Claflin University’s Deeply Rooted Commitment to Social Justice
Mar 11, 2022
Dr. Dwaun Warmack was just miles from the town of Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 when the police shooting death of teenager Mike Brown ignited unrest and sparked national debate about the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement.
At the time, Dwaun was nearly a month into his new role as president of nearby Harris-Stowe State University. He says Brown’s death was deeply felt by the campus community given that 40% of the students hailed from Ferguson. To help the community heal, learn and move forward, he made sure that all the ensuing conversations with police, municipalities, leaders and legislators were held on campus.
“We had a civic and moral responsibility to be the think tank to help the community heal,” explains Dwaun. “I don’t believe social justice is an activity or event. It’s who you are as a university. It’s in the DNA.”
Today, he’s the president of Claflin University in South Carolina, one of the nation’s top 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), where his longstanding commitment to social justice aligns with the university’s foundation. He explains how Claflin, which opened in 1869, was founded on basic social justice principles and became the first institution in the country to award a degree to a woman of any race or background.
Soon after joining Claflin in 2019, the university established the Center for Social Justice, which is supported by Gilead’s Racial Equity Community Impact Fund. He views the Center for Social Justice as a vehicle for transforming attitudes and thinking about race while also reshaping systems that have historically disadvantaged Black communities. The center currently conducts diversity, equity and inclusion training for police departments, civic governments and corporations around the country. It’s also focused on health disparities, conducting research on why Blacks suffer disproportionately from conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and most recently, COVID-19.
“Blacks are dying at a higher rate than anyone else of COVID-19, but COVID is not racist,” Dwaun says. Rather, Blacks are impacted by a range of socioeconomic factors such as lack of access to quality health care, he explains. To help remedy the problem, Claflin is forming a partnership with a major healthcare company to provide telehealth services to rural communities in South Carolina using a home-based technology. The goal is to develop a model that can be adapted for use throughout the state.
Early last year, the center launched a Pathways from Prison education program, in which some 100 incarcerated individuals in South Carolina are working toward their college degrees. Dwaun understands the value that education brings as he had to fight against prevailing social forces to become the first member of his family to go to college. His grandmother was a sharecropper and his father was incarcerated when he was a child. His mother, who raised him and four other siblings, had limited schooling but recognized the importance of education and preached that it was “the great equalizer.”
While he admits he wasn’t the best student in high school, Dwaun was fortunate to have a “guardian angel” and mentors who believed in him and showed him the way, even guiding him through the process of applying for college financial aid.
“I am unapologetic about mentoring young people,” he exclaims. “It’s our mission to academically, personally, socially and spiritually develop students.”
Dwaun notes that HBCUs have been fundamental to building a class of Black professionals in the United States. Though HBCUs represent fewer than 3% of colleges and universities in the country, they produce 23% of the country’s Black graduates. Some 40% of Black individuals with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees were educated at HBCUs, and 70% of Black dentists and doctors practicing today attended HBCUs. He says these colleges and universities succeed by creating a nurturing environment that takes a holistic approach to educating students.
“At HBCUs, no matter how you come in, you are much better when you get out,” he says. “It’s important that our students have real impact, to create a more just society for all.”