Connecting Civil Rights to the Universe

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

Universities have a moral and social obligation to educate future leaders on the history leading to current forms of inequality and to educate them on the role we each play in righting society’s wrongs. The classroom is a dynamic setting for educating students on social justice issues and encouraging them to take active roles in the community to affect meaningful reforms. For more than a decade, my course, titled Constitution and Communities of Color at New York University and Comparative Constitutional Challenges at Columbia University, has been a catalyst for bridging the gap between the classroom and the community. While my course addresses historical-to-present-day court cases impacting African, Latino, and Asian American communities, the methods I use to advance social justice in the classroom can easily be adapted to other courses that don’t specifically deal with race and ethnicity.

First, I bring community struggles to the classroom through guest speakers from grassroots community-based groups working “in the trenches” on social justice issues. This initial step is critical to humanizing these struggles so students see these issues are real. In an academic setting, the students hear firsthand accounts of how societal oppression is impacting the lives of people the students may, otherwise, never come in contact with because of de facto housing patterns that insulate them from these struggles. In class, students have been exposed to rehabilitated youth from Bronx Connect, an alternative juvenile defender program, who compared their experiences in jail to alternative programs to incarceration; day laborers from Workers Justice Project speaking in Spanish through translators (often classmates), who relayed the dangers of being exploited at the workplace because of their immigration status; and victims from DRUM, a South Asian Organizing Center, who described egregious incidents of ongoing post 9-11 racial profiling. Each speaker ends with ways in which students can become involved with their respective organization to help address the issues discussed. Volunteer opportunities range from tutoring youth and teaching English to attending rallies and assisting in legal clinics. These opportunities can open doors to internships and full-time paid positions upon graduating from college. Indeed, one of my students began volunteering for Community Connection for Youth, a group she first learned of from a guest speaker in class. After graduating from college, she worked as a paid development associate for the organization.

Once exposed to societal issues through speakers, videos, and readings, students are given assignments in which they must take an informed stand on a federal, state, or local issue addressed in the classroom. This next step is an important precursor to affirmatively becoming an agent of change. Before students can become involved in an issue, it helps to know where they stand on the issue. One exercise is to write their elected official regarding the position the student wants the official to take on current issues demanding either legislative action to remedy existing wrongs, or a critical nomination vote for a government office that has the power to advance social justice, including whether to affirm or oppose a President’s nomination to the US Supreme Court. In my students’ time in college, three seats on the U.S. Supreme Court became vacant and Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor were nominated to fill these lifetime appointments (Baker, 2005, 2009; CNN, 2005). Other issues have included reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (Leadership Conference, 2016); reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws (Drug Policy Alliance, 2015); and passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would give undocumented youth a way to obtain legal residency (National Immigration Law Center, 2010). This exercise underscores each student’s civic responsibility to hold elected officials accountable and responsive to issues that dramatically impact underserved and vulnerable communities.

To further help the students formulate a position, assignments that require the students to draft policies or plans are instructive. Some assignments I have given include drafting a proposed settlement for reparations for slavery; legislation to determine land claims in California following the Mexican-American War; and a lesson plan to educate high school youth on making an informed decision to enlist in the military. To be effective, these assignments require both creativity and a realistic application of ideas and strategies.

After students are exposed to issues through speakers and writing assignments, the focus of the course then shifts to involving students directly in the community. Students are required to attend a community event that discusses legal issues affecting African, Latino, and/or Asian American communities. They must write a summary of the event; meet people they don’t know; analyze how the issue advances legal reforms, education, and coalition building; critique the plan of action; and create a flyer that would attract students to this event. To fulfill this assignment, students have participated in marches for immigration reform, both in New York and Washington, DC; observed the trial on the stop-and-frisk challenge in federal court; and attended vigils for persons who have been killed by police. This involvement is critical to interacting with the community and to understanding how organizing and coalition building go hand in hand in achieving legal victories on social justice issues.

The course culminates in a final group interactive presentation and individual ten-page research paper on a current legal issue impacting minority communities. These assignments provide students with the opportunity to educate their fellow classmates on critical social justice issues that they need to be aware of and to delve deeper into qualitative research that supports their position. Final topics have included the role of the media in shaping public opinion in the controversy over a mosque near Ground Zero (, 2013); the rollback of the Voting Rights Act; police brutality and reforms; the prison industrial complex; and the challenge to President Obama’s executive authority and immigration reform (Liptak & Shear, 2016).

The intent behind these teaching methods is to raise awareness of past and ongoing societal inequities and to link them to the responsibility of each member of society to eradicate barriers to meaningful integration for all people. The goal is to plant seeds—the real test of the effectiveness of these methods is how the students incorporate these lessons into their daily lives to address racial, social, and economic inequality.

