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At USF, 23 research projects will focus on racism and disparities

The work will involve 90 faculty across eight colleges and the university’s three campuses.

The University of South Florida on Wednesday announced the funding of 23 research projects that will focus on systemic inequality, disparities and other issues of race, an effort that began as a response to local and national protests this summer.

About 90 faculty members across eight colleges and all three USF campuses will be involved, with the projects covering a range of topics. One research group will investigate how skin color and facial features can play a role in police violence and racial disparities. Another will study the postpartum health of mothers in Rwanda, while another will examine ways that recruitment of high school athletes can limit their economic and social mobility.

One study, led by USF anthropology professor Antoinette Jackson, partners with Robles Park Village and the Robles Park Tenant Council Association in Tampa and the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, among others, to create a model for how Florida should handle forgotten African American burial grounds. They will focus on the Zion and Oaklawn cemeteries in Tampa.

The project will aim to create a database of oral histories from those immediately impacted, along with an interactive map. The researchers also will examine the role businesses played in perpetuating the way history played out, with many of these burial grounds going unnoticed and paved over for development.

“We don’t want to repeat history and have someone dig up a grave 100 years from now and say, ‘Well, why didn’t they do something?’” Jackson said. “It’s important to remember this isn’t something that’s old and forgotten. It’s something here right now, and we actually have a shot at doing something about it.”

Jackson said she is excited the university is responding to the current social climate through investing in research.

“We consider this project to be a model for Florida of what to do and how you can bring history to the forefront and engage both the past and present,” she said.

The research effort was proposed by a university task force in July as local and national protests continued after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. It is funded with $500,000 from the Office of the Provost, USF Research and Innovation and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.

One of the projects will be led by marketing professor Kelly Cowart, who will study the role marketing campaigns have on Black children, particularly males, and the way those children are disciplined in schools and the criminal justice system.

As a Black woman, Cowart said, she has always been conscious of the way people of color are portrayed in mass media. She aims to create a cultural competency learning module for marketing professionals.

“If we can instill the complexities in them now, then hopefully down the road they’ll be the ones who are mindful of not doing a Gucci sweater with blackface during Black history month.” she said. “We see that kind of thing happen again and again, and it usually results in a scripted sorry from a diversity officer.”

Like Jackson, Cowart said she’s encouraged by USF’s commitment to fund these projects.

“As professors we’re really, really, really, really, really, really pressured to do research, but it’s also important to do research that matters,” she said.

Each project will be completed within the next year.

USF president Steve Currall said in a statement the research is a part of the university’s role in the community.

“The University of South Florida has a responsibility to help create a civil, humane and compassionate society that deeply values diversity and inclusion,” Currall said. “Advancing innovative, interdisciplinary research is a key element of our active commitment to addressing racism in society.”