Early in his legal career, Gregory Vincent realized one of the greatest challenges of being a civil rights attorney. His involvement in a case could help set new legal precedents, but he could not go back and prevent the harm to a person that had already been committed. In his role as a professor and executive director at the University of Kentucky, he is embracing the chance to take a more proactive approach and educate the next generation of servant leaders.
Vincent, who holds both a law degree and doctorate of education, is a professor in the UK College of Education Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation and executive director of a groundbreaking collaboration between the UK College of Education and the NAACP, the nation’s largest and most preeminent civil rights organization. University faculty and NAACP leaders collaboratively developed an education and research initiative focused on educational equity, civil rights, and social justice. Together, they are addressing racial inequities plaguing the U.S. education system.
Today, Vincent answers some of our questions about how laws continue to play a role in promoting civil rights and how faculty research and analysis can be used to help advance educational equity through UK’s Education and Civil Rights Initiative in collaboration with the NAACP. The initiative is housed in the UK College of Education’s Department of Education Policy Studies and Evaluation.
UKNow: Prior to working in higher education, you were a civil rights attorney and argued some major cases. Can you share a little about that part of your career?
Vincent: I was very fortunate to join the Ohio attorney general’s office. One of the real values of being an assistant attorney general was that you were able to argue cases from beginning to end, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. I got first chair litigation experience in the field I wanted to work, which was civil rights, and so truly it was my dream job.
When I was practicing in the 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress. It really expanded rights for persons with disabilities, and so I was heavily involved in that type of work. When Professor Anita Hill testified in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, it really brought some great attention to the issue of gender equality and the laws against sexual harassment, so we did a great deal of work there. The other issue that was coming up in the ’90s was HIV/AIDS and how you defend a person’s rights when they are discriminated against. I was heavily involved in this type of work and what was so exciting to me was that I had autonomy to litigate cases and the discretion to bring cases. It was a very exciting time for a young lawyer.
UKNow: Who or what inspired your interest in law and higher education and led you to pursue both Ed.D. and law degrees?
Vincent: There are five people that inspired me to do this work. I’ll start with the two most important, my parents. They both were public servants. My father is a retired electrical engineer and worked for the New York City transit authority for most of his career. He started after college with General Electric. My mother was a counselor and an elected school board member. They really exemplified for me the importance of public service and giving back to community. They both went to college tuition-free so they understood the value of the investment in public higher education.
I was also inspired by Thurgood Marshall. He was the person who really helped define my career path, and he is the reason why I wanted to become a civil rights attorney, because of his example.
I also was inspired by the rector of the church where I grew up, my family church, St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in New York City. My pastor was someone who was a great mentor to me and talked to me about ethics and morality and social justice. He actually put me on the path to go to my undergraduate alma mater Hobart and William Smith Colleges. That’s where I met the fifth person, the dean of my undergraduate college. He was also an episcopal priest, and he has been, since the time I was 17 years old, a great mentor and inspiration even to this day. They all inspired me to engage, both in public service and the fight for justice and equity.
UKNow: Can you talk about how law plays a role in dismantling some of the injustices and systemic racism that we still face today?
Vincent: We’re a nation of laws. We are governed by the Constitution and related laws and policies. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, want to follow the law. And so, what we’ve been able to do over time was amend our Constitution and make it equitable or more equitable for all, so that everyone can be included. It was just 101 years ago that women were first able to vote. We later dismantled race-based segregation in public spaces and we declared that everyone was equal. So, for me, the law is an instrument for change. It also institutionalizes and gives us directions about what we value as a society.
I often use this as an example. We both remember when it was okay to smoke in public spaces, and we made a decision for public policy reasons that it was no longer appropriate for the health of everyone. So, we eliminated that and that was a dramatic change. It allows us, from young people to more experienced people, to understand what our norms are. Being a civil rights attorney, what I enjoyed was that it was inclusive. Being inclusive gave people more opportunities to fully participate in our democratic society, and so it’s been a real honor to do that work for over 30 years.
UKNow: It seems many of the things you’ve worked on have brought you to this point and the unique work you’re doing now. How did your previous experiences lead you here to the University of Kentucky?