Measuring the Course Impact

In mid-2015, I began conducting an anonymous survey of my former students regarding their career path after graduation (using Monkey Survey); 185 students have responded so far. The initial results show that upon graduation, many students worked in nonprofit organizations, including Teach for America, Brennan Center for Justice, Harlem Children’s Zone, MinKwon Center for Community Action, Peace Corps-Mozambique, and Vera Institute of Justice. Several students pursued graduate school. Of those responding to the question of whether they attended graduate school, 66% of NYU students and 64% of Columbia students reported they attended law school. Upon leaving graduate school, 39.67% (NYU) and 41.67% (Columbia) of students were working for a community-based organization, government agency, NGO, or policymaker and another 15.78% (NYU) and 12.30% (Columbia) of students were in education. The different nonprofit and government employers included the Innocence Project, Urban Justice Center, Sadie Nash Leadership Project, Federal Transit Administration Office of Civil Rights, Legal Aid Society, US Department of Justice, City of NY Administration for Children’s Services, Workforce Housing Group, and Stanford Law School’s Afghanistan Legal Education Project. Of those responding to the question “How has Professor OuYang’s course impacted your level of civic engagement (community advocacy)?”, 57.14% (NYU) and 56.14% (Columbia) of students indicated their level of civic engagement had increased. The range of volunteerism included tutoring, mentoring, sitting on boards of nonprofits, anti-prison organizing, participating in the People’s Climate March, handling pro bono cases, forming alterNATIVE Education to train teachers and provide mentorship and peer education to Native American students, and working to create a nonprofit legal organization, the Guyanese Legal Foundation.

More telling were their responses to the survey prompt “If Professor OuYang’s course influenced your decision to go to graduate school and/or your career path, please describe how.” Some of the responses have included:

– “It helped me recognize the importance of having a local impact on big issues, as well as the role of history in all policy decisions.”

-“Solidified interest in exploring the use of legal mechanism for public interest/social justice ends. Provided perspective on interplay between legal mechanism and organizing/publicity, etc.”

-“Professor OuYang’s class showed me how much race was imbedded in American law and how it impacted people of color in their daily lives. It really showed me how our public school education is lacking in history, specifically in high school. An education that does not detail the role of race in history is a disservice to citizens and is one of the reasons why Americans are so racially illiterate.”

-“It has had a major impact on my ability to understand political and social dynamics in the world.”

-“She didn’t so much influence me regarding my career, she did however, influence my perspective on civil liberties and rights. I question things more and now understand the importance of engaging others in making the country better.”

-“As an undergraduate, she demonstrated for me the possibility of doing both scholarly work and activism. I was awakened to a number of social issues in her class that formed the basis of my senior thesis and ultimately my graduate work. Professors like OuYang became a model for my current position as an Assistant Professor.”

-“Professor OuYang definitely helped in shaping my conscious around issues of racialization in America, which has become more prominent in my thinking and work as an artist. Her course helped in stressing the need for solidarity when thinking about oppression, either mine or someone else’s.”

-“Professor OuYang’s class reinforced my decision to go to law school and instilled in me a desire to work with people of color and underprivileged communities. In my first year at a law firm, I have worked on numerous pro bono applications (for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence).”

-“Professor OuYang and her course-inspired me to better craft my beliefs and then to hold onto them for dear life, and to speak about them and fight for them . . . I carry all of the knowledge, all of the emotion, all of the passion from Professor OuYang and her class with me as I forge my way as an actor and artist.”

The students’ reflections in response to the question “What constructive advice would you give to improve the course to better prepare you for the real world?” further underscore the importance of advancing social justice from the classroom to the community:

-“I would add more outside-of-class assignments and get involved in the community and advocacy programs—that was one of my favorite parts of the course and even helped push my boundaries of programs I normally would not be involved in. Combining the readings, critical thinking, and class discussions with more real-life community advocacy and reporting would help further promote the messages being delivered by the course.”

-“Find a way to stay connected to your community. Especially now that things are so intense and frightening regarding immigration, deportation, racial profiling, police brutality. Keep fighting for the importance of Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name.”


Unless educators bring issues of social justice and a historical framework through which to view these injustices to the classroom, students may not have the foundation to reciprocate by participating in community activism. Change takes time, and incremental assignments that empower and inspire students to make a difference are important. It is the synergy of classroom education and community activism that maximizes learning, tests values, and advances social justice issues. And it is this synergy that institutions of learning must embrace and cultivate in order to produce responsible leaders who will advance the cause of equality for all.


Baker, P. (2005, Sept. 6). Bush nominates Roberts as Chief Justice. The Washington Post.

Baker, P., & Zeleny, J. (2009, May 26). Obama hails judge as inspiring. The New York Times.

CNN (2005). Bush nominates Alito to Supreme Court. Retrieved from

Drug Policy Alliance (2015). Background on New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Retrieved from

Leadership Conference (2016). Voting Rights Act. Retrieved from

Liptak, A., & Shear, M. (2016, Jan. 19). Supreme Court to hear challenge to Obama immigration actions. The New York Times.

National Immigration Law Center (2010). Five things you should know about the DREAM Act. Retrieved from (2013). Is it appropriate to build a Muslim community center (aka the “Ground Zero Mosque”) near the World Trade Center site? Retrieved from

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community