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New Center Prepares Students to take Lead in Advancing Justice

Margart Drew, Kristin Kalsem, Verna Williams,  Emily Houh

The College of Law’s newest endeavor—the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice—takes flight this school year. The Center, which builds upon the College’s existing program in law and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, officially will be launched on October 22, 2010 with keynote speaker Tina Tchen, executive director of The White House Council on Women and Girls. This event will be held at the Netherland Hilton at noon.

This exciting event is the product of many years of hard work. The Center’s opening is especially gratifying for three College of Law professors who have been committed to seeing it become a reality: Emily Houh, Associate Dean of Faculty and Gustavus Henry Wald Professor of the Law and Contracts; Kristin Kalsem, Professor of Law; and Verna Williams, Professor of Law. Each has been committed to establishing the Center at the College, with the goal of creating a space to cultivate scholars, leaders, and activists dedicated to social change. Professors Houh, Kalsem and Williams direct the new Center, which brings together three entities under its auspices: the joint degree program in law and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; the Freedom Center Journal; and the Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order Clinic. In addition, Margaret Drew, Professor of Clinical Law and Director, developed the Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order Clinic, as part of the vision created by the Center Directors.

The Center provides significant opportunities for experiential learning, research, and interdisciplinary inquiry. It seeks to bridge theory and practice; forge relationships with local, national, and global communities; and prepare students to take the lead in advancing justice.

Professors Williams and Kalsem were originally attracted to the University of Cincinnati College of Law specifically because of the joint degree program. “I was excited to help develop a program that was bringing together two disciplines in ways that presented so many opportunities for positive change,” says Kalsem, “and to work with students who begin the program with social justice in mind.” The College of Law’s joint degree program was the first in the country; it remains one of few similar joint degree programs. Among them it is the most developed, securely anchored by a strong, interdisciplinary academic segment.

Initially, there were three goals for the joint degree program, in addition to maintaining a strong academic experience for participants: create a publication arm; facilitate an externship program through which students could put theory into practice; and establish a clinical experience. Each was accomplished within the joint degree program and eventually expanded beyond the program’s bounds. While the externship program remains an integral part of the joint degree experience, the “publication arm” goal of the program now exists in the form of the student-run Freedom Center Journal, and the clinical experience takes the form of the Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order Clinic.

As the programs continued to grow and develop, it seemed logical to create a mechanism through which the different prongs could expand, progress, and be connected, not just to the joint degree program and the people associated with it, but to the University and the broader community. It made sense to create a cohesive center, where each of these entities could apply their resources more effectively and efficiently. “The Center is about collaboration in general,” says Professor Emily Houh. “There’s an overlap in the underlying values of each arm of the Center, and joining together allows us to think bigger, to reach farther with our goals and to deepen our vision of what we should be doing. Collaboration makes it easier—and much more fun.”

Professor Kalsem echoed those sentiments. “The Center provides an institutional home for work we have already been doing,” she said, “and it gives us a good place from which to grow those and other programs related to race, gender, and social justice.” For example, both Professors Kalsem and Houh mentioned that, in the future, they would like to have the opportunity to develop more of a “research arm” for the Center, where students could participate more directly in research; and others—such as fellows or scholars-in-residence—could contribute to the Center’s work as well.

Interconnectedness of Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality

The Center provides many opportunities for interdisciplinary work, not only within the College of Law, but also with the entire University of Cincinnati community and the community-at-large. In addition to this interdisciplinary focus, the Center takes an intersectional approach to the issues it confronts. “The Center focuses on the interconnectedness of race, gender, class, sexuality—all of the parts of people’s identity,” says Professor Houh. “It’s a place to talk about who we are, both individually and in terms of group identity. It creates a different space to exist and move in community when collaborating, so we don’t have to recreate the wheel all the time.”

The Freedom Center Journal is one area in which both the interdisciplinary and intersectional aspects of the Center can continue to play a visible role. The student-run journal began thanks to a gift from Harry and Ann Santen. Today, the Journal remains unique because of its ties to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a respected community institution.. The Journal addresses issues of race, gender, and social justice regularly as part of its mission.

The work of the Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order Clinic also is a key part of the Center. Clinic clients are often living examples of the intersection of the issues covered by the Center. Many face not only issues of domestic violence—and correspondingly gender issues—but also issues of race, poverty, and education. “The Center brings together a more cohesive consciousness for students on the role of race, gender, and culture in the law, both on the practice and the evolution of the law,” said Professor Margaret Drew. Students have the opportunity to reflect on whether the law and justice systems would treat their clients differently if issues of gender, race or class were not present. The combined resources of the Center will allow students to step back and truly appreciate the systemic impact of cultural biases on the practice of law, in order to gain perspective and ideas on how to bring about solutions.”

All are very excited about the impact the Center will have on the College of Law in terms of drawing new students to the law school. “The Center says we’re serious about addressing these issues,” said Kalsem. Williams agreed, saying that the Center shows that the College of Law has a “cadre of lawyers focused on gender, race, and social justice, as well as students dedicated to work on these issues.” Perhaps Professor Houh summed it up best: “As a recruitment tool, the Center says we’re committed to addressing these issues and to utilizing our resources in human power to work toward a more just society.”