Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) pursue justice and equality by default. It’s one of the reasons the signature institutions were founded in the first place. True to their missions to provide equitable educational and social opportunities to Black people in America, HBCUs have been the breeding ground for some of the nation’s greatest civil rights movements.
But the work is far from done – and HBCUs know they have a responsibility to continue carrying the mantle. As a result, South Florida’s only HBCU – Florida Memorial University – has formalized its fight against injustice. The school launched a Social Justice Institute, which will be their vehicle for continuing to effect positive change for their students and community.
The brainchild of Dr. Tameka Bradely Hobbs — FMU’s associate provost for academic affairs — the institute was first announced in July. Its webpage describes it as “a research institute and solutions-focused think-tank to examine issues involving the intersection of racial disparities and injustice in Miami-Dade County and the State of Florida. The purpose of the FMU Social Justice Institute (SJI) is to serve as a resource for understanding and facilitating tangible reforms in order to achieve a more just and fair society.”
In an exclusive interview with Moguldom, Hobbs detailed the reasons for starting the institute. After years of leading student-involved activism – like taking three busloads of students to Sanford, Florida to rally after Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 – Hobbs said she knew it was time to take the university’s social justice work to another level.
“My first year here at Florida Memorial, that spring Trayvon Martin was murdered. It just blew me away as a mother of two young African American men, as a researcher working on a book about racial violence and as a professor at a historically Black college,” Hobbs told Moguldom.
The students were very engaged and Hobbs wondered how she could maintain their interest. “My question became, ‘How do we capture this energy and keep the students focused so they can learn from everything that’s taking place?’” she said.
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After Trayvon’s death, Hobbs worked with students to create the campus-based organization “Lions For Justice.” Then she found out that Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, was an alum of FMU. The synergy seemed divine to her.
“As we kept engaging with the Trayvon Martin Foundation around programming … that partnership here at the university became even closer, but for me I knew there was more that we could do,” Hobbs said. “It was within the years after that I began developing the idea for a social justice institute here.”
Fast forward to 2020. A pandemic, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others underscored there was no time like the present to formalize her plans. After speaking with university leadership, Hobbs said they decided to move forward.
“This past spring with everything that’s been going on in the United States, we decided that now was the moment and that our response and our stake in the ground would be the social justice institute here at Florida Memorial University,” Hobbs said. “We could help be the voice and the beacon of solving some of the systemic issues that perpetuate our community.”
In a separate exclusive interview with Moguldom, FMU President Dr. Jaffus Hardrick echoed Hobbs’ sentiments about the urgency of the work FMU will do through its Social Justice Institute.
“It is time for Florida Memorial to really take its proper place of leadership in this community. When you think about the health pandemic, the racial pandemic, you name it, they’re impacting folks who look like us. People are looking for us to be a solution center to help resolve many of the challenges that are impacting our communities in a very negative and disproportionate manner,” Hardrick told Moguldom. “We can no longer sit on the sidelines. We are expected to be the change agents in this community and talk about matters that are impacting us like none other.”
The institute’s areas of focus include: systemic racism, criminal justice, educational justice, civic engagement, gun violence, economic justice, environmental justice and health justice. FMU joins other HBCUs around the country like Dillard University, Shaw University and the University of the District of Columbia that have created social justice institutes to combat white supremacy.
The goal is “to position ourselves as a place where we can have these conversations, where we can produce solutions, produce the research that informs the solutions and work with community advocates to actually change law and policy,” Hobbs said.
A historian by training, Hobbs thought the institute needed to be a place for scholarship and research that could inform policy recommendations.
Future plans include robust programs and experiences for students and the public, community conversations, training for student leaders and an “advocate-in-residence” program.
“The advocate in residence would be a social justice practitioner that would be on our advisory board, and work with us on training student leaders, educating them and helping us craft a service-learning project to be involved in,” Hobbs told Moguldom.
They are also brainstorming ideas about creating a degree program after having success with an experimental sociology course with a focus on social justice offered a few years go.
“We partnered with the Dream Defenders, who came in and taught a special topics course in sociology and we had a lot of success. It gave us a lot of confidence that we could do something really special with our curriculum, Hobbs said.
Effective immediately, Hobbs said they are looking for qualified individuals to serve on their advisory board alongside recently announced members including businesswoman Dr. Kim Cliett Long, attorney Alexander Rundlet, attorney Joseph H. Serota, history professor Dr. Paul Ortiz, FMU Provost Dr. Adrienne Cooper and former Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is the political director for The New Florida Majority. Board selection is by invitation only.
They also hope to find like-minded partner organizations and find funding to host “the inaugural convening of a social justice conference” when they can safely do so without exacerbating the covid-19 pandemic.
“We have so much talent and so many people who have been really active and successful doing work around social justice initiatives in our community. I want to be able to bring them to our campus to have our students hear from them and learn from them,” Hobbs said.
It’s an effort Hardrick hopes will yield fierce social justice champions among their students. They hosted a Sept. 17 virtual town hall about the Social Justice Institute and the importance of voting.
“We try to teach our students it is their responsibility to be socially and civically engaged and connected. They just can’t be individuals coming to an institution of higher learning and do nothing. We find our purpose and connectivity in speaking up,” Hardick said.
FMU President Hardick commended Hobbs for her leadership on the Social Justice Institute and said they’ve been getting “extremely positive” feedback since launching it.
“I’m really proud of and give kudos to her. She has literally been a champion in launching the institute and there’s a great deal of support coming in about the program and people realize that it’s time for us to do it,” Hardrick said. “They weren’t looking for that from some of these other (South Florida) institutions, particularly when many of the issues are impacting us – our young Black men and women and Black communities. They were expecting us to step up and be leaders in this space. We’ve been too silent for too long as a HBCU.”
Those days of silence are over, according to Hobbs and Hardrick.
“It really is about galvanizing others in this community. … It’s imperative that we get everyone else involved because our voices alone won’t do it,” Hardrick said.
“We hope that Florida Memorial University will be able to provide a platform for them and I’m really excited about what this could mean for our community and our campus,” Hobbs concluded.
To learn how you can get involved or make a contribution to the Florida Memorial University Social Justice Institute, contact FMU’s Office of University Advancement at 305 626-3611.
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