Changing Attitudes—One Mind at a Time
by Marianne Kunnen-Jones
“Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903
Dr. Eric Abercrumbie, an administrator at the University of Cincinnati for over forty years, calls it “revolutionary.” He also considers it the most effective program UC has ever implemented to promote racial understanding. What is this radical initiative that Abercrumbie, the founding director of UC’s African American Cultural and Resource Center, finds so powerful?
It’s something now more than three decades old—the Racial Awareness Program (RAPP). Its approach can be summarized in four simple syllables found on a ceramic planter sitting on a window ledge in the sunshine outside its office. Etched into the sides of the pot are the words, “Each one, teach one.” As its motto hints, it’s small in scale. The majority of its work doesn’t happen in its tiny office in the Steger Student Life Center. It happens in the hearts and minds of each participant. Founded in 1986, RAPP became one of the first sustained programs founded on a US college campus to promote racial understanding among undergraduate students.
“RAPP is a place to talk about the ouch-y issues and discuss them in a safe place—issues of racism, white supremacy, homophobia, all sorts of issues that people have historically been afraid to discuss, even in classrooms,” said Abercrumbie. Cincinnati City Councilmember Tamaya Dennard was a RAPP participant as a UC undergraduate. She credits RAPP with expanding her understanding of racism. “It taught me to think more about systemic racism and not just how racism and prejudice appears on its surface,” she said.
RAPP taught her to be an advocate for anyone who is underserved and to understand “the complexities of prejudice beyond African American people,” she added. It also sparked her interest in pursuing a career in politics. She at one time served as a political director for a Cincinnati Council member who ran in the Ohio primary for U.S. senator. Then, Dennard herself ran for and was elected to Cincinnati City Council in 2017. “I’ve helped to both write and introduce legislation
that was based on inclusion,” she said. To place RAPP in the context of our nation’s racial history, its formation came twenty-two years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, eighteen years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and at about the same time that the anti-apartheid movement mounted increasing pressure, both nationally and internationally, for divestment in South Africa. The apartheid system eventually collapsed in 1990.
Closer to home, the context right on UC’s campus also ignited RAPP’s inception. Just four years prior to RAPP’s founding, the university’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) had promoted a “Martin Luther King Trash” party with a flyer that encouraged “creativity and a festive party spirit” with racial stereotypes including “painting your face black,” “cornrow hair,” and “food stamps,” among forty others listed. Students, faculty, and staff of color expressed outrage—as did many whites—and SAE’s actions resulted in a two-year suspension of the fraternity.
Again in 1985, campus tensions erupted when the white student body president proposed a halt on funding to race-based student organizations that duplicated the purposes and activities of student organizations that did not have racially centered concerns. He argued that some race-based organizations replicated the activities of preexisting organizations and allowed segregated groups to form. Members of the UC community who disagreed with him contended that many students of color preferred their own groups because they felt their needs and perspectives were not served by the existing, predominantly white ones.
Within this turmoil, UC’s administration asked Student Affairs to bring students together to discuss tensions and find possible solutions. According to a historical brief written by RAPP co-founder Linda Bates Parker, the concept emerged from months of discussion and research. In October 1986, an adver- tisement in the student newspaper, the News Record, announced the selection of the first cohort of students to participate in a pilot program. The twenty-five students were chosen, the ad said, from among sixty-eight applicants to participate “in a year-long project to heighten racial consciousness and to improve communications on UC’s campus.”
Bates Parker explained why a college campus was such an appropriate place for this kind of program. She told the News Record that a university is a place “most likely for racism to rear its ugly head. Possibly for the first time, students are confronted with what to do about a roommate of a different race, or where to sit in the student union.”
Traditional college-age students are also at an important stage in their identity formation, research shows. It’s widely considered to be a period of development when shame should not be attached to experimenting with different “selves,” questioning beliefs, and testing new ideas. That means a college program like RAPP is well timed to allow students to explore outside their comfort zones. It provides a safe space to ask questions and speak openly. Its main approach remains much the same today as when it was founded: extensive and intensive dialog with twenty-five to thirty students bought together in each yearly cohort.
The kind of candid conversation RAPP sparks can be seen in a 1990 report on the CBS Evening News. Racial slurs had been scrawled on a wall of a UC dormitory lounge over the initials KKK. In the report, an African American participant in RAPP admitted, “For a long time, I was one of the people out there saying, ‘Oh, racism doesn’t exist.’ But, you know, it does. And it wasn’t until I got to college that I got that.” A white female student opined: “I understand that as a white person I’m taking part in the privilege that the system gives me. But I don’t think it’s right to blame me for something people did a hundred years ago.”
By the time this segment aired on CBS, the RAPP model had already spread to at least three other institutions—including University of Dayton, Ohio University, and Ohio State University.
At UC, over a period of nine months, RAPP cohort members are selected from an application process and then meet twice a month for three hours and attend three overnight retreats. Participation remains voluntary. It follows a format outlined in Bruce W. Tuckman’s Theory of Group Development—“forming, storming, norming,and performing.” It gives rise to tension. “Conflict is central to it. We don’t want a room full of bobble-heads nodding in agreement about everything,” said Brice Mickey, RAPP coordinator. But over the many months of discussion, the program often builds a sense of solidarity and a sense of understanding. In the process, it also often leads to a greater sense of engagement in the university and prompts cohort members to ask themselves what they can do with the new perspectives they’ve gained, how they can use their new understanding to challenge and end racism, and what new roles they might take in the wider community.
