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January 04, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

About the Civil Rights Civics Institute

by Beth K. Whittenbury

The Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice (CRSJ) theme for the 2021–22 bar year is “Unity through Civic Literacy.” Although this theme was timely and important when selected in fall 2020, subsequent events further highlighted the need for unity in understanding the principles of our democracy. As CRSJ, we strive to educate both lawyers and the public about related law and policy so everyone can more effectively participate in our democracy. We believe that civic literacy fosters this necessary unity.

When designing a response to the need for civic literacy, we looked at what other civics-related organizations had already done to avoid reinventing the wheel. Even at the ABA, there are many initiatives that advocate for civics education or the right to a quality public education. We wanted our project to be different—one that included outreach as a fundamental component and one that met an existing need of students and/or educators. At the time the project was envisioned, students were learning remotely, and teachers were scrounging for available video or online content for their lesson plans.

Reviewing available civics-related educational options highlighted the need for a mechanism whereby students could ask questions about civil rights and receive answers from civil rights lawyers. There was no existing avenue for that type of student/lawyer engagement. So, we set out to create one, and the Civil Rights Civics Institute (CRCI) emerged. 

As CRSJ, we strive to educate both lawyers and the public about related law and policy so everyone can more effectively participate in our democracy.

As CRSJ, we strive to educate both lawyers and the public about related law and policy so everyone can more effectively participate in our democracy.


The Process

We reached out to students and educators around the nation focusing on those from underserved communities whom we felt were the most in need of having their questions answered. We also felt that providing students interaction with civil rights lawyers could enhance the pipeline to the profession. We envisioned these attorneys as role models who could inspire students to find their own paths to advocacy no matter their background or socioeconomic status, as many of our members have overcome barriers to achieve success as lawyers. We asked our members to reach out to their student and educator contacts to solicit questions. We also worked through local bar association affiliates of the ABA and the ABA Division for Public Education to request student questions. Ultimately, we received over 170 questions from students around the country.

We categorized the questions by subject matter aligned with the Section’s 21 substantive committees as well as our Task Force on Fair Elections and Voting Rights. Our goal was to produce at least one video response per subject with the remainder of the questions answered via short written responses on the Section website. Our committee members valiantly stepped up to answer the student questions we received. We asked our committees, where possible, to choose attorneys with backgrounds similar to students asking questions to record their responses via video to inspire students and show them they could be the ones answering these questions for others someday. These video responses along with the written responses can serve as tools teachers use in the classroom.

We carefully identified students by first name only and state or large geographical area to maintain their privacy and safety. All answers went through a multilayer review process designed to ensure educational effectiveness, suitable tone, and diversity, equity and inclusion appropriateness. Because the questions address general civil rights topics, the answers offer an educational response rather than legal advice. Therefore, lawyers can participate in this outreach initiative without incurring malpractice liability or engaging in an attorney/client relationship. However, they provide necessary support to our nation’s youth struggling to understand their rights and how those rights play out in American democracy.

The Results

The CRCI has been launched with an initial batch of video and written responses to student questions we received. The videos are short, no more than 20 minutes, and designed as teaching tools for educators. All videos also have transcripts for maximum accessibility. As we posted answers, we informed teachers so they could let students know their questions and corresponding answers are available on our website. Teachers also received answers directly via email. We hope that, eventually, the website will also provide links to civics-related materials from other ABA entities and to external entities that provide relevant information or civics curriculum. Through the relationships and partnerships developed as we created this project, we will be able to publicize our website to educators and educational groups around the nation.

The questions students asked during the project excited us, as many clearly want to engage in advocacy and seek guidance on policy development. We are proud that the CRCI allows us to fill a void in civics education while also inspiring future leaders. When a student receives an answer from a civil rights lawyer, they feel they’ve been heard, their questions matter, and they can ultimately make a difference. We are helping provide young people with the tools to understand, perpetuate, and improve our democracy.

A Look Forward

Answering the 170+ questions we re-ceived will take the balance of the bar year. So, although the website is launched and houses the answers we’ve provided to date, it will continue to evolve. Once complete, the CRCI will provide answers to the questions most on the mind of our nation’s students. Those answers will be available to students, educators, and the general public. We hope that teachers find this an effective resource for their educational efforts and that students find it a place where they can get answers to their questions. We can still use lawyers’ help to answer outstanding student questions and to help review composed answers. If you are willing to help in either of these capacities, please contact Linda Herr, our volunteer member responsible for the logistics of this project.

At this point, we don’t have the funding to make this an ongoing project, but we’re hoping to eventually make the site interactive so students can ask questions and receive answers. To do so would require increased staff support and budget as well as continued dedicated lawyer-volunteers to both answer questions and review answers. With increased funding and staff support, we could also continue to gather and populate a civics resource page on the site.

Please view the Civil Rights Civics Institute here. We hope you will be inspired to support our effort to enhance civics education and unify our nation around the principles of democracy by what you find there. Please help us spread the word about this resource to any educators you know.

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Beth. K. Whittenbury

Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice

Beth K. Whittenbury is the 2021-22 Chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and, as such, founded the Section’s Civil Rights Civics Institute. In her day job, she focuses on removing harassment and discrimination from the workplace through training, assessments, coaching, and investigations.