Graduate Profile: Jennifer Gunter Directs Collaborative on Race and Reconciliation
In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, the University of South Carolina developed a relationship with William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation founding director Susan Glisson and Winter Institute associate director Charles Tucker. They trained faculty members at USC in how to facilitate the Welcome Table process started by the Institute, which promotes dialogue and community building around improved race relations.
Jennifer Gunter was one of the many people who knew they had to participate in that conversation. She was working on her doctorate in American history at USC at the time and came on board in December 2017. By May of 2018 she was in a full time position as the director of the South Carolina Collaborative on Race and Reconciliation (SCCRR).
“SCCRR works in communities and classrooms across the state to support those seeking greater civic engagement, civil discourse, and active understanding to lessen the divides created by our differences,” Gunter said. “For now, I’m a collaborative of one, though I’ve recently hired a project coordinator who will start in 2019. So far, my role as director has given me the freedom to plan initiatives and programming, facilitate Welcome Table South Carolina discussions, work in advancing public history initiatives, and expand the reach of the university into the communities surrounding our campuses.”
Gunter, who earned her MA in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi in 2012, realized that her Southern Studies coursework had made her comfortable discussing race and how it intersects with all other identities. Earning the degree reinforced her understanding that history is more than the sum of its parts.
“It impressed on me an empathetic understanding of the past,” Gunter said. For Gunter, a deep understanding of southern history was necessary in order to do her job. “I have to see what lies behind the words ‘Heritage Not Hate’ as well as ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she said.
Gunter believes open dialogue is vitally important, particularly because the violence of the past continues to visit the present. “People are literally dying over misconceptions of history and race,” Gunter said. “I hope to see a reckoning with the past, something that goes beyond apologies. I hope to see the power of conversations and listening transform our understandings of each other.”
In addition to her work with SCCRR, she also is an adjunct instructor for the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina, directed by former University of Mississippi professor Bob Brinkmeyer, where she teaches an Introduction to Southern Studies course. “I try to incorporate as much interdisciplinary study as I can and have been using book chapters and articles, primary documents, movies like 13th, The Patriot, and The Free State of Jones, and field trips to local sites like the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, which was built in 1871 and has been turned into a museum of Reconstruction,” she said. “I let the kids lead the discussions during class time and urge them to delve deeper into the documents and artifacts. I feel it’s my duty to make sure that they leave my class with a clear understanding of how our histories continue to impact the present.”
One way to do that includes taking her class to visit the South Carolina State House on a field trip. “The grounds are populated by monuments to men who enacted monstrous acts against South Carolinians,” Gunter said. “I hope to see the power of conversations and listening transform our understandings of each other,” she said.
Between teaching and her duties at SCCRR, she said she hopes that one day she will work herself out a job and end racism. “It’s my job to figure out the best path toward that goal, which I don’t think is unobtainable,” Gunter said. “It was a system that was created by humanity. Therefore, it is a system that can be destroyed by humanity.”
Written by Rebecca Lauck Cleary
Rebecca Lauck Cleary is the Center’s communications specialist. She received a BA in journalism from the University of Mississippi and her MA in Southern Studies. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 Southern Register.