News

Forum

Illustration by Maria Fabrizio

Every Sunday at 7 a.m., my father would swing open the door to the bedroom I shared with my brother and, in his rural Kentucky accent, say, “Get up from there, boys.” My father was a deacon, and we knew he meant business on Sunday mornings. So we’d scramble to put on our Sunday best, rush down for a family breakfast, and then pile into the car to go to Zion Baptist Church, the largest black Baptist church in Cincinnati at the time.

My social life revolved around the church, and I always felt the warm comfort of community as I joined my friends for Sunday school class, youth choir, and Boy Scouts, which my father led. Once the Sunday service began and the congregation was immersed in prayer and song, my friends and I would sometimes sneak out to the corner store to buy candy and soda. If we caused any mischief, our parents would know about it before we got back. Everyone in our neighborhood was always looking out for each other that way.

I sometimes missed the beginning of services, but I almost never missed the sermons, especially as I grew to better understand and appreciate the civil rights leaders who often preached to us. My own pastor, the Rev. L.V. Booth, left a deep and lasting impact on me with his emphasis on engaging people from all backgrounds and beliefs. I was also captivated by the theologian Dr. Howard Thurman, who in his calm and mellifluous voice preached that community can flourish only when we embrace unknown brothers and sisters and allow their voices to reshape our culture.

Everyone in our neighborhood was always looking out for each other.

When I came to Richmond four years ago, I carried this spirit and pledged to bolster the university’s already strong commitment to diversity and inclusion and build a warm and welcoming intercultural community. We made a “Thriving and Inclusive University Community” a core pillar of our strategic plan. Among our recent efforts, we are building a well-being center and working toward a shared understanding of our history.

This summer, we released Making Excellence Inclusive: University Report and Recommendations to propel our work forward. Consistent with the recommendations I received, I’ve appointed a senior administrator and a universitywide council to accelerate our efforts to build a campus community that reflects the rich diversity of our nation — and to cultivate an inclusive environment in which all can experience a sense of belonging.

Ultimately, our goal is to create a skilled intercultural community at the University of Richmond in which unknown brothers and sisters of all backgrounds, identities, viewpoints, and experiences are capable of achieving meaningful understanding across cultural and ideological boundaries. This work will ask much of each of us. But if our students leave here knowing how to navigate differences with empathy, kindness, and respect, well then, we will know we have created the kind of community in which I grew up, one that invites all of its members to share their voices and help lift everyone in it to ever-higher levels of excellence.