What Do You Have to Offer? Establishing A Social Justice Vision That Matters! By: Gregory Fontus, M.Ed.

Being in an office that focuses on all things social justice, diversity, and inclusion can be quite challenging, all things considered. Right now, there is a president in the White House who blatantly seeks to daily infringe upon the civil liberties of underrepresented groups, thus causing social justice offices to have to focus on addressing and responding to the rise in student mental health issues and student activism that’s becoming the new norm of the collegiate experience. Additionally, there is, of course, the everyday invisibility that historically marginalized groups continue to face while trying to survive in a society that often relegates them to its margins. With all of this, how does one implement a social justice vision that addresses the white supremacist culture embedded within the fabric of our country, invites meaningful and fearless dialogue of opposing views, and creates opportunities for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed?

It wasn’t until I began to champion the philosophies of the late Howard Thurman that answers to these questions began to appear. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman asked a provocative question regarding religious institutions that I found to be metaphorically quintessential to the foundational impetus of developing a framework for a social justice or multicultural office. Thurman wrote:

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life?” [1]

Thurman challenges and invites us to self-reflect not upon what we are doing as an entity, but rather what we are offering to communities that identify as the disinherited. It’s my argument that social justice and multicultural offices at higher education institutions need to establish visions that focus on what they are offering the communities they are purposed to serve. At Vanderbilt University, the Office of Inclusion Initiatives & Cultural Competence (IICC) offers a comprehensive service model vision that focuses on 5 competencies of A.C.C.E.SS.

A: Advocate

The first competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to Advocate. To advocate is to intentionally advise and holistically support the needs and issues surrounding and affecting multicultural, international, and underrepresented students and groups. Being at a PWI that serves over 40 undergraduate multicultural organizations and has increased its efforts and resources towards social justice and identity, the obligation to advocate for students is critical, both academically, politically, and socially. Often times, the work of social justice is rooted in dismantling the negative representations, historical legacies, and institutional patterns and practices that have been perpetuated and upheld by generations of white supremacy. To advocate within the A.C.C.E.SS. model is to focus on celebrating diversity while confronting ideological frameworks that have rendered groups of people invisible in efforts of fostering a campus community of recognition and respect.

C: Critical Dialogue

The second competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to engage the campus community in Critical Dialogue. Within the IICC office we offer a catalogue of cultural competency trainings, modules, and workshops to the entire campus community in efforts to deepen the level of authentic and inclusive dialogue across difference. This need for critical dialogue is key for social justice and multicultural offices to participate in because it is through this modality that the self-exploration of ideologies and identities can be addressed. The ability to dialogue promotes and nurtures the practical communication and leadership tools necessary to effectively navigate diverse communities with sensitivity, empathy, and confidence.

C: Culturally Relevant Programming

The third competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to offer Culturally Relevant Programming. It’s imperative that social justice offices create programming initiatives for various identities of race, faith/religious traditions, nationality, class, gender, sexual identity, ability, and other social identities to meaningfully engage with one another. Relevant programming initiatives allow for multiple communities to be heard, opportunities for faculty engagement, personal storytelling, and the social/identity development of students to take place. The more we offer culturally relevant programming, the more we validate and humanize the voices and experiences implanted within our various campus communities.

E: Environments of Reprieve

The fourth competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to offer Environments of Reprieve. What can be forgotten in the work of social justice is the space for people to kickback and take mental breaks from the racial, political, and academic fatigue often times presented. Social justice and multicultural offices should be identified as environments that engage in healthy wellness and well-being initiatives for their students. Offices need to be spaces where students don’t have to be victims of pretension or in competition with their peers. Social justice and multicultural offices should be a place where the full and complex humanity of each individual is acknowledged and authenticated.

SS: Strategic Success

The final competency of the A.C.C.E.SS. vision is to offer Strategic Success. As offices are charged with sharing the narratives of various cultures and dismantling the notions of white supremacy, we need not forget that practitioners are here to serve the holistic student need. Therefore, strategic success plans should be established in which offices collaborate with university and community partners to build a diversity network that offers learning and leadership opportunities for all students. This allows for underrepresented students to have access and exposure to opportunities that they would otherwise be slighted from because of the unfortunate realities of white supremacy (i.e. internship opportunities, exposure to job recruiters, and networking with key university alumni). Instead of students seeking out opportunities, our offices should be bringing the opportunities to them!

When Howard Thurman inquired about what religious institutions had to offer the disinherited, he did so with the mindset of re-envisioning what community means. Leading from a mindset of what your office is offering allows for underrepresented students to centered and validated within your office. We should be willing to offer them the access to opportunities, experiences, and resources that their human right has granted them. When we begin to do so, the work of social justice then becomes reality.



Greg Fontus (he/him/his) is the current Assistant Director for the Office of Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence (IICC) at Vanderbilt University. He began working at Vanderbilt in June 2012 after graduating from the University of South Florida where he received both a Bachelor of Science in Finance and a Master of Education in Instruction and Curriculum. During his time at Vanderbilt, Greg has received certifications from the National Coalition Building Institute as a diversity and social justice workshop facilitator (Fall 2012), was named the Dean of Students New Professional of the Year (2012-2013), attended the Social Justice Training Institute (Fall 2013), and was named the OHARE Staff Member of the Year (2014-2015). Greg has conducted many social justice workshops for all parts of the Vanderbilt and Nashville community in hopes of contributing to a community where all people understand the importance of celebrating other groups of people. His passion for diversity and social justice stem from his desire to dismantle systems of oppression that have historically rendered people invisible. To connect further with Greg, please use the following:

[1] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 3.


How Elite Colleges and Universities Still Limit African American Student Access, By: Marcelius Braxton

In April of 2016, Georgetown University issued a formal apology for the school’s role in slavery.  In September of 2016, the school announced that it would award “preferential status” to the descendants of slaves who were forced to work for or who were sold by the school.  However, Georgetown did not provide financial restitution to those descendants who were admitted to the University (Samsel, 2017).  These actions by a top university like Georgetown denote progress in providing access for underserved students, however, this progress is limited to only a select few individuals.  Georgetown University and other elite colleges and universities are still too slow to address the systemic issues that are a direct result of slavery and its aftermath, which limits access for African American students.  Policies, such as the legacy process, which gives preferential treatment to students based on familial relationships, and economic issues, such as the wealth gap and its effects, limit full scale access for all African American students.

An example of a beneficiary of Georgetown’s policy is Mélisande Short-Colomb.  She was born in 1954 and moved from Louisiana to Washington, DC to attend Georgetown in the 2017-18 school year.  However, she was quick to note exactly what she received from Georgetown.  She noted that she had to apply like all other applicants.  She also has student loans, a Pell Grant, work study, and “all of those things that go into being a student, and being a somewhat disadvantaged student” (Donnella & Kelly, 2017).

Short-Colomb’s enrollment experience exposes a problematic approach by colleges and universities when it comes to addressing the disadvantages that African Americans face as a result of slavery and its aftermath. While Georgetown established a policy that awards “preferential treatment” to the descendants of slaves associated with the University, it does not go far enough to address the role slavery played for other African American students or even the students who are direct descendants of enslaved individuals who were sold by Georgetown, as evidenced by Short-Colomb’s situation.

Elite colleges and universities often fail to truly address the systemic effects of slavery and its aftermath that limit access for African Americans today.  Slavery has created an educational and socioeconomic imbalance that is being perpetuated by Universities in two crucial ways.  First, a legacy process in elite universities exists that rewards people for the past access through which their families benefitted.  Second, a wealth gap was created through government action and perpetuated by a lack of educational access, preventing many African American students from receiving the resources and opportunity to reach these elite schools.  Even if African Americans are able to gain access to elite universities, they are forced to endure more debt on average due to a racial wealth gap that results from slavery and policies that followed it.

At elite colleges and universities, legacy students, students who have a familial relationship to alumni, make up a large portion of the incoming class.  Harvard’s incoming class of 2021 consisted of 29% legacy students, and last year, applicants who “had Harvard in their blood” were three times more likely to receive acceptance into Harvard than those who did not have it.  A review in 2011 showed that across the top 30 schools in the United States, children of alumni had a 45% greater chance of admission than other applicants. Legacy students have a tendency to be white and wealthy.  At schools like Yale, Penn, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, and 33 other colleges, students from families in the top 1% of the income scale make up more of the student body than the bottom 60% of the income scale (Blumberg, 2017).

A combination of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and other government implemented actions have contributed to most African American students not receiving access to most predominately white Universities until recent decades.  Even with increased access in more recent years, African American students suffer due to a legacy process that rewards students based on the access that their families had, which is an opportunity not afforded to nearly any African Americans students.

Short-Colomb’s story highlights two important pieces of information.  First, she has received access to an elite university, something which has previously only been afforded to mostly white and affluent students for decades.  Second, she has to deal with the financial implications of college, which African American students often face as a result of the racial wealth gap that is a direct result of slavery and its aftermath.

Recent studies in 2011 have shown that the typical black household has only about 6% of the wealth of a white household.  This translates to a median white household of $111,146 versus $7,113 for the median black household (Shin, 2016).  Wealth is considered the difference between the value of a family’s assets (a home, a car, etc) and debts.  Much of this wealth gap is created due to policies created by the government.  One of the biggest issues is homeownership, which is how many Americans attain wealth.   Statistics show that 73% of whites own a home while 45% of blacks own a home.  The median white owner’s home is worth $85,800 while the median black owner’s home is worth $50,000 (Shin, 2016).  Much of what occurred is a result of redlining, which is a practice of denying services through direct means or by instituting selective disadvantages to target populations.  The 1934 National Housing Act redlined black neighborhoods and marked them as credit risks.  And though redlining was officially outlawed during the 1960s, poverty rates, lower home values, and issues of infrastructure have perpetuated the issue that redlining caused.  Even in the present day, people of color tend to have higher interest rates on their mortgages, and Wells Fargo even admitted to steering black and Latino households towards subprime mortgages over white households with similar credit profiles (Shin, 2016).

In order to eradicate the wealth gap, education is often suggested as the solution, yet, even having a bachelor’s degree does not allow African Americans to overcome the wealth gap, as the return on investment is much higher for whites than blacks or Hispanics.  From earning a four-year degree, white families see a return on investment of $55,869 vs $4,846 for a black family.  Even if African Americans graduate from college, they often face higher debt, which causes them to start behind the average white college graduate (Shin 2016).

African Americans do not see nearly the return on investment as whites do if they complete a four year degree, but one must consider that African Americans often struggle to even obtain a college degree as a result of many historical reasons.  A person’s educational success can often be predicted by their parents’ education and their family’s income wealth.  Historic factors such as slavery, when being taught to read or write was prohibited, as well as segregated schooling cause a disparity in education and wealth.  African American families are also more likely to be in school districts that are lacking quality or resources because of housing discrimination/segregation and the wealth gap.  Subsequently, being in a lacking school district often makes students less prepared for college (Shin, 2016).  Because elite colleges and universities are not only more likely to choose someone with wealth but actually reward students who either come from wealth and/or whose families had access to these elite schools when most African Americans did not, most African American students operate at a disadvantage from birth.

Because many African Americans students operate at a disadvantage from birth, they are forced to face at least two obstacles completely out of their control.  First, the wealth gap is a product of government action that systematically created an access disadvantage for African American students.  As a result of the wealth gap, African American students often find themselves with inadequate access to secondary education and resources, which limits their ability to receive access to elite schools.  Since we know many of the top universities take more students from the top 1% of the income scale than the bottom 60%, a lack of wealth appears to be a prominent limitation.  Even if African American students do receive individual access to a University, they often face the reality that they need to take out more loans than their white counterparts, which perpetuates the wealth gap and limits their access to success and wealth.

Second, if the wealth gap was not enough, it is compounded with the policy in place by many elite colleges and universities that students should receive access through the legacy system, which affords students benefits merely because those in their family have attended that school.  African Americans historically have not received access to most universities until recent decades, so it’s impossible for most students to receive that benefit.  The inability to benefit from the legacy process creates an even bigger access issue for African American students and a gap that may continue to widen.

Georgetown University has attempted to right a wrong by providing “preferential status” access to the descendants of slaves who were associated with or were forced to labor for the University.  However, in doing so, they highlight the issues of access that African American students face during the college process, particularly for elite schools and universities.  Mélisande Short-Colomb, a beneficiary of Georgetown’s policy, illustrates one area of access limitation for African American students.  Despites potentially receiving access because of her ancestors, she is still forced to take out loans and receive financial aid.  Because of the wealth gap in this country created by systematic government action, many African Americans who receive individual access face this same issue.  It should be noted that many of these schools are making attempts to alleviate the costs for low-income students, but these attempts are not nearly enough for all students.  There are also large scale issues of limitation that prevent African American students from even receiving individual access to these elite schools.  The legacy process creates a benefit for those who are most often wealthy and white despite those same groups already being beneficiaries of the wealth gap disparity.

For schools like Georgetown University and others who wish to right the wrongs of which they helped create, it is perfectly acceptable to commend their attempts to make progress and create access on an individual level for certain African American students.  At the same time, it is crucial that we note the limitations of that individual access and acknowledge that elite schools and universities are lacking in terms of providing systemic access for African American students as a result of not only government policies but school policies that created and sustained the wealth gap and the legacy process.  Until Georgetown and other elite universities rectify these limitations, their progress of creating selective individual access will be just and only that.


Marcelius Braxton (He/Him/His) is the Director of the Wilbur N. Daniel African American Cultural Center and an Adjunct Professor in Political Science and African American Studies at Austin Peay State University.  Marcelius holds a B.S. in Philosophy, Economics, and Political Science with a certificate in African Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law, and an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri.  He can be reached at braxtonm@apsu.edu or on twitter at @MarceliusB.



Blumberg, J. (2017, September 07). Harvard’s incoming freshman class is one-third

legacy—here’s why that’s a problem. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/06/harvards-incoming-class-is-one-third-legacy.html

Donnella, L., & Kelly, M. L. (2017, September 19). Starting School At The University That

Enslaved Her Ancestors. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/09/19/551356878/starting-school-at-the-university-that-enslaved-her-ancestors

Samsel, H. (2017, June 09). Their ancestors were slaves sold by Georgetown. Now they’re going

to school there. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from http://college.usatoday.com/2017/06/09/their-ancestors-were-slaves-sold-by-georgetown-now-theyre-going-to-school-there/

Shin, L. (2016, January 25). The Racial Wealth Gap: Why A Typical White Household Has 16

Times The Wealth Of A Black One. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/03/26/the-racial-wealth-gap-why-a-typical-white-household-has-16-times-the-wealth-of-a-black-one/#15e5f9a1f45e