campus climate. This partnership will give us the opportunity to share effective practices with other top liberal arts institutions and deploy resources that will assist W&L faculty and staff in their efforts to enhance and sustain a more inclusive environment for all of our students and employees.”

Dudley and Dr. Nayef Samhat, Wofford College’s president, will participate in quarterly meetings with the presidents of other colleges in the alliance.

“Joining the alliance is another opportunity for [Wofford College] to have structure, access to best practices and the ability to collect data to support the important discussions that many of us are having on race, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Samhat said. “I look forward to the conversations that will stem from our membership and the opportunity to work alongside other alliance member colleges over the next three years.”

All employees of LACRELA colleges will have access to a resource portal that includes downloadable equity-related rubrics, readings, case studies, videos and other materials.

The member schools will also take part in three campus climate surveys based on the USC Race and Equity Center’s highly regarded National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates, which has been administered to more than 500,000 college and university students around the country.

“W&L’s commitment to inclusion, equity and access is clearly outlined in our Strategic Plan,” Dudley said. “The Alliance will provide us with new opportunities to work with our peer institutions to address these issues on our own campuses while also making a collective impact on racial equity in higher education.”

This story has been adapted from press releases appearing here and here on the Washington and Lee University and Wofford College websites.


University of South Carolina Students Create Podcast Sharing Refugees’ True Stories

By Chris Horn, University of South Carolina

Jack Gabel was a changed man when he returned from Cyprus in 2018. That was the year the former Truman Scholar finalist from the University of South Carolina, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, spent time living on the tiny Mediterranean island as part of a U.N. project to create a medical clinic for orphan refugees. While he was there, he got to know some of the refugees pouring in from war-ravaged Syria and beyond.

“When I came back home to South Carolina, I was inspired by these resilient people, and I wanted to continue working for the refugee community,” said Gabel, an Honors College biology major who graduated earlier this year. “I felt we could really make an impact by handing a microphone to a refugee or someone who spent a lot of time working with them and providing a platform where they could tell their own stories.”

Related: Angel investment group VentureSouth Sullivan launches affiliate group for eight colleges and universities in South Carolina

It was a noble idea that might have gone the way of most good intentions, but Gabel connected with David Snyder, faculty principal of the International House at Maxcy, and with other students in the Carolina Global Scholars program at Maxcy, a living-learning community that focuses on global perspectives. Before long, he and Kevin Gagnon, a recent Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner, and a handful of other students had launched a podcast called Seeking Refuge, which shares stories from around the world about refugees and those who advocate for them.

Kevin Gagnon, who recently received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, cofounded the Seeking Refuge podcast with Jack Gabel and other UofSC students.

“I think there are a lot of people who have a monolithic idea of refugees,” said Gagnon, who, like Gabel, has graduated but continues to collaborate with the current students running the podcast. “Their situations vary widely, and they are not a concept—they’re real people.”

“This has really opened my eye—I didn’t even realize that Columbia has a sizable refugee population,” said Aidan Thomason, a junior from Knoxville, Tenn., majoring in international studies and history and one of the podcast’s co-founders and current leader. “It’s been a process of learning about the stories of people who are right next door and all around you.”

That’s not to say that Seeking Refuge has focused only on those in its own backyard. The second season of the show was devoted to Clarkston, Georgia, which has been called the most diverse square mile in the U.S. because of its refugee population. The students drove there before the pandemic and captured a season’s worth of stories in one long day.

Recent episodes of the podcast, now in its third season, have featured interviews with individuals in South Sudan, Venezuela and Syria.

Related: This college student’s class assignment on mental health inspired a new law in South Carolina

Jackie Burnett, a member of the Seeking Refuge podcast, records narration for an episode on the UofSC campus.

The Seeking Refuge production team, which has grown to more than half a dozen students, wants to do more than merely present engaging stories about refugees.

“It’s a rare opportunity, at least in the United States, to hear about refugees beyond just a short segment in the news,” says Gabel, who continues to advise students working on the podcast while he works on the COVID-19 response. “Our hope is not only for people to be inspired by refugees, but also to change hearts and minds about refugees themselves.”

