WeRISE Connecting Westerville, Otterbein Resources for Community Change

Posted Aug 10, 2021

When Westerville for Racial Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Engagement (WeRISE) began operation in January 2021, its first priority was to establish non-profit status and hire an executive director. After seven months of hard work, these goals were met and the real work of WeRISE can begin. 

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Renée L. Thompson

“The Westerville community has so much powerful energy and goodwill that we are really here to give direction and guide all the stakeholders towards common goals,” said Renée L. Thompson, the newly hired executive director of WeRISE. “It’s an asset-based approach, meaning we are taking what’s going on currently and building on that to make them even better.” 

Thompson points to Otterbein President John Comerford’s words of how “we can do so much more when we are not siloed” as a key inspiration for their work. Otterbein, the City of Westerville, Westerville City Schools, and the Westerville Public Library are working on their own initiatives focused on equality, equity, and inclusion. With members from each of these partners on the WeRISE Board of Directors, connections between organizations and intersections of all their important work is taking shape, utilizing the strengths of each group and understanding where there are missed opportunities in the community. 

“Otterbein University has been a key partner from the beginning of WeRISE,” Thompson explained, providing search committee members for hiring her position, representatives on the board, and office space located by Otterbein’s Office of Social Justice and Activism.  

“Being on campus and having the opportunity to learn from and work with young people is so important. These are the future leaders for our world, and they are not afraid to affect changes they see needing to happen. This campus space is the perfect fit for WeRISE,” Thompson said. 

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Working alongside campus partners is also part of the immediate plans for WeRISE. A new art exhibit from the Columbus-based Fresh A.I.R. Gallery focusing on racism and mental health is slated to open in an Otterbein gallery space during Fall Semester 2022. 

“Art builds bridges towards shared empathy and understanding,” Thompson said. “Bringing this exhibition to Otterbein will bring members of the Westerville and campus communities to confront topics that are sometimes more abstract. A visceral representation will touch not only the head but the heart, fostering collaboration towards positive change.” 

While WeRISE has a lot of hard work ahead, the organization is motivated by the support of Westerville’s community organizations and citizens. According to Thompson, discomfort will be part of the journey, but with discomfort comes the desire to learn and grow as people. 

“The resources are there and it’s WeRISE’s charge to drive them forward,” said Thompson. “When one of us rises, we all rise.”