Developing Future Social Justice Leaders at Tougaloo College

Jan 11, 2022 2:30 PM ET
Blog

As the ninth of 13 children, Dr. Carmen J. Walters grew up in New Orleans, where her father built houses during the day and worked at the railroad at night, and her mother did a variety of jobs, such as cooking for local schools. Her strong family values included faith, education, work ethics and a passion for social justice.

“They were the hardest working people I’ve ever met,” says Carmen of her parents. “They would preach to us that you have to work hard and get an education.”

It's an upbringing that prepared Carmen for a career in higher education and her current post as President of Tougaloo College. The school is a small, historically Black liberal arts college founded by the anti-slavery American Missionary Association on the grounds of a former slave plantation in Mississippi.

"The red thread in Tougaloo's tapestry is social justice and racial equity," Carmen says. "Tougaloo is often referred to as the  Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi because of the significant role the college played in advancing the fundamental principles of equality, freedom and justice that helped change the educational, political and social landscape of Mississippi, the U.S. South and the nation.”

Tougaloo was also home to iconic civil rights leaders and strategists, including Ralph Bunche, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Robert F. Kennedy, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"We continue this commitment to the present day with weekly convocations and presidential lectures that are part of a student's total educational experience. They are exposed to notable public figures, speakers and thought leaders who examine current social issues, revealing some of the complexities as well as opportunities for greater understanding in our society,” says Carmen. “In addition, through the newly established Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice, students are trained for lifelong engagement on social justice issues through theory, practice and initiatives designed to make meaningful change throughout the world.”

Carmen believes that change starts with students and ends with students.

“Our graduates are politicians, scholars, researchers, professionals and difference-makers, often holding the title of ‘first’ in their professions and making notable contributions toward the betterment of society,” says Carmen proudly. “Historically, Tougaloo College has produced more than 40 percent of Mississippi's African American physicians and dentists and more than 33 percent of the African American attorneys and educators, including teachers, principals, school superintendents, and college and university faculty and administrators.”

Given its history and mission, Tougaloo proved an excellent match for Gilead’s Racial Equity Community Impact Fund, launched one year ago to award grants to groups working to reduce racial inequalities affecting Black communities across the United States. The college is using the funding to support students, strengthen its social justice offerings and enhance leadership development resources. For example, students currently complete a capstone research project that helps them hone their work readiness skills, connect to mentors and give back to their communities. These research projects include a social justice component, and some connect students with partners at healthcare institutions.

“This opportunity has allowed us to be more in the forefront, with students on the field – or as I say, battlefields,” says one of Carmen’s colleagues, Sandra Hodge, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Tougaloo.

Moving forward, Tougaloo plans to continue building its social justice curriculum, starting with offering a certificate and later adding social justice as a minor and major for students interested in turning their passion into a career. These programs would equip students to approach social issues such as reducing health disparities by applying subject matter and skills learned in the classroom to bring about social change and equality for communities where they work and live.

Like her humble beginnings in New Orleans, Carmen sees this as the start of a new era for developing great leaders of social justice at Tougaloo College.

“Our goal for our scholars is to change and grow their minds,” says Carmen. “It is that ethos that we think is the beginning for them to become such great leaders.”

And when Carmen encounters challenges in leading the institution's 700 students, she uses the values instilled by her parents and remains focused on her mission.

"I believe this is what I was called to do, what I was built to do and what I’m supposed to do," she says.