The Racial Justice Initiative uses history to educate on systemic racism.
Dr. Yohuru Williams was immersed in culture growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Music, art, books – he eagerly devoured them all.
At six years old, he once accompanied his mother, Elizabeth, to an English literature night class she was taking at the nearby community college. While he was told to stay quiet, he couldn’t resist the urge to respond when the professor asked the class a question. The room had a friendly chuckle for the inquisitive young boy, but his mother wasn’t amused and sent him into the hallway for the rest of the evening.
“That drove me crazy,” Williams said with a grin. “I was enjoying being in that space and hearing what everybody was talking about.”
Williams has never stopped asking questions and searching for answers through connecting and collaborating with others, something he does a lot of in his role as founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative (RJI) at St. Thomas.
RJI focuses on supporting racial justice education through research, partnerships, dialogue and conversation. From high-level executives at major corporations to community-based nonprofits and university students, Williams educates others about historical recovery and issues of racial justice. The RJI, under the leadership of Williams, engages the public through speakers series; counsels faculty and staff on ways to grow their work; and supports students with research projects, service-learning experience, and the Racial Justice Scholarship. It’s a role he enjoys but wasn’t expecting to take on at this scale. It was after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer that Williams realized just how little many people knew about African American history.
“What frustrated me the most in the aftermath of the horrific murder of George Floyd wasn’t the people who were asking earnest questions about what they could do, it was the number of people who didn’t understand how we got to this place in the first place,” said Williams, who also holds the titles of Distinguished University Chair and professor of history.
“This isn’t accidental; we didn’t just get here,” said the noted scholar of the civil rights and Black Power movements who earned a doctorate in American history from Howard University. “There's a long history to explain disparities … what I like to call the six degrees of segregation. It has always been my life’s work to expose that, but what RJI has allowed me the platform and opportunity to do is to go out and do that work with corporations, with community organizations, with educators. RJI is all about altering the way that people are looking at reality so they can change the way they think about that history and how they can take action.”
Deciding to stay at St. Thomas
Late spring 2020, Williams had announced his planned summer departure from his post (at the time) as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to assume a position at an East Coast university. Then Floyd was killed, and the Twin Cities became the epicenter of a national movement.
John "Ozzie" Nelson ’87, who considers Williams a good friend, was one of the first people Williams told about his plans to leave.
“I called him after the murder of George Floyd and told him the work is here,” said Nelson, CEO and chair of Nelson, an architecture, design and strategy firm in Minneapolis. “I told him you can’t leave now. This is where you were meant to be. There’s not another place you can go where you’ll have more impact than staying here.”
Turns out, Williams was thinking the exact same thing.
With the support of President Julie Sullivan and key stakeholders, Williams stayed at St. Thomas and the Racial Justice Initiative was born.
“So many things have happened since George Floyd’s murder that have crystallized my decision to stay in very tangible ways, with the Jan. 6 insurrection being one of them,” Williams said. “We live in a deeply divided society and people continue to grapple with how we deal with the issues of race and division based on race. It’s been gratifying to be able to do work that addresses that question in a systematic way, as part of an institution that has a mission statement that speaks to that even as it itself is growing and evolving.”
Historical recovery education
The Racial Justice Initiative is centered on the process of historical recovery as a foundational step to making change and eradicating barriers. But Williams is quick to correct anyone who labels his RJI work as trainings – the point is to educate.
Through the RJI, Williams lays out the historical roots of injustices that have led to systemic racism. Much of that history is shockingly different from what many people learned in school. Critical conversations can be had and community issues addressed once they understand how harmful systems were born.
“We’ve got to find a way to get everybody to recognize the value of diversity and the value of tackling these problems for us as a nation the same way we’re talking about them in the community,” he said. “This needs to be a conversation about Minnesota and how we‘re thinking about tackling issues of racial discrimination and racial disparities to make us a better state.”
Archie Black, a member of the university’s Board of Trustees and CEO and president of SPS Commerce, sought out RJI after Floyd’s killing. Black realized more education was needed to make systemic change within his business and the greater community. However, he didn’t want just another diversity training.
“I wanted education because people need the fundamental education to understand how we got here,” Black said. “We started with Dr. Williams in July 2020. He came in and spent a half day with our executive leadership team and gave us about eight hours’ worth of prework with videos and readings, and then we had a conversation.”
In short order, Black rolled out the RJI programming to the entire SPS community.
"Dr. Williams puts people in a space that allows you to see a different future. We must learn from the past, but we have to move forward,” Black said.
Black also joined Williams at a First Friday event in Nov. 2020 for an engaging conversation on racial equity in the Twin Cities and the Racial Justice Initiative at St. Thomas.
Recently, Williams brought his customized RJI educational sessions to Nelson’s leadership team. Like many others who have heard Williams speak, people were taken aback by how little they really knew about the history of racism in America and the injustices that have occurred. For example, Williams often recommends people watch the documentary “Jim Crow of the North.” Viewers are astounded at the level of racist policies, such as restrictive real estate covenants, that existed in Minnesota through the 1960s, locking Blacks out of homeownership in certain neighborhoods.
“I’m advocating to get different audiences that I think would really be impacted by his message, to sit down with him,” Nelson said. “I’m networking within the Twin Cities community to have his message be heard because it’s a remarkable one.”
The RJI has helped thousands of people – particularly white people – gain a deeper understanding of the issues through historical context, President Sullivan said.
“Dr. Williams’ work through the RJI has been instrumental in helping the St. Thomas community and our Twin Cities community experience the historical recovery necessary to fully appreciate the systemic racism that exists in our country and its historical origins,” she said.
A vital voice
A highly sought-after voice by local and national media on everything from police reform to the legend of Jackie Robinson, Williams is a charismatic educator with the gift of putting an audience at ease while discussing difficult topics. Since his arrival at St. Thomas three years ago, he’s been an involved member of the community serving in various positions outside the university, including on the boards of the YWCA St. Paul and Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul.
Interfaith Action’s Executive Director Randi Ilyse Roth said she and Williams hit it off the first time they met.
“It’s very rare to find someone who has a firmly planted foot in the academic world, their credentials are impeccable, they’ve studied all of the most important things about how to advance racial equity, and they’re willing to get their hands dirty, roll up their sleeves and invest themselves in the real working community,” Roth said.
“The way he puts together his thinking about racial equity – drawing on religious values, civic values, humanity, the law, all the different disciplines – it’s very real,” she continued. “And then he combines that with a communication style that seems to work for people of vastly diverse backgrounds and ages. The way he structures multimedia presentations with photos, video clips, text boxes, his own voice, his own facial expressions, his own ethos – you don’t just learn something academic; you experience it in yourself.”
Even though RJI is only a year old, it’s a model Williams hopes others can use as they confront systemic racism. Because of its mission and the support of Sullivan and university leadership, he strongly believes St. Thomas is uniquely positioned to be a major player in this work.
“The RJI gives me the flexibility to work with community partners and to get to know the issues intimately in this community,” he said.
With more people discovering how deep systemic racism is in America and wanting to help make a change, the RJI proves to be an invaluable resource.