The podcast recently passed 1,500 downloads and perhaps appeals most to other college students interested in global issues. “And that’s good because we’re at the beginning of having some influence on politics—and it’s good to change hearts and minds now,” Thomason says.

With some 70 million people having been forced from home by conflict and persecution around the world, Seeking Refuge won’t ever lack for stories to tell. The challenge will be to keep passing the baton to the next group of students. Thomason and Tyler Jackson, an international studies major and another podcast co-founder, are planning to study abroad when the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

“So I can’t say what will happen once we’re all gone,” she says. “But for the foreseeable future, we have a pretty sustainable podcast, and we’re going to keep amplifying the voices of refugees.”

This story has been edited from the original version appearing on the University of South Carolina website.

As White Churches Confront Racial Injustice, Davidson College Researchers Seek to Create Model for Change

By Lisa Patterson, Davidson College

The year Rev. Ben Boswell became senior pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., police fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, and #BlackLivesMatter protests roiled the city.

Members of Myers Park Baptist, a progressive church in an affluent neighborhood, viewed themselves as on the forefront of racial justice. But the events of 2016, amidst a contentious presidential campaign that aggravated the persistent racial tensions in American culture, tested the congregation and its new pastor.

Related: Davidson College recognized for deep ties to community and commitment to engagement

For the whole of its 75-year history, the church opened its doors to all races despite being in a neighborhood that imposed racially discriminatory restrictive covenants for much of that time. Church leaders and dedicated members had lobbied to integrate Charlotte businesses and schools in past decades.

Suddenly, a planned year-long series of monthly talks and podcasts titled “Reawakening to Racial Justice” seemed insufficient to create long-lasting change.

“I came out of 2016 thinking conversations about race in the church were not working,” Boswell says. “They seemed so shallow and hollow.”

Rev. Ben Boswell, the pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church, wants to lead a more fruitful discussion of white-dominated churches and racial inequity.

A Way Forward
Boswell is not alone. White Christians are having a moment as America again reckons with racial injustice, facing questions of how their faith should be lived and coming to terms with how Christianity itself has been intertwined with racist systems. But a newly funded project, titled “Churches That THRIVE for Racial Justice,” will seek to address these issues.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to Sullivan Foundation partner school Davidson College, the five-year project will work to shed light on the challenges of racism among white-dominant congregations in North America and help churches like Myers Park Baptist to build on their commitment to racial equity and expand their capacity for confronting racial justice.

Funding for the project comes from Lilly Endowment’s national Thriving Congregations Initiative, which aims to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

Related: Davidson College alumnus runs tech nonprofit helping families apply for SNAP benefits

Gerardo Martí, the L. Richardson King Professor of Sociology at Davidson College, will lead the project in partnership with Paula Clayton Dempsey, director of partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists (a denominational partner of Myers Park Baptist). The project’s core team also includes sociologists Mark Mulder of Calvin University and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University, who have spent their careers examining racial and ethnic dynamics in American churches.

“As we engage in the Thriving Congregations project, the leadership of the Alliance of Baptists hopes our congregational partners will actively embrace our already stated commitment to expose and address embedded systemic racism,” said Clayton Dempsey. “And by doing so, we will heal as our systems change and as we develop identities and practices that are inclusive of multi-cultural ways of doing ministry in today’s world.”

Gerardo Marti is a professor of sociology at Davidson College.

The Alliance has centered its mission on doing justice, loving mercy and following the radicalness of Jesus for more than 30 years, Clayton Dempsey says, when the progressive denomination separated from the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Having defined the denomination early as welcoming women into full partnership in ministry and engaging in ecumenical and interfaith partnerships, the Alliance evolved to affirm and embrace the LGBTQ community,” she says. “Now the denomination is committing to finding a way to repair the damage done by white dominance within itself, church and society in order to nurture community.”

“I’m thrilled to be working with a denomination so deeply committed to issues of justice,” Martí says.

A Strategic Moment in History
The funding from the Thriving Congregations Initiative comes at a strategic moment in the history of the Alliance. In 2018, Alliance leaders framed racial justice as a critical need in the current national context and issued a new denominational statement of commitment that begins: “Systemic racism has been a part of the history of the United States of America and continues to exist. We, the Alliance Board of Directors and Staff, recognize that our organization was born out of white privilege and white supremacy.”

