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New UNF Institute studies race and ethnic relations

Mark O'Mara, JeffriAnne Wilder and others at an event hosted by the Institute on the Study of Race

The University of North Florida’s new initiative to start an open and engaged conversation about race in our country kicked off with an event spotlighting an incident that occurred just miles from campus.


The UNF Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations (ISRER) co-hosted the Distinguished Voices Lecture “Race, Justice and the Law” in October, which included a viewing of the Sundance award-winning HBO documentary “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets.” The film chronicles the murder trial of Michael Dunn, who killed Jacksonville teen Jordan Davis during a dispute over loud music. Ron Davis, Jordan’s father, and criminal defense attorney Mark O’Mara — both recognized worldwide for their efforts to foster constructive dialogue about race and crime — joined a panel discussion following the movie.


“I’m so proud of UNF for providing funding and support for this and so glad to offer it for our students,” said JeffriAnne Wilder, an associate professor of sociology and founding director of the Institute who facilitated the discussion. “This happened not even five miles from here. It’s personal to us.”


About 600 people attended the event in the Adam W. Herbert University Center. It was co-hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences Pre-Law Lecture Program and the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work. The diverse crowd ranged from high school and college students to senior citizens, and they all remained silent during the riveting film and applauded frequently during the spirited discussion that followed. Panelists Michelle Cook, director of personnel and professional standards for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and human rights advocate Chevara Orrin, chief creative catalyst for EQ3 Media, LLC, also contributed to the lively discourse.


“UNF has been progressive by stepping out of the box,” Davis said, crediting the University with the creation of an Institute designed to bring people together while productively discussing their differences. “I applaud them.”


Davis, who recently spoke at the London premiere of the documentary, said he works mostly with college and high school students because he believes millennials can have the biggest impact on race relations.


“We want to change their minds and hearts,” he said. “Millennials question everything, which is great.”


“I love that UNF is doing this,” said O’Mara, who is widely known for his role as a defense attorney for George Zimmerman during the high-profile Trayvon Martin murder case. “They get real kudos for having Ron Davis here and starting talks about real social issues.”


O’Mara agreed that the current generation of college students can make a difference and commended the University for providing an open and engaging discussion forum.


Although Davis and O’Mara were on starkly separate sides in their respective trials, they have now joined forces to encourage a constructive dialogue about race and legal problems in America.


This century has witnessed a paradigm shift in how race, racism and race-related issues have been articulated and understood nationwide, said Wilder, who joined the UNF faculty in 2008.  Referring to a survey conducted by PBS NewsHour and Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion that concluded that race relations in American society are worse now than in recent history, she said UNF has “the opportunity to be ahead of the curve by moving beyond the talk and seeing how research drives the conversation to the next level.”


Valerie Marie Moore, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from UNF, praised her alma mater for providing a forum to involve the community in important discussions with faculty and students.

“It’s been needed for such a long time,” she said. “Even among ourselves, we haven’t had open conversations about race. Bringing people of all dynamics together is wonderful. This is how we live.”


With its core principles of research, education and public scholarship, the Institute was created to foster critical and creative thinking, conduct empirical research and promote and support public scholarship on issues surrounding race, racism and racial inequality. Wilder said it aims to move beyond black-white issues and look at how issues of race intersect with gender, class, color and sexuality.


The idea evolved from discussions about the representation level of minority faculty and other diversity discussions by members of the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, which advises the University president on all issues related to diversity and racial equality. Wilder credits the Commission’s first chair, political science professor Henry Thomas, with envisioning an Institute centered on racial diversity on campus.


“UNF did a great job of talking about racial issues. What was missing was the research hub,” said Wilder, a former commission chair who co-wrote a grant for internal funding for a research project.


The Offices of the President and Provost ultimately provided the seed money for the development of what would become the ISRER. The Institute was officially recognized by the Florida Board of Governors in September — one of only two centers on race in the State University System, as well as the only one that prioritizes research. The Institute will offer six research talks this year designed to unite UNF colleges and “let everyone on campus know and recognize that race resides not only in social sciences, but has implications in business and engineering,” Wilder said.


A goal of the ISRER is to compliment the work of OneJax and other UNF centers and institutes that facilitate discussions on human rights. Engaging the community further enhances the Institute’s efforts to cultivate inclusion, which is necessary at a time when Florida has attracted widespread attention for the murders of both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.


A sociologist and scholar specializing in diversity, race relations and gender issues, Wilder writes, researches and lectures on the contemporary experiences of black Americans and other racial/ethnic groups. She is actively involved in the community, having served on Jacksonville Community Council Inc.’s Race Relations Progress Report Review Committee.


Like Davis and O’Mara, Wilder is counting on the college-age demographic to take the lessons learned during these community conversations and put action to words.


“Research shows a general perception that young people are more optimistic,” she said. “They are not as jaded, even though they are as impacted by race as older generations.”


It all comes back to a question she often asks her students in class.


“Is another world possible?”


Contemplating the gravity of the question is “sobering” for students, she said.


“They want to have more conversations about the topic. UNF is a very inclusive and diverse community, but students want to ask these questions in a broader forum. That’s why the Institute will play such a positive role for the University community.”


For information on the Institute, visit