Vincent: Growing up, I wanted to do three things. I wanted to be an educator, I thought at the college level. I wanted to be an attorney. And then the third one, which I’ve not done, is I wanted to be an episcopal priest. The evolution really was inspired by thinking about how we make our society more just. With my mother serving on the school board, I got to see kind of firsthand, at the most local level, why education is so important and critical.
You know, when you think about it, in my opinion, the most important Supreme Court case in constitutional history is Brown vs. Board of Education. Of course, it dismantled Jim Crow segregation, but it also said that perhaps the most important function of state and local government is education, and education equals good citizenship. So, I think that I’ve always been kind of gravitating toward the issue of ‘How do we create equity and access so that every child can reach their God-given potential and fully participate in our democratic society.’ We know that, unfortunately, for a host of reasons including systemic racism and socioeconomic issues, that not every child has that ability, and I think the best thing we can do to strengthen our country is to ensure that every child has that access and an opportunity.
The one challenge working in the civil rights sector, although we did some things proactively, was that a lot of the work was done after the harm had already been committed. One of the things I looked to do as I moved into higher education, and now working in and trying to impact K-12 education, is to address the harm before it happens. And so, I thought, if I could educate the next generation of servant leaders who are going back to the communities and helping them understand the power of coming together and community, that would make a difference.
What I really enjoy, as I move into this role at UK as professor in Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation and executive director of the Education and Civil Rights Initiative in collaboration with the NAACP, is really impacting what I call “the pre-K to Ph.D. pipeline.” To ensure that every child, from the time they start school, all the way to the finish, that they have equitable access and understand that it’s important for them to make a difference in their own communities.
UKNow: When the University of Kentucky College of Education first started talking about establishing an education and civil rights initiative with the NAACP at the college, we had no way of knowing the events were about to take place in the nation relating to the pandemic and systemic racism. It’s been called the twin pandemics. What does that term mean to you?
Vincent: First, let me give a great credit to President (Eli) Capilouto, to Provost (David) Blackwell and Dean (Julian) Vasquez Heilig for being proactive in thinking about these issues. What’s so impressive about what they did was they integrated this into the academic mission. They understood that for the University of Kentucky to meet its noble mission of serving the people, that this work was absolutely critical. They didn’t need these crises to understand that. So, I was very impressed with that.
But to your direct question, we are facing a twin pandemic that has had a devastating impact. This dreaded virus has disproportionately impacted people of color, poor people, persons who have little access to health care and other needed services. So, it just exposes what was already there. That we have some very important fault lines between the haves and have nots.
It has exposed the second pandemic, which is systemic racism. Without question we live in an amazing country, and it is not hyperbole to say we live in the greatest country in the world. We have this strain that we have to address. Loving our country, as (U.S.) Rep. John Lewis said, doesn’t mean that we can’t be critical of some of our real challenges. In my opinion, the greatest challenge has been the fact that racism has been with us since the beginning of our republic and it continues to this day.
Certainly, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor again exposed these issues. What makes systemic racism so pernicious is the fact that even people of goodwill, even people who say, “I’m not individually racist,” and I take them at that word, are living in systems that continue to perpetuate these kind of inequalities. If we don’t directly address the systems that are perpetuating that, we’re still going to have this racial strife, and so we have to be intentional about this, and I believe that education is the clearest way to do that. When I’m asked what we can do, what I often say is that if we live up to the spirit of the Brown decision and what went into that and the civil rights movement, I believe that we can make substantial progress.
UKNow: Why was it important to pursue this work in collaboration with the NAACP?
Vincent: As I mentioned, similar to the president and provost, we are so fortunate to have a truly visionary and outstanding dean of the College of Education, Julian Vasquez Heilig. Over his career he has worked very closely with the NAACP. Last Friday, the NAACP celebrated 112 years of advocacy and excellence. It is the oldest and most preeminent civil rights organization and this groundbreaking partnership is the first time it has partnered with an institution of higher education to advance equity and educational excellence. Our job at the University of Kentucky is to provide reliable research and policy so that the NAACP can continue its effective work and advocacy having that information.
Already, we have been working with school districts around the country to help them address some of the equity issues in their district. It’s a unique partnership, but what’s so exciting is that the synergy between the advocacy of the NAACP and the research excellence of the University of Kentucky can come together to address the issue of how every child can have the opportunity to get a quality education.
