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Civil rights center unapologetic about its advocacy efforts across the state

“The value of the Center for Civil Rights, (is)it does not just help out communities that are being excluded or treated unfairly, it also has the intangible value of inspiring young people to go into civil rights,” Buansi said.

It was during that presentation that Buansi, now a third-year UNC law student, knew he wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.

The center, founded in 2001, is one of nine UNC centers that remains under review by the UNC-system Board of Governors — which is deciding whether to terminate various centers or remove their university affiliation.

Jim Holmes, chairman of the working group reviewing the centers, said he would not comment on specific centers until after the group’s report is released Feb. 27.

The Center for Civil Rights focuses on issues of social, economic and environmental justice in low-income and predominantly minority areas of North Carolina.

Ted Shaw, director of the center, said the work the center does is crucial because it trains the next generation of civil rights lawyers and advocates. While the center is focused on legal work, he said it also deals with public education and advocacy.

Board of Governors member Steven Long declined to comment for this story, but he said at the board’s December meeting that he was concerned about the advocacy work of several centers. Advocacy efforts are inherently partisan, he said, which isn’t appropriate for a university-affiliated center.

Shaw said he is unapologetic about the center’s advocacy.

“We represent individuals who’ve been victims of racial discrimination, and we have an ethical responsibility to represent them zealously, as any lawyer does his or her client,” Shaw said.

Shannon Brien, a junior and member of the student-run UNC-Chapel Hill BOG Democracy Coalition, said given the board has denied any ideological motivation behind the review, she doesn’t understand why the board would care about a center’s advocacy.

“We in the coalition feel as though there’s a disconnect between the board’s rhetoric and the specific actions they’ve taken, or the ways in which they’ve conducted this review,” said Brien.

Buansi said when he worked at the center in the summer of 2013, he helped provide water and sewer services to Chapel Hill’s Rogers Road neighborhood, which housed the county’s landfill for 40 years.

“(It) benefited me tremendously because I learned some more about my town, about my county and the kind of history we have here of not making sure that everyone is included,” Buansi said.

Lewis Dozier, president of the Royal Oak Concerned Citizens Association, was troubled when Brunswick County in southeastern North Carolina decided to rezone some of the property in the Royal Oak community in order to expand a nearby landfill.

Dozier said when the county would not listen to the largely minority community’s opposition, the Center for Civil Rights intervened. They helped the citizens ultimately keep the landfill out of their community.

“I can’t state it strongly enough that they are essential and they are very capable people — they were very dedicated to what they were doing,” Dozier said.

Brent Ducharme, a third-year UNC law student, said the center was the main reason he chose to attend UNC Law. He said he wanted to become a civil rights lawyer based off his experience growing up in a poor school system.

“I thought to myself, the law and civil rights work in general might be a way to kind of try to bring about some change to some of the issues that I had experienced myself,” he said.

Maurice Holland Sr., former president of the Midway Community Association in Moore County, said the center provided them with the legal guidance to help Midway — a small community beside Aberdeen that was excluded from the town until June 2009.

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“The community is prosperous. We are in the city limits, we get trash picked up, we have water, sewer and police protection, we have a community watch set up,” Holland said. “We wouldn’t have been able to achieve this had we not had the center.”

Despite the possibility that the center could no longer exist, Shaw said he is proud of the work the center has done and continues to do.

“Regardless of whoever is in power in state government in Raleigh, I refuse to believe that they are not or would not be concerned about these people who are disadvantaged,” Shaw said.

Holland said the center continues to work with his community and other disadvantaged areas around the state.

“We need them to be there because the fight ain’t over,” Holland said. “Unfortunately, recent history says that it’s going to continue, but you have to keep fighting and you have to pass it on to the next generation.”