Visiting the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., UCI students touch the water on the granite table. The memorial invites guests to alter the water’s flow and realize that they, too, can influence the course of history. Photo: Teresa Neighbors

Foundation-Funded Programs Foster Racial Healing

An Uber driver in New Orleans asked Alexis Rodriguez if it was true that where Rodriguez grew up, just a few miles north of the Mexican border in San Diego, was overrun with immigrants and besieged by crime.

Rodriguez’s first reaction was anger. But then she remembered what brought her to The Big Easy in the first place.

A first-generation political science student at UCI, Rodriguez was visiting the Deep South with the School of Social Sciences’ Deconstructing Diversity Initiative, which gives students a deeper understanding of racial issues in the U.S.

The highlight of DDI’s yearlong course, started in 2016, is the intensive weeklong trip to various historic sites, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in Atlanta, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, cultural museums in the nation’s capital, and Chicago’s segregated North, South and West sides.

(Left to right) Undergraduates Zach Springs, Ta'Myrah Hudson, Chico Hill and Alexis Rodriguez spent time at Common Ground Relief in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, during their travels with UCI’s Deconstructing Diversity Initiative. Photo: Bella Bettencourt

“We meet with folks who are addressing racial issues in their communities from different perspectives whether as artists, healthcare workers, grassroots activists, non-profits, religious organizations or government entities,” says Teresa Neighbors, director of DDI. 

For some students, DDI marks their first time leaving California. Rodriguez acknowledges it was important for her to leave her “bubble” to gain perspective. 

“You don’t actually understand a place until you’ve been there,” Rodriguez says. “I had never been to New Orleans before, and I realized that this Uber driver probably had never met anyone from San Diego before, either.”

In 2018, the Samueli Foundation along with three other foundations provided seed funding to create the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Healing (DIRHA) program, which helps Orange County high school students grapple with race and prejudice. The Samueli Foundation also recently provided another $300,000 grant to continue the DIRHA program.

Anteaters who complete DDI serve as mentors for DIRHA, helping local teens navigate difficult discussions.

“Right now we’re in a really important time where people are ready to talk about difficult issues in our communities. Now is a perfect time for something like this both for UCI and Orange County.”

UCI’s efforts to promote racial healing recently earned the attention of American Association of Colleges and Universities, which granted seed funding for a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Center on campus. UCI is one of just 24 schools nationwide selected to house one of these centers, which will “prepare the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to break down racial hierarchies,” not only on campus, but in collaboration with the broader community.

Though the center was approved before the murder of George Floyd and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Neighbors points out that it’s coming together at the perfect moment.

“Right now we’re in a really important time where people are ready to talk about difficult issues in our communities,” says Neighbors. “The conversations about race are already happening, and we need to focus on bringing people together rather than increasing the divide. Now is a perfect time for something like this both for UCI and Orange County.”

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