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Rethinking Advocacy: Organizing and Racial Justice Work in Higher Education

Rethinking Advocacy: Organizing and Racial Justice Work in Higher Education

I am reminded of my first day of college when I think about Dr. Edward A. Bouchet’s experiences as the first African American person to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S., from Yale University, and the importance of advocacy when thinking about addressing racial disparities in enrollment and retention. I remember after my first day, one of my best friends (who was white) asked me, “Austin, how did it feel to be on a campus where you weren’t around your own, like in high school?” The question stunned me—partly because we did not always talk about race so explicitly, and partly because he recognized the few numbers of black students before I did.

This interaction partly explains why I have devoted much of my life in higher education to the Bouchet Honor Society’s mission of advocacy. My experiences attending predominately-white institutions drove me to advocate for the increase of black enrollment and for better conditions for students of color as an undergraduate and graduate student and instructor. Much of the diversity work I performed before earning my doctoral degree consisted of committee work or organizing and participating in conversations about underrepresented students.

However, my views on advocacy and diversity have evolved as I started to organize and teach on issues related to racial justice. I have come to see both concepts—advocacy and diversity—as limiting to describe the goals of my work. Rather than see myself as an advocate—one person who tries to “give voice” to others not seated at the table, or in the room—I try my best to bring more people, especially students, into the process. But, helping facilitate this process truly means protecting students’ space to raise questions about how diversity, equity, and inclusion plans are implemented and to encourage them to push for more transformative change. Pursuing change is necessary and it should be a valuable learning process.

My views on the concept of diversity on campus have also evolved. As a Master’s student, I helped facilitate the development of a diversity action plan for my undergraduate alma mater. It was pretty standard—it focused on recruiting more black students and devising on-campus programs to retain them. Diversity presumes increasing the numbers of a range of groups based upon race, gender, class, sex, ability, and even political ideology. And, while I would welcome a more “diverse” campus, the concept does not actually seek to correct past injustices, nor does it really address the structural reasons for inequities within higher education. The concept also has been coopted by those who try to impose “free market” understandings to higher education. Thus, diversity not only signals something that helps white students, but a type of vocational education that prepares one to “compete” in an unequal and global economic system.

Now, I prefer to make claims for justice. Justice signals, at the very least, a disruption of inequities. Eliminating barriers to entry for those formerly incarcerated, and providing them with scholarships, is one example of justice in higher education. Georgetown University’s program to offer “preferential admissions” to descendants of slaves is also another example of what racial justice could look like in the context of higher education.

Living up to Dr. Bouchet’s legacy and the Bouchet Society’s value of advocacy not only means bringing more people into the process, but finding ways to empower those I work with and mentor. Historian, and former University of Michigan graduate student, Barbara Ransby wrote about civil rights activist Ella Baker in her book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: “Her philosophy was not simply to ‘let the people decide,’ as the popular SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] slogan suggested. Rather, it was to let the disenfranchised vote, let the silence be heard, let the oppressed be empowered, and let the marginalized move to the center.” I have tried to apply that principle as an educator in the classroom and an organizer on campus who believes in participatory democracy. Institutional change is not just about defending one’s process or vision of change. One’s approach must be able to accommodate as many students as possible.

Inspired by Dr. Bouchet’s contributions to the African American community through his commitment to education and science, I will continue to argue for underrepresented students to engage in institutional transformation because making claims for justice allows for all in the university community to think bigger and seek more lasting change.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rackham Graduate School or the University of Michigan.