FSU Religion faculty awarded prestigious Luce Foundation grant to examine race, build health equity 

Assistant professors of religion Jamil Drake and Laura McTighe
Assistant professors of religion Jamil Drake and Laura McTighe

Two researchers from Florida State University’s Department of Religion have received a $250,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program to examine racial justice, Black political activism and religion in the American South and to document, study and challenge structures that drive health disparities in the region.

Assistant professors of religion Jamil Drake and Laura McTighe will use the grant to build a digital archive around the work of health justice titled “The Callie House Project: Religion and Public Health in the Black Experience in the American South.”

Named after a Tennessee washerwoman who organized formerly enslaved people in churches across the South to build mutual-aid societies and campaign for reparations at the turn of the 20th century, “The Callie House Project” centers around the variety of Black Southern religious sites and practitioners who organized health models and their own institutions.

“McTighe and Drake have already shown themselves to be leaders in one of the most vibrant subfields in the study of religion at present: the analysis of how the collective struggles of Black Americans have made use of links between race and religion,” said Martin Kavka, chair of the Department of Religion. “This grant expresses their commitments to others: to their partner organizations working for racial justice, particularly in health care; to the city of Tallahassee; and to the students and public who will make use of the archive that will reshape the stories told about race, religion and health care in the South.”

Over the next three years, McTighe and Drake will work in partnership with Black Southerners to analyze health disparities in the studied communities and provide evidence to suggest new policy changes.

“This grant is a chance to truly honor and learn from the Black women and elders who pioneered models of community health and well-being that societies are still building upon today,” Drake said.

“The Callie House Project” is one of 12 projects selected from hundreds of submissions that align with the Luce Foundation’s goals of rethinking established understandings of religion and race in America, imagining alternative possibilities and changing the terms of public discourse.

“These collaborative projects connect diverse knowledge-makers and encourage them to work together in novel ways, pushing creatively at the boundaries of existing knowledge territories,” said Jonathan VanAntwerpen, program director of the Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program. “We are delighted to support this innovative work, and we look forward to learning, along with others, from the new knowledge and insights it will produce.”

Drake and McTighe’s project advances public knowledge about Black religion and politics in the South by prioritizing research into female-led grassroots activism and reproductive justice. Their work will add a crucial yet often-overlooked aspect of Black human rights activism in U.S. history, and their digital archival project will move beyond a conventional view of history.

“To understand the history of the Black freedom struggle in the American South, we must grapple with the political activism of Black women and Black religious entities in matters of health and reproductive justice,” McTighe said. “Working in partnership with Black women activists and health practitioners to document the untold racial justice organizing histories in our region, we hope to alter public discourse and build greater health equity across the South.”

Beyond recognizing Drake and McTighe’s research excellence, the grant acknowledges the pair’s deep commitment to community, as well as their knowledge and organizing work in creating new worlds based on equality and justice.

To allow graduate students to participate in the project, McTighe and Drake will host a graduate seminar in Fall 2022 on “Race, Religion and Health.” Similar opportunities for undergraduates will be available in the following semesters.

This project is part of a new grant-making initiative from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program on advancing public knowledge on the topic of race, justice and religion in America. Through this grant cycle, the Luce Foundation aims to support collaborative, experimental and field-shaping initiatives that enliven the practice of public scholarship on — and promote public understanding of — race, justice and religion in America.

For more information, visit https://religion.fsu.edu/.