Faith Leaders Gather in Washington to #StopTheDebtTrap

This week, representatives from more than 20 states are in Washington, D.C., for Faith & Credit Advocacy Days, an effort to launch a collective initiative by faith, financial reform, and consumer protection groups to support strong action on payday lending by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Civil rights groups also want stronger regulation of the industry. At its annual meeting in December 2013, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights voted unanimously for a resolution urging states, Congress, and federal agencies to increase regulatory oversight and enforcement of payday lenders.

Why does the civil and human rights community care?

As the resolution notes, payday lending is similar to other discriminatory financial practices – like redlining and predatory mortgage schemes – that target minority and low-income communities. Payday loans can provide a quick route for consumers who may otherwise not qualify, but many must be fully repaid in a short period of time. In fact, payment is often due when the borrower is next paid, and many lenders require advance access to borrowers’ checking accounts.

According to a CFPB report released last year, this repayment structure and lack of underwriting creates for many consumers a cycle of indebtedness. “To the extent these products are marketed as a short-term obligation,” the report says, “some consumers may misunderstand the costs and risks, particularly those associated with repeat borrowing.”

The Center for Responsible Lending, which organized this week’s activity, notes that these consumers are disproportionately African American and Latino, and found in a 2009 study in California that “Payday lenders are nearly eight times as concentrated in neighborhoods with the largest shares of African Americans and Latinos as compared to white neighborhoods, draining nearly $247 million in fees per year from these communities.”

Last month, The Leadership Conference joined more than 450 groups in signing on to a letter urging the CFPB to stop the payday loan debt trap. “Beyond the research, all one needs to do is travel a street in a low-income community or community of color to witness the strikingly high concentration of payday and high-cost lenders,” the letter says. “Additionally, these loans are particularly devastating to individuals with a fixed-income, such as seniors on retirement or Social Security Income.”

Starting this week during Faith & Credit Advocacy Days, advocates are using the hashtag #StopTheDebtTrap to begin an online conversation around payday lending issues. To learn more about payday lending, visit Center for Responsible Lending’s resource page here.

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Series Leads with Discussion on Street-Level Profiling in America

By Angela Pavao, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Yesterday afternoon, individuals from organizations around Washington, D.C., gathered at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to participate in the first “Faces of Profiling” discussion, a three-part series organized by Leadership Conference interns on discriminatory profiling in the United States. This week’s event examined street-level profiling in its many manifestations, including profiling based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Jennifer Bellamy, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sarah Reece, director of the Academy for Leadership and Action at the National LGBTQ Task Force, shared their perspectives on profiling in its many forms, in addition to some real profiling stories.

A primary message presented was one of action and change. Throughout the discussion, the focus was on overcoming challenges and finding solutions. Jennifer and Sarah emphasized progress being made, such as a law passed in California that will protect transgender individuals and others from sex work charges, an increase in sensitivity training by police departments across the country, and the continued push by the civil rights community for legislative reform and more effective language in the administration’s profiling guidance. The event attendees themselves were another reason to be optimistic. Their presence alone demonstrates the type of engagement we need, and their questions were thoughtful, dug deeply into the issue, and focused on how we can push for solutions.

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The desired change, especially its legislative component, won’t happen overnight and may not even happen over the next couple of years. As Sarah pointed out, the solution is complex and must also include a shift in societal attitudes and how people interact with one another. In pursuing this goal, much of the work falls on the individual. In recognition of this, Leadership Conference interns compiled a comprehensive toolkit that contains background information on the issue, a fact sheet on street-level profiling, and a call to action that lays out tips so that anyone can take action. It is our hope that the influence of this series resonates far beyond the content of each discussion.

On November 13 at 12 p.m., we will discuss counterterrorism profiling, and on November 20, also at 12 p.m., we will talk about profiling in immigration enforcement. Light refreshments will be provided during both discussions. For more details and to RSVP, please email jbussey@civilrights.org.

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How Voter ID Laws Prevent Americans from Voting

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder last year, a number of states and jurisdictions formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have considered – and some have enacted – new discriminatory voting laws, such as the introduction of voter ID requirements. Further, in 2014, there have been a series of court decisions concerning these issues, particularly in states including North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas.

But obtaining an ID can be more challenging than some people think. Read a new fact sheet here from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and share the infographic below explaining some of the ways voter ID laws prevent Americans from voting.

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Upcoming Documentary Explores Transportation Equity

How is transportation a civil rights issue?

Free to Ride,” an upcoming documentary by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, explores the connection between the two.

Access to safe, affordable, and reliable transportation widens opportunity and is essential to addressing poverty, unemployment, and equal opportunity goals like access to good schools and health care services – but transportation funding programs don’t benefit all areas and communities equally.

In a newly released clip from the documentary, Lexer Quamie, senior counsel at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, underscores the need for transportation equity, stating, “The preservation of civil rights with respect to transportation is crucial…Transportation provides individuals and communities access to fair housing and adequate housing, employment, [and] educational opportunities.”

“Free to Ride” will be released next spring, but you can watch the new clip here:

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How College Students Are Fighting for Campus Inclusion

This post was written by Jennifer Tran, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund intern and a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is involved with diversity and inclusion issues on campus.

It is said that political consciousness often emerges on college campuses. A time of self-discovery and exploration, college is a place where many students first develop their organizing and political skills, especially around ensuring that all students have equal access to colleges and universities.

In recent years, this has taken the form of various student-led efforts like #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan), “I, too, am Harvard”, The Black Bruins at UCLA, #BeyondTheStereotype at USC and UCLA, as well as the Undocumented Longhorns on my campus, the University of Texas at Austin.

In recent weeks, another effort has made the news rounds. Students at Colgate University in upstate New York organized a five-day sit-in to petition university administrators for policies to address long-building campus climate issues in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, and other marginalized identities.

Last week, I spoke with Olivia Rauh, a senior political science and philosophy and religion double major at Colgate, and one of the students involved in the sit-in. Olivia helped coordinate media and communications during the sit-in, especially with advocacy organizations like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Like many campus protests, “this was about an overall atmosphere of marginalization, not just of race, but of gender and gender identity and other forms of marginalization,” Olivia said. “The administration was sweeping issues under the rug and not changing…it was pretty clear that we had to do something to make them listen.”

With savvy planning and persistence, their efforts garnered the attention of Colgate administrators and national media. After long and heated negotiations with student leaders, Olivia told me, the administrators finally agreed on a detailed plan to address diversity and inclusivity on campus, including hiring two student workers to keep the administration accountable.

But the students at Colgate are not done. Their organization, the Association of Critical Collegians (ACC), is committed to keeping a vigilant eye on the administration.

Student-organized protests on campuses like Colgate are some of the most visible examples of a youth-driven movement spanning the country today.

I have personally seen the power of student-led efforts on my campus. UT Austin’s enrollment of 52,000 includes students from all types of backgrounds, making it a hotbed for diversity and