How a nonprofit university created a culture of acceptance for marginalized students

How to find a Center for Equality and Justice, UMFS

By more than one measure, the Office of Federal Student Aid’s racial diversity report indicates considerable improvement, which ought to be cause for optimism. According to the OFA data from 2015-16, the number of racial minorities on college campuses in the US increased from about 27 percent to 26 percent between 2010-11 and 2015-16. In addition, the number of women increased from about 49 percent to 53 percent during that period, the report indicates. And while the proportion of black and Hispanic students dropped slightly (from 17 percent to 15 percent and 12 percent to 11 percent, respectively), the number of Asian students increased from 6 percent to 7 percent over the same time period. Because Washington is one of the most diverse cities in the country, this has been a good week for student advocates.

The Center for Equality and Justice, owned by the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, traces its roots to 2006, when the National Student Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NSLDEF) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund combined their efforts to help black students who were denied access to the benefits of affirmative action. Under its 2009 charter, New York’s CELJ serves as a staff resource center for students who’ve been or are at risk of being denied admission to their top universities based on factors like race, gender and national origin. In 2015, following a series of adverse Supreme Court decisions, CELJ emerged as a fully independent, national organization. To maintain its independence from its siblings organization, CELJ maintains a separate website, does not post news stories on its home page, and was founded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, according to Caitlin Green, CELJ’s senior attorney.

The Center for Equality and Justice’s main office is in New York City, and its main mailing address is New York, but CELJ maintains satellite offices at over a dozen colleges and universities across the US. The New York-based Center also maintains several Twitter accounts—chronicling the academic year’s happenings in college campuses, including high school, after-school enrichment programs and graduation—which will give students one more outlet for communication when they’re on campus. And in addition to a number of special issues and publications, CELJ has created a series of small surveys to track whether and to what extent students face institutional challenges in obtaining an education in schools with diverse populations. That information is used to send yearly surveys to the heads of colleges and universities so they can receive feedback on whether they are meeting the needs of students across racial, gender and ethnic lines. (Through Nov. 12, in-person surveys had been distributed to just over 500 schools, according to CELJ’s Washington operations director, Cynthia Allinson. An online survey was also administered at around the same time. Click here for more information.)

“A really good indicator is whether the colleges and universities are receiving campus feedback from their students,” Green says. “If so, that will show that they’re helping to cultivate a more open, more inclusive campus environment.” Green says that, after a new survey is administered to campuses at the end of each academic year, administrators receive a complete tally of the results and are able to examine the differences among students of color and their peers on campus.

Green argues that the success of CELJ’s surveys and surveys is only possible because of the multigenerational efforts of the organization and students who are passionate about issues related to diversity on campus.

“I’m really excited about the prospects of using the platforms of modern technology to engage with students,” Green says. “Newer technologies will facilitate communication.”

Some students already are using Twitter to communicate with CELJ, Green says. One of the most popular accounts is @elinedflag, which was established in September and posts short but thoughtful observations, like the fact that “standing on the steps of Crater Club in Yellowstone is like standing in the middle of Batman’s mind.” The account’s namesake, Etheli Denbo, is the organization’s director of external affairs. According to Green, Denbo is passionate about the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), which the OFA data indicates has become more diverse in the years since CELJ’s acquisition of NSLDEF’s data. But the student activists working to protect racial justice in college admissions face another, more familiar challenge: social media infighting over such issues as sports.

“There is some genuine professional debate over how to handle and what

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