After their abrupt November termination from the UNC Center for Civil Rights, Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin have continued their legal work through the newly founded Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.
The Chambers Center was founded in response to a September 2017 vote by the UNC Board of Governors banning the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating.
Prior to the decision, the UNC Center for Civil Rights performed advocacy-based research, engaged in direct representation for victims of racial exclusion and trained law students in civil rights litigation, said Haddix, co-director of the new Chambers Center.
“When Mark Dorosin and I were at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, the mission was to support communities to dismantle structural racism,” Haddix said. “When the advocacy ban came down from the Board of Governors, Mark and I worked very quickly and tried to get the law school to also work with us to find a safe place for the advocacy work to land.”
Haddix said the Chambers Center, which is a nonprofit organization that can litigate, is picking up where the UNC Center left off.
“The Chambers Center has taken on all the former clients of the UNC Center, and we’re doing lots of important work around educational equity, around environmental justice, around combating racial exclusion,” Dorosin said. “I think those struggles, which are happening in communities all across the state, are where the real change is going to take place.”
Dorosin, another co-director of the Chambers Center, said it honors the previous mission of the UNC Center: community advocacy around the South’s legacy of discrimination.
“We wanted to ensure that the work that Julius Chambers, the founder of the UNC Center, had started and spent his career dedicated to, would continue,” he said.
Haddix said the Center is currently representing communities in the state impacted by industrial swine and poultry operations and that it will present oral arguments before the N.C. Supreme Court in the spring in an education equity case.
The UNC Board of Governors’ decision harmed the University’s reputation for defending civil rights and academic freedom, Haddix said.
“I think that there was an opportunity to show leadership that was missed,” she said. “As a citizen of North Carolina, as a voter and as an alum of UNC, I am very sad about that.”
Dorosin said by banning litigation, UNC constrained its ability to engage in the struggle against discrimination in the state, keeping the University from honoring its mission.
“Its public service mission is a key component of the university system,” he said. “This change undermines that mission.”
Erika Wilson, a professor in the UNC School of Law, said that because the UNC Center can no longer litigate, some people in North Carolina who desperately need legal representation will not be able to get it.
“I think it’s a huge loss in terms of the specific kinds of civil rights work the Center was doing,” Wilson said. “The hope is that other organizations, other lawyers, will pick up the slack and do that work.”
Going forward, Haddix said UNC should do better to show leadership in civil rights advocacy. She hopes the research arm of the UNC Center, which remains operational, can collaborate with the Chambers Center.
“I think the people of North Carolina and their flagship institution can do much better,” she said. “We certainly hope that that UNC Center for Civil Rights will do the research and work with the Chambers Center to continue to get those resources from the University out to these client communities, these North Carolinians who don’t otherwise have access to them.”
Wilson remains optimistic about the future of civil rights advocacy in North Carolina. She said other advocates are stepping up and fighting for change.
“I’m optimistic that hopefully things can change in a positive direction in terms of people’s civil rights in the state being advanced," Wilson said.
Dorosin said he sees grassroots advocacy efforts beginning to take shape in North Carolina in the face of widespread discrimination against the impoverished and people of color.
“I think North Carolina is ground zero for the struggle for civil rights, and I think the nation is really looking at North Carolina,” he said. “Folks committed to fairness, equality and equity are looking at North Carolina as a model for how to organize the resistance.”
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