The first cohorts at UC were balanced by race, but today RAPP also embraces
diverse ethnicities and gender identities. Discussion at one recent session, for example,invited students who identify as female and those who identify as male to split into two groups for discussion. The female-identified group discussed topics such as the amount of body space men tend to take up while women are expected to restrict their body space. They also discussed how they perceived that men dominate conversation without listening to what women say and view women as interrupting the conversation.
“RAPP puts a real face on the issues. Participants look deeper at their own attitudes and actions and see how they can be part of the bigger picture. It makes them more accountable,” said Mickey, himself a RAPP participant when he was a student.
For Brandi Chevere-Ralston, RAPP proved to be the “very first opportunity that I had to really examine the different aspects of my identity, as well as truly examining how various dynamics—race, class, gender, sexuality, etcetera—affected who I was and how I thought and related to others. . . . I wish that everyone I know could have experienced RAPP to some degree. . . . It’s an amazing, life-changing program,” she said.
Joseph “Jojo” Azevedo also found RAPP to be transformative. Azevedo says it helped him to develop a passion to promote social justice and a framework to better understand it. He went on to work with the AmeriCorps program Public Allies and continued to engage social justice organizations, activist groups, and community events that “strive to empower marginalized people. . . . RAPP has had a lasting impact on my life, whether I’m in situations that call for conflict resolution, analyzing daily media, feeling empathy for others, or creating my own content,” he said.
RAPP also has established a record of propelling participants to produce ripples of change in equity and inclusion not only at the University of Cincinnati, but also in communities across the nation and around the world. Rani Varghese, a participant in the eighth year of RAPP, found that her experience “planted deep roots” within her to pursue diversity, inclusion and social justice work. “My ‘RAPP’ friends joke that I went on to obtain a doctorate in RAPP. In every personal statement I have put together, to obtain my master’s in social work (MSW) and later my doctoral degree in social justice education and graduate certificate in women, gender, and sexuality studies, I have written about my RAPP experience,” said Varghese, a faculty member at Adelphi University.
“RAPP helped me find my voice, and I have used that voice to speak as loud as I can about issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice and listen as deeply as I can tell people's stories.” Those individuals include her clients, students, colleagues, and friends.
Other RAPP alumni became activists who organized efforts such as Cincinnati Black Lives Matter or other student and faculty activist groups on the University of Cincinnati campus.Mickey asserts that the issues and questions raised today are sometimes different from the past and they would not be discussed were it not for RAPP and its impact. Tough topics would remain ignored or unmentionable if RAPP did not lay a foundation for dialog and advocacy, he contends. The program also builds a greater sense of belonging in the UC community and keeps students from dropping out of college, especially those who feel isolated because of their race or gender identity. RAPP also has been an incubator for leadership. Arunkumar Muthusamy, who participated in the Accelerating Racial Justice program (ARJ)—a shortened, five-day program operated by RAPP—stresses that “knowledge of RAPP is of paramount importance for a leader because the worst thing about being non-inclusive as a group is being ignorant of the fact that you are being non-inclusive.”
RAPP has created leaders who push forward into communities and other institutions as well as student-leaders who become involved in other campus organizations before they graduate. The beneficiaries of that leadership development have included student government, peer counseling, gender identity groups, RAPP, and even UC itself. A one-time RAPP participant, alumna Bleuzette Marshall, became one of the university’s highest-ranking examples of this, achieving the title of vice president for equity and inclusion. “RAPP is an incubator for inclusive leadership,”said Marshall. “It provides a unique opportunity for participants to engage in courageous conversations that explore and address personal biases and societal inequities. Ultimately, it enhances one’s cultural competence and equips them as advocates for social justice.”
Remaining small in scale can limit impact. All told in a typical academic year, RAPP reaches one cohort group in its annual nine-month program, plus additional people through its abbreviated ARJ, scores of community outreach workshops requested by on-campus and off-campus organizations, and RAPPORT, a monthly program open to RAPP alumni and the public. In total, these offerings reach approximately 1,000 people per year at an institution that enrolls more than 44,000 students and employs more than 10,000. Lack of funds prevents expansion. Some believe so much in RAPP’s power to bring about positive change, they would like to see it become mandatory. But Mickey argues that the program would not work as effectively that way. Studies show that voluntary involvement is more effective because participants remain more open-minded and receptive than “reluctant” participants who can hold the process back.
Despite its “opt-in” approach and its small scope, RAPP as a catalyst for change can be compared to another program founded at UC and emulated at other universities: UC’s renowned cooperative education program. Just as co-op gives students an edge in their careers after graduation, Mickey finds that RAPP produces students with a similar advantage, producing more well rounded individuals better prepared for the workplace and the world.
Knowing that RAPP reaches only a sliver of a large community, some may question whether its “each one, teach one” approach truly does act as a revolutionary lever of change. Even as a small-scale program, it serves a vital role, says Damon Williams, author of Strategic Diversity Leadership. RAPP may be incremental in impact. But, he concludes, “It can be the lifeblood of change.”