Scholars, community organizers discuss urban policy at civil rights roundtable

Calmetta Coleman
Director of Communications for Civic EngagementUniversity Communications

More than 60 civil rights leaders, scholars and community organizers from across the country recently gathered at the University of Chicago to participate in the first of a series of three roundtable discussions intended to identify evidence-based policy solutions to challenges that disproportionately affect urban communities.

The series, called Urban America Forward, is hosted by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, with support from the Office of Civic Engagement.

“Cities are the cultural, scientific and social incubators of the world. But often their populations—minorities, immigrants and young people—are not trusted,” said Michael C. Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago, and founding director of CSRPC. “We designed the Urban America Forward roundtable series to be a safe place for people to have frank and provocative conversations about solving the civil rights challenges that persist in cities across the nation.”

The first roundtable, held on June 19, focused on demographic trends, organizing, education, poverty and next-generation leadership. The next two discussions are planned for September and December 2015. They will examine housing, juvenile justice, policing, democracy, health, technology, the environment and infrastructure equity. The series of closed-door roundtables will culminate in a national conference in February 2016, which will be open to the public.

CSRPC will document the evidence and policy solutions that emerge from the roundtables in a series of issue-specific policy briefs, which will be the foundation for the national conference.

“The University of Chicago’s commitment to evidence-based solutions goes hand-in-hand with our commitment to civic engagement through campus, local and national partnerships,” said Derek Douglas, the University’s vice president for civic engagement. “Urban America Forward provides a forum to connect urban leaders working on issues of equal access to relevant urban scholarship, particularly from UChicago faculty.”

Dawson was one of several UChicago faculty members and affiliated staff to present research at the roundtable. The others were Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor and chair of Political Science; Micere Keels, associate professor in Comparative Human Development; Shayne Evans, CEO of UChicago Charter School; Kerwin Charles, deputy dean and the Edwin and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Chicago Harris; and Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall. They were joined by civil rights leaders and young activists representing organizations from across the country, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, ColorofChange.org, the Dream Defenders and BYP 100.

“The Black Lives Matter movement and the growing national dialogue about race and inequality underscore the timeliness and urgency of this roundtable series,” said Kavitha Mediratta, head of Racial Equity Programmes at the Atlantic Philanthropies. “The diversity of participants in the room, their commitment to solving urban challenges and the interdisciplinary approaches to the issues that were discussed make me optimistic about what will be achieved.”

“Current events are a continual reminder that our nation must address the continued and dangerous disconnection between the imperatives in urban American communities and national public policy,” stated Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “A candid dialogue among academics, activists and other policy influencers can be a critical step toward breaking this discontinuity.”

To maintain the conversation between roundtables and leading up to the national conference, participants are encouraged to document their ideas and proposed policy solutions via op-eds and blog posts, and via Twitter using the hashtag #UrbanFwd.