A mentorship program. A refugee services agency. And an intimate cohort of Latino activists.
These are the three Boston-area community organizations that joined forces to take on America’s oldest university last month, demanding a federal investigation into Harvard’s use of legacy and donor admissions in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling outlawing race-based affirmative action.
Though all three groups are proudly local, their latest move is having national impact. Last week, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced it would investigate whether Harvard’s practice of favoring the children of alumni and wealthy donors in the admission process is discriminatory; the original complaint cited evidence that white students make up nearly 70 percent of both donor-related and legacy applicants.
“For us, it doesn’t matter who we’re taking on. We are here to represent our community, and we’re going to have a strong voice no matter who we’re up against,” said Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, a founding member of the Greater Boston Latino Network, a collective of eight Latino-led advocacy organizations that filed the federal complaint in June alongside two nonprofits: African Community Economic Development of New England and the Chica Project.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represented the three groups, said conversations about suing Harvard had been “percolating for months leading up to the SCOTUS decision.”
Lawyers for Civil Rights maintains a wide network of community partners who fuel much of the organization’s legal work, he said, discussing social justice and civil rights issues at formal listening sessions and community gatherings.
“We heard significant concerns from our community partners about attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how much was at stake if the Supreme Court took drastic action against affirmative action,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. When he proposed a federal civil rights complaint, with the Supreme Court’s decision still looming, all three organizations promptly raised their hands.
“There is an extremely diverse set of aspiring college applicants served and represented by these three organizations who want to see themselves reflected in the population of schools like Harvard,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “So after the decision, we immediately coalesced around the filing of a complaint to help preserve and protect diversity in higher education.”
The lawsuit comes as elite colleges face pressure to end legacy admission policies, and some schools are responding. Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said last month it is abandoning the practice. Massachusetts colleges that do not consider familial ties in admissions include Amherst College, MIT, Boston University, Emerson College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
For African Community Economic Development of New England, which has offered educational support to the children of African refugees and immigrants for over two decades, the court’s decision hit close to home — and the need to take action felt urgent. Several Boston Public Schools alumni who participated in ACEDONE’s after-school enrichment program, leadership development training, and college prep courses have gone on to attend Ivy League universities.
Abdi Osman, a BPS graduate who was supported by ACEDONE while preparing for college is now a rising senior at Harvard, and said he is grateful that in addition to supporting individual families, the group was also willing to fight for equity on a national stage.
“If we’re gonna make affirmative action a problem, then we also have to talk about legacy admissions and the donations at the university,” said Osman, 21, whose family is originally from Somalia and moved to the United States before he was born. “It’s been a struggle for a lot of Black youths growing up here … and I don’t think it’s something we should shy away from.”
ACEDONE founder and chief executive Abdulkadir Hussein stressed that supporting students from an early age is the gateway to investing in the long-term future of immigrant families in Boston.
“We have been preparing these first-generation [students] for college who came as immigrant refugees and started from the bottom in everything,” Hussein said. “Youths are the primary target population that can really shape our future, and education is the equalizer.”
These goals of educational equity and student empowerment are also shared by the Greater Boston Latino Network, which works to advance opportunities for people of color and other marginalized groups in and around Boston. The group formed in response to a 2011 study commissioned by the national organization Hispanics in Philanthropy, which concluded that only 1 percent of all dollars given out in grants and other funding by foundations nationwide was designated to benefit Latinos.
“It just really infuriated us, and so we said we need to do something about this,” Oliver-Dávila said.
In addition to partnering with local researchers to publish studies of their own focused on inequity, the network also advocates for policy change at Boston City Hall, School Committee meetings, and the State House. A subcommittee of the network, Latino College and Career Access, helps Boston high school students prepare to apply for college or enter the workforce after graduation.
Oliver-Dávila, who is also the executive director of the education advocacy organization Sociedad Latina, said signing onto the lawsuit was a “no brainer.” It was a way to send a message to her students that “it shouldn’t matter into what family you were born and what connections your family has. They deserve to be there just as much as any other student.”
In Quincy, the Chica Project has similarly devoted its resources to supporting students of color as they prepare for graduation. Since 2011, the organization has mentored young Black and Latina women starting as early as sixth grade and developed a 12-week Chicas in Bloom curriculum taught in nearly a dozen middle and high schools across Massachusetts.
“We have served over 3,000 chicas [through] intergenerational mentorship... both one-on-one and by exposing our chicas to a network or group of mentors from different backgrounds,” said Zaida Ismatul Oliva, executive director of the Chica Project.
Oliva said growing demand for mentorship has prompted the organization to expand northward into high schools in Lowell and Lawrence, and west toward Framingham and Westborough. And a “Virtual Village” group launched online continues to draw in people from as far as Georgia and Texas.
“When it was [the height of] COVID, chicas from the Dominican Republic and Colombia were logging in!” she said. “People needed community, and they found us and we’ve welcomed it.”
In the weeks since making national headlines, Oliva said her organization has gotten “a lot of loven... a lot of emails just saying thank you for being a voice.” The publicity also brought increased financial support, which Oliva said her team is extremely grateful for as they plan new mentorship projects in Boston and across the state.
“We are not a huge organization like Harvard,” she said. “But I want our chicas to see that they can create change ... and that we’re not afraid to step up to help people of color for generations to come.”