Jennifer Gunter’s work is all about teaching history and changing the future.
As director of the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation, she facilitates dialogues and other programs with people throughout the state. She gets people around a table — or, these days, a Zoom video chat — for a talk about race. People open up about their personal experiences with the goal of bridging divides and coming to grips with race issues.
“I’m honored to be in places where people share such vulnerable moments from their own lives,” says Gunter. “Because of the ways we’ve structured our society, talking about race has become taboo. My main goal is to normalize the conversation, because I feel like you have to address it ― you have to recognize it ― in order to create any kind of change.”
The collaborative has operated in the University of South Carolina’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion since 2016. But this week, it became a part of the College of Arts and Sciences, where it joins several other programs focused on civil rights and race relations. For Gunter, who received her PhD in history from the college in 2017, it’s like a homecoming.
My main goal is to normalize the conversation, because I feel like you have to address it ― you have to recognize it ― in order to create any kind of change.
— Jennifer Gunter
“I’m a trained historian, so Arts and Sciences feels like home to me,” she says. “A lot of what we do is a very humanities-based program. It seemed like a natural fit.”
The collaborative’s signature program, Welcome Table SC, is a dialogue that allows participants to share their personal stories and learn from each other’s perspectives. “Connecting with others through trust-building and team-building activities, and looking at how we can make things better, is key,” Gunter says. Welcome Table SC is available for businesses, schools and community groups, among others.
In addition to Welcome Table facilitations, the office started the South Carolina Youth Collective, which sponsors a monthly book club and a summer fellows program for South Carolina teenagers who are interested in civil rights and race relations. The collaborative holds an annual summit where activists around the state share strategies for racial reconciliation that are working in their communities.
There is tremendous opportunity for the collaborative to expand its community impact.
— Lacy K. Ford
As part of the university’s largest college, the collaborative will have synergy with many other programs in the college, says Lacy K. Ford, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Those include the African American Studies Program, the Institute for African American Research, the Center for Civil Rights History and Research and the Institute for Southern Studies, as well as a college-wide committee of students, faculty and staff promoting diversity and inclusion.
“The collaborative will find in the college a fertile environment for transformative collaboration and engagement,” Ford says. “As our society finds itself in a moment of full-reckoning concerning race, there is tremendous opportunity for the collaborative to expand its community impact by assisting corporate boards, businesses, community organizations, school districts, and museums, as they begin to tackle institutionalized racism and inequities.”