UA Little Rock Researchers Studying Faith-Based Racial Justice and Reconciliation

Project leaders will develop resources to assist faith leaders with racial justice discussions.

African American Man at Church with His Hand Raised

Racial justice can be a difficult topic, but a report from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock shows community members want to discuss it and they want their faith leaders to guide those conversations. A team is expanding on that study by interviewing faith leaders in Little Rock as well as racial justice leaders around the country. Ultimately, the goal is to develop resources to help Arkansas faith leaders discuss racial justice with their congregations.

This research is a continuation of the Little Rock Congregations Study, a long-term, community-based research project launched in 2012 by Rebecca Glazier, associate professor of political science. The project’s objectives include gaining a better understanding of faith-based community engagement, providing students the opportunity to be involved in the research process and giving back to the community. 

“We really try to do that with the reports that we write and with sharing our findings in an accessible way so that the research that we do as academics doesn’t just sit on dusty library shelves, but is accessible and helpful to our community in a way that will really benefit them,” Glazier says.

The project involves conducting a big survey of congregations during presidential election years and smaller studies in the off years. The survey always asked questions about racial justice and race relations, but in 2019, the project’s Clergy Advisory Board — a group of eight Little Rock clergy members — said this issue was really important to them.

Glazier’s team took a deeper dive into the issue and for the 2020 study, researchers interviewed nearly 2,300 people from 35 diverse congregations including Jewish, Islamic and Black Protestant congregations. The key takeaway from this report was that the number one issue participants wanted their congregation to do something about was race relations, Glazier says.

“That is a really important finding that we want to share with faith leaders and we want to share with places of worship so that people can know that if we want to make positive progress on race relations, we think congregations should be at the forefront of that,” she says. “That’s where a big difference can be made.”

Assistant professor Kirk Leach has been working on the project for about five years and says while this finding is significant, it’s not completely surprising because people often trust the leaders of their faith communities and will listen to them about important issues.

“It did provide empirical support for what we were seeing in the broader community…faith-based organizations are an anchor in the community,” Leach says. “These are trusted institutions, trusted organizations, so folks in the community go there as a safe space.”

Researchers are using a $5,000 Jack Shand Research Grant from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion to conduct additional research. Glazier is working with a team of UA-Clinton School of Public Service students to conduct interviews with Little Rock faith leaders and faith-based racial justice leaders around the United States. 

After gathering information about strategies being implemented across the country, researchers will work with focus groups to figure out what ideas could be implemented in the Little Rock community. Glazier’s team is also partnering with the Social Justice Institute at Philander Smith College and the Race Under Grace Project at City Church Network who are helping make sure the final resources provided to congregations are a good fit for the community. The goal is to share these resources later this year. 

There is “so much good that places of worship do in the community” and this research could be a way to assist them with that work, Glazier says.

“Whether it’s providing a place of community for people that can really improve their quality of life or whether it’s being a leader on important social issues like racial justice, these are all things that our congregations do for us and our city and our community,” she says. “And I think we want to continue to find ways to highlight that and understand those processes better.”

Leach’s specialization is in community development, but he’s always worked with organizations that are delivering services in communities of color, so he says joining this project was a natural extension of his previous research. Leach considers himself a “pracademic” and wants his work to mean something for someone on the ground. Although racial justice is a difficult topic that will take time to address, he says this research can help congregations provide a positive impact in their community. 

“I’m hopeful, I remain optimistic that this is one of the pathways through which we can begin to break down some of those barriers,” Leach says.

More information about the Little Rock Congregations Study is available here.  

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.