UKNow: Can you describe some of the ways in which the faculty at the Education and Civil Rights Initiative will be able to do that at UK?
Vincent: You know, one of the things that’s so exciting about joining the University of Kentucky overall, and the College of Education and the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, is how productive the faculty have been in this area, all across the whole spectrum of education, but in particular this issue of equity and justice. The college is highly ranked and highly productive, and so we are looking to engage both faculty and students to do research and policy analysis and policy development so that we can impact educational equity.
Going back to this other pandemic, we understand the devastating impact it’s had on all students, but particularly students from low income, underrepresented backgrounds. As we have students go back to school in person, how do we do that in a safe way? What are some of the mental health challenges students are facing as a result of this? How do we make up any gaps that may have been created as a result of this? So, that’s some of the immediate work that we will have to do. These are just some examples, but I’m just so excited to join my fellow faculty members in doing this incredibly important work.
UKNow: We are currently in the middle of Black History Month. What has been on your mind this year as you think about the achievements of Black Americans both past and present?
Vincent: I’ll share three things. Black history is American history, so this is not some tangential point. It’s part of the American story. We always have to make sure that Black history has fully integrated into American history, so I always make that connection.
Black History Month really reflects the genius of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, that later became a month, because it gives us an opportunity to highlight the outstanding achievements and those stories that have not been told. We know that we do not fully cover the excellence of Black people in the United States. We hear about people like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. But we don’t hear about others, and so it gives us an amazing opportunity to tell those stories. I often think about that great movie from a few years ago, “Hidden Figures,” that talked about how a group of very talented Black women helped us achieve excellence in space. So, we can tell those stories we see today. We now have a vice president of the U.S. who is a product of an historically Black college and university, and so that is evidence of some other really amazing stories to be told.
So, for me, the third thing I want to share is someone who inspired me. Most people, if not all, know Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Many people don’t know his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston. And one of the things I often share with my students is that, in my opinion, Charles Hamilton Houston was the greatest lawyer in American history. Charles Houston was a graduate of Amherst and Harvard Law School. He became the dean of Howard Law School, the alma mater of Vice President Harris. He created a laboratory at the law school to produce the next generation of lawyers who would dismantle Jim Crow segregation, Thurgood Marshall being his most famous student, although there were many others. He then became the first director of the NAACP legal team that created the blueprint and started to execute the dismantling of Jim Crow that led to the Brown vs .Board of Education decision. He died prematurely. He was born in 1895 and died in 1950, but no question, he was the person who was the catalyst for establishing and reforming the laws so that we all would be equal and would no longer be seen as second class citizens, and so I wanted to celebrate Charles Hamilton Houston in his achievements.
UKNow: Well, speaking of participation, what can we expect to see on the immediate horizon for the Education and Civil Rights Initiative?
Vincent: As I mentioned earlier, we are working with some school districts, both in Kentucky and around the country, addressing some systemic issues. We are looking at how we address the achievement gap. How we ensure that all teachers are teaching the full spectrum and that they’re treating all students with respect and dignity. We are asking how we build community. That’s one of the common denominators because, as we know, schools in almost every community are really the center of life. So, how do we build community there? How do we ensure that everyone feels like they’re part of it and not feeling like they’re being shunned aside? We’re working on equity audits in those areas to really help school districts get some tangible evidence about where they are and then helping them implement best practices around addressing equity.
We also this year have already had two very important conferences and so will continue to convene. In early fall, we had a presentation in partnership with the NAACP and the National Medical Association about how COVID-19 is impacting going back to school and best practices. We also had some mental health experts come on board for a webinararound the trauma of the Breonna Taylor murder and how young people process that and address that. Then, this May 7 and 8, we will have an education and civil rights conference. We’re going to address higher education, K-12, community and organizations. We’d like to have a session on financial literacy. We believe that financial literacy is a civil right and so we’ll have that and then we’re really excited about a summer conference on youth leadership. We believe, and Rep. Lewis was right on this, that young people don’t have to wait for permission to make change and that they can positively influence their community and peers, and we’re hoping to give those leaders tools so they can be successful.
To learn more about becoming involved in the work of the UK College of Education’s Education and Civil Rights Initiative in collaboration with the NAACP, visit education.uky.edu/civil-rights.
Listen to Dr. Vincent on The Learning Project Podcast