“The Alliance emerged out of a denomination whose history is deeply entangled with Christian support for slavery,” Martí says. “By taking a mirror to themselves, they’re saying not only that racial injustice is a problem, but also that they’re willing to take a hard look at how aspects of racial oppression and racial marginalization may remain amidst their churches, even though they are among the boldest Christian advocates speaking out against racism today.”

The project will pilot a protocol with 15-25 churches in the U.S. and Canada to examine white-dominant congregational life and vitality through the lens of the Alliance’s commitment to racial justice, specifically working to dislodge white-biased structures of injustice and enacting racially aware practices in their liturgies and their ministry programs.

Congregations will actively confront structures of racism to remove a crucial obstacle to thriving, one that spiritually and materially affects all people—white, Black, LatinX, Asian Pacific Islanders, Indigenous peoples and people of color.

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The project team will use established social science tools to conduct a “racial audit” to determine the racial climate within the churches. As they collect and analyze data each year, the audit will serve as a baseline against which to measure progress and assess interventions. Moreover, the team hopes to foster an experience of camaraderie and an expansive sense of mission among the congregants engaged in the work of anti-racism.

The team will regularly share what is being learned with members, lay leaders and pastoral staff of each THRIVE church and with other congregational partners in the Alliance. Learning from the project will also be shared with other Christian organizations and be made public through talks, writings and scholarly publications.

Myers Park Baptist Church provides a welcoming Christian community for all.

Addressing Challenges
Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants through the Thriving Congregations Initiative. The grants will support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about their values and missions, explore and understand better the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.

The organizations taking part in this initiative represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including Anabaptist, Baptist, Episcopal, evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Restoration, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, as well as congregations that describe themselves as nondenominational. Several organizations serve congregations in Black, Hispanic and Asian-American traditions.

Lilly Endowment launched the Thriving Congregations Initiative in 2019 as part of its commitment to support efforts that enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.

“Most people know that racial disharmony, resentment and segregation have long characterized the American church. Many churches have paid lip service toward racial equity and integration, even moving towards multi-racial churches, but that [effort] has sputtered,” Martí says. “Too many Christian leaders greatly exaggerate the diversity of their churches, and if they can’t justify that, they think, ‘It’d be nice if it could happen, but it’s too hard, there are so many conflicts involved, and there are a lot of people who just don’t want it, so let’s just move past that.’”

In stark contrast, the Alliance is committing to going beyond an aesthetic of diversity, Martí says. They are willing to restructure their ministries to put into practice the principles that are meant by diversity, such as inclusion and shared decision-making.

Rev. Ben Boswell says the need for this work is everywhere in the Christian church. “Race is one of many issues the church is working on, people say, but race is so deeply embedded in what it means to be a Christian in America,” Boswell says. “This is the work of the church now. It’s not a side issue or something we do for a little while and turn back to later. This is what it means to be a church in the 21st century.”

This story has been edited from the original version appearing on the Davidson College website.

Fast-Growing Restaurant Chain Commits to Hiring More Employees with Differing Abilities

MOD Pizza, one of the country’s fastest-growing restaurant chains, has pledged to hire more differently abled employees—including those with autism and intellectual or physical disabilities—by 2025 as part of a larger nationwide effort to foster inclusive and diverse workplaces.

In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, MOD Pizza joined the Delivering Jobs pledge, an inclusion campaign spearheaded by Autism Speaks, Best Buddies and Special Olympics in partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation. MOD, a national pizza brand with a loyal millennial following, will join a coalition of companies that have committed to creating a total of 1 million new employment and leadership opportunities for people with autism and intellectual and developmental differences (IDD) over the next five years.

Eighty-one percent of adults with IDD do not have a paid job in their community. The Delivering Jobs initiative aims to help them develop the skills they need for employment and leadership positions while incentivizing businesses to hire them.

As a purpose-led restaurant brand, MOD Pizza practices what cofounder Scott Svenson terms “a more enlightened form of capitalism” that drives profits while creating a positive social impact. The company was the country’s fastest-growing restaurant chain in 2018 and 2019.

As PMQ Pizza Magazine reports, MOD Pizza focuses on impact hiring and an inclusive culture, creating jobs for people who ordinarily struggle to find employment. MOD has found success through building its MOD Squad workforce to include people with IDD, opportunity youth (young people aged 16-24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market), and those who have been previously incarcerated.

MOD currently has more than 300 Squad members with IDD, and a few of them helped to create this inspiring video, titled “Our World,” last year.

Our World from MOD Pizza on Vimeo.

“MOD exists to serve people in order to contribute to a world that works for and includes everyone,” said Ally Svenson, co-founder and chief purpose officer of MOD Pizza, in a statement about the Delivering Jobs program. “This pledge not only aligns with our mission to build an inclusive workplace and a culture of opportunity, but hopefully will also encourage other companies across the retail and restaurant industry to do the same.”

Angela Geiger, president and CEO of Autism Speaks, said hiring differently abled people can make a difference at any company. “We’ve seen firsthand the positive impact of inclusive employment on businesses of all sizes,” she said. “Through [the Delivering Jobs campaign], we hope to facilitate and normalize recruitment and management practices, providing the resources for these workers to thrive.”

Delivering Jobs is challenging all businesses to identify ways they can incorporate this untapped workforce into their diversity and inclusion plans; ensure that they have access to a minimum of 1% of employment and leadership opportunities; and empower HR personnel to invest in the long-term success of all employees.  Learn more at


This George Mason University Alumnus Has Dedicated Her Life to Bringing Peace to Middle East

By Mariam Aburdeineh, George Mason University

Fakhira Halloun holds two contradictory identities: She is Palestinian and an Israeli citizen.

It wasn’t until she began facilitating peace dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem in 2000 that she realized Palestinian citizens of Israel could be the missing link in bridging ties between the two groups.

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“Palestinian citizens of Israel have an important role to play in solving the conflict,” said Halloun, a 2019 Ph.D. graduate of the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Sullivan Foundation partner school George Mason University. “We know the mindset of the Palestinians in the West Bank and share the same national identity and culture. At the same time, we know the Jews in Israel because we live with them and a lot of relationships are built there.”

That realization inspired her studies at Mason and her life goal of bringing about peace, she said.

After graduating from Mason, Halloun returned to Jerusalem, where she works as a civil society and peacebuilding consultant at the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

“This was my dream work,” Halloun said. “I’m helping civil society organizations engaged in peacebuilding work on both sides to reexamine and redefine their work in order to make a difference.”

Though she is overseas, Halloun’s impact in the Washington, D.C., area remains. Halloun was part of a team that established the D.C.-based Museum of the Palestinian People, which highlights the history, identity, culture and achievements of Palestinians.

“Usually the story about the Palestinian people is very narrow, and it’s linked with the conflict,” Halloun said. “We wanted to expand their narrative and bring out the complexity of it so that Americans and others can see themselves through the stories of the Palestinian people.”

This photo shows Fakhira Halloun on a stroll in Israel, where she works as a peacemaker

After graduating from Mason, Fakhira Halloun returned to Jerusalem, where she works as a civil society and peacebuilding consultant for the UN’s Office of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

Halloun has also stayed connected to Mason. Since 2019, she has been co-teaching a study-abroad course with professor Marc Gopin that takes students to Israel and Palestinian territories to understand the conflict from both sides.

It’s an enlightening course, Halloun said, and one she also took as a student.

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“Fakhira is an extraordinary peacemaker who understands intellectually and personally the power of compassion and the heart to heal wounds of war and conflict,” Gopin said. “She combines that with reasoning and strategy to build bridges across lines of adversaries.”

“I brought my passion, commitment and persistence to impact my reality, but professors like Dr. [Kevin] Avruch and Dr. Gopin equipped me with a deep lens in conflict resolution through their knowledge, analysis and approaches to understand,” Halloun said. “I couldn’t be successful now where I work in the UN without their contribution to who I am.”

Creating a better future is Halloun’s top goal, she said. According to her professors, she has what it takes. “If peace with justice is ever to have a chance, it will be people like Fakhira—on all sides—who will commit to seeing it through and bring it about,” Avruch said.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the George Mason University website.