Campus News

UK Launches Civil Rights and Education Initiative With NAACP

Photo taken by Amanda Nelson at the UK College of Educations's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Symposium last fall
Photo taken by Amanda Nelson at the UK College of Educations's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Symposium last fall

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 7, 2020) — The University of Kentucky College of Education and the NAACP, the nation’s largest and most preeminent civil rights organization, are launching a groundbreaking collaboration. 

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, NAACP Chairman Leon W. Russell, UK Provost David Blackwell and UK College of Education Dean Julian Vasquez Heilig have signed an agreement to develop an education and research initiative focused on educational equity, civil rights and social justice. 

“Across the nation, Black communities and other historically disenfranchised communities of color are calling for action and demanding justice. As a higher education institution, it is our responsibility to help amplify these voices that have been disregarded for too long," said UK President Eli Capilouto. "At the University of Kentucky, we understand the transformative power of education, and we believe that the struggle for social justice begins in the classroom. That is why the UK College of Education has spent the past year preparing to launch this initiative dedicated to pursuing a high quality and equitable public education system for all. We are honored to collaborate with the NAACP and look forward to what we will accomplish together.” 

"This initiative will support the NAACP's continued advancement toward ensuring all disadvantaged students and students of color have access to excellent teaching, equitable resources and a challenging curriculum," said Johnson. 

“This is the first time the NAACP has locked arms with university-based scholars in the education field to help address the racial inequities that continue to plague our education system,” Johnson said. “These scholars will partner with students, educators and communities to document the experiences of those facing educational disparities and use research to shape public policy. To see change, we must focus on discipline policies, school funding structures, college and career readiness initiatives and our own great teachers in underserved communities." 

The initiative will be directed by Gregory Vincent, an acclaimed civil rights attorney and a professor. He is outgoing Grand Sire Archon of the Boule’, the nation’s first Greek-letter fraternity founded by African American men. The civil rights initiative will be based in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the UK College of Education, where Vincent has joined the faculty as a professor. 

Vincent is among a group of 12 diverse new faculty recruits to the UK College of Education who will be making an impact in areas where needs are among the greatest and resources are often lacking.  

“We worked to recruit individuals who bring to the table a breadth of expertise and energy. Not only are they adding to the diverse representation of our college, but they are people who have dedicated their careers to developing knowledge that will uplift vulnerable populations,” said Vasquez Heilig. 

Included among the new faculty is Sarah Locour, arriving from the University of Colorado Boulder, who will serve as an assistant director of the civil rights initiative and Cheryl Matias, a nationally recognized scholar who studies culturally responsive education practices.   

They will join distinguished researchers and educators at UK who are addressing some of the most pressing issues facing the nation.  

“Through decades of struggle, we have evolved into a nation of laws, and we built that foundation by saying that your rights have to be protected, not just in spirit but in word,” Vincent said. “Civil rights are for everyone and they enable us to bring our full selves to not just education, but also the workplace and beyond. Equitable access to education is a foundational need, and yet is still met with barriers. I am honored to be at the University of Kentucky, working with the NAACP, to ensure every student can access quality education without repression.”  

Advancing and protecting education for all students in pre-school through higher education will be the initiative’s focus, with particular emphasis on race-based discrimination. The initiative will also focus on students who are marginalized in the education sector based on ability, gender, ethnicity, age, class, religion, sexuality and other markers. These frequently do not exist independently of one another, so faculty, students and staff will also explore the nuances of intersectional identities. Particular attention will be paid to students from underserved communities in Kentucky. 

“Having a civil rights and education initiative at the University of Kentucky, where we have been on a year-long examination of our painful history of segregation, is especially meaningful,” said UK College of Education Dean Vasquez Heilig. “It speaks to how far we have come, and yet how much further we need to go, here at UK and across the nation. It is an important step for the university to take a leadership role in ensuring all students, locally and nationally, have access to a high quality education where they feel safe and supported.” 

The civil rights and education initiative will include: 

  • rapid release of research summary briefs and white papers to respond to education issues that arise in local, state and national contexts; 
  • workshops in response to areas of concern for teachers (such as workshops for teachers to better develop anti-racist Black History Month activities, civil rights curriculums, and trauma-informed education practices); 
  • community listening sessions; 
  • grants to support research relevant to the initiative’s mission; 
  • opportunities for faculty and students to become affiliates of the initiative and to collaborate on research, scholarship and projects impacting communities; 
  • paid or for-credit internships for undergraduate students interested in education-focused civil rights and equity work; 
  • funded research assistantships to graduate level students; 
  • symposiums highlighting work produced by the initiative; 
  • education briefings and convenings of institute fellows, NAACP national board members, and state and local NAACP education chairs; 
  • summits for educators and K-12 youth to engage in conversations and understanding around local laws and rights; 
  • civil rights mediation support to schools and communities; and 
  • consultations on civil rights themed curriculum needs. 

As he directs the initiative, Vincent said he will be committed to moving the knowledge developed into schools and communities. He sees education as one of the most important components of civil rights and social justice work. 

“As counsel for the NAACP in the 1930s, Charles Hamilton Houston and a dedicated group of lawyers effectively delved into a number of wrongs that needed to be righted, such as lynchings, labor issues, housing, and employment discrimination,” Vincent said. “And he prepared the legal groundwork to dismantle racial segregation in schools, because he understood that education is foundational. We know if children have access to quality education, there is no limit to their potential contribution to a democratic society.”

This announcement is one of a series of initiatives being unveiled in the coming days at UK that underscore the institution's commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.