The University of Texas at San Antonio received a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to work with community partners to address racial inequity. The university is one of 16 in the country and the only in Texas awarded a grant.

UTSA will use the three-year grant to fund its Democratizing Racial Justice project and collaborate with selected community and faculty fellows on yearly projects intended to create a public forum to think and talk about what racial justice means and what it could look like in San Antonio, said Jackie Cuevas, project developer and lead. Cuevas also directs the university’s Women’s Studies Institute and is an associate professor and assistant chair of the Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department.

“It’s really going to be driven by the interests of the community around questions of racial justice,” she said.

The Mellon Foundation awarded more than $72 million in grants to universities across the country as part of its new Just Futures Initiative, which supports teams of scholars who produce solutions-based work that expands the public’s knowledge of the nation’s racist past and can lead to more socially just futures. The foundation received 165 applications total.

Jackie Cuevas.
Jackie Cuevas. Credit: Courtesy / Cindy Elizabeth

Cuevas said the grant was the culmination of long-term work by various faculty members in the new Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department who are committed to conducting community-centered research that is relevant and helpful to San Antonians. When the Mellon Foundation invited UTSA to submit a proposal for the Just Futures Initiative, Cuevas and her colleagues knew the $5 million grant would allow them to expand the work they were already doing and build more partnerships in the community.

“This is really an organic outgrowth of that work that already existed,” she said.

Community partners include the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and the Alamo Colleges District’s Northwest Vista College. The Institute of Texan Cultures will manage an online repository of project archives, such as oral histories and murals. The Esperanza Center will serve as the anchor for holding events, and Northwest Vista’s Sandra Garza, coordinator of the Mexican American Studies Program, will be the project liaison for participating Alamo Colleges.

The Democratizing Racial Justice project is recruiting students who want to participate. Cuevas said it’s important for students to learn about racial justice because it will help make them better members of society and lead to professional success. Also, the project is an opportunity for students to give back to the community.

“You might think that there are some fields in which questions of racial justice are not relevant, but we’re seeing across the country that questions of equity and inclusion are super important, regardless of the field,” she said.

Additionally, President Joe Biden listed racial justice as part of his administration’s priorities, and UTSA wants to prepare students to be part of those ongoing conversations and to build more equitable structures wherever they go in life, Cuevas said.

The first project for students and fellows will start with some writing on what race and justice means to each individual. Then together they will come up with a community project with 2020 Texas Poet Laureate Emmy Pérez, who will help recruit community members for workshops that will give people the chance to think about what racial justice means. Eventually, UTSA hopes to attract a wide audience and experts from all over.

Cuevas said the idea is to learn more from the community about the definition of racial justice and create a space to think and talk about that subject without faculty imposing their own views on anyone. She believes racial justice is particularly important right now, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging through San Antonio and disproportionately impacting people of color, many of whom have gotten sick, lost jobs, and faced eviction and potential homelessness.

For the first year, all events for the Democratizing Racial Justice project will be held virtually, with plans to pivot to in-person events in 2022.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.