Sara Clarke Kaplan

A New Vision for AU’s Antiracism Center

As Sara Clarke Kaplan begins her tenure as executive director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARPC), she sees great opportunities to build a nationally renowned interdisciplinary center and intellectual hub for all individuals, on campus and beyond.

“Dr. Kaplan is a force of nature. Her extraordinary energy and sheer brilliance arrive at American University at just the right moment to take the ARPC to the next level,” says College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean Max Paul Friedman.

Kaplan comes to AU from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she served as an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Critical Gender Studies Program. At UCSD, Kaplan co-founded and served as associate director of the Black Studies Project (BSP), which she helped to grow from a small speaker series to a $2.5 million cross-departmental center. BSP emerged in 2013 in the wake of a campus-wide racial crisis following a series of racially charged events. Today, BSP is a national model for groundbreaking research, cross-campus intellectual community, scholarship, and collaborations.

Kaplan recognizes the similarities between BSP and ARPC, which was established in 2017 under the leadership of Ibram X. Kendi after a series of racist incidents on AU’s campus. During the past year, the Center has been led by Malini Ranganathan, School of International Studies associate professor, and advocate and award-winning author Christine Platt.  

“I have been handed something that is already incredible at a generatively important moment,” says Kaplan. “[T]he next step is to think about how to build on this remarkable base of faculty, staff, and students, and how to build on the robust conversations about race, power, and difference that have been happening on campus over the past year.”

Kaplan says that her first task is to listen. She wants to know how ARPC can better support research, provide more opportunities for collaboration and innovation, and help build stronger connections to community organizations working for racial justice—all priorities of the Change Can’t Wait campaign.

One of Kaplan’s goals is to use the ARPC as a “collaboratory”—an experimental site where faculty with similar interests can come together across divisions and schools to conduct innovative research that could not be easily housed in any one unit. She believes that pulling together experts from all different fields to examine a problem from different angles has the potential to create powerful change in the world.   

She uses abolition as an example, pointing out that AU faculty right now are working independently on issues of prisons, policing, and critical race theory. “I would love to … bring them together—from CAS, the law school, SPA, education, SOC, SIS—around questions of abolition. What would an interdisciplinary research project have to say about the relationship between racial justice and abolition? Would it develop a new mindset that could be applied not only to prisons, but to climate change, to thinking about our education system, to broader public affairs questions?” she asks.   

Kaplan envisions ARPC as facilitating the broad work of analyzing why policy exists the way it does and then creating new thought frameworks for reimagining policy. She also wants to focus on giving individual faculty members and graduate students more time and financial resources to conduct research.   

Funding for antiracist research can be difficult to find, she explains. “The first part is to convince people reading the applications that the problem you’re trying to resolve actually exists. So, it is important for us to find creative ways, as a research center, to make it possible for people doing the research we support to find funding.”   

Kaplan also stresses the importance of creating a place that convenes, supports, and enables people at all stages of their academic careers, from first-year students to full professors, who share a commitment to antiracist scholarship and social change.

“We believe that shared commitment can bring together people from different disciplines, approaches, and experiences—from activists to artists to students to scholars,” she says.

Kaplan is currently hosting a series of student-focused First Fridays events — an opportunity for students to learn and share ideas about antiracism work at AU and beyond.

Collaboration is central to Kaplan’s vision for ARPC. Across AU, from the Public Health Program to the Humanities Truck Project, faculty members have built existing relationships with community-based organizations working for social justice. Kaplan aims to support and strengthen these existing relationships, in a way that continues to prioritize mutual benefit and mutual respect.  

“My goal is to support collaborations that are equal partnerships, where all parties benefit by the work we do together and where the collaborations are sustainable, respectful, and reciprocal,” Kaplan explains.  

To support ARPC’s work as part of Change Can’t Wait, please make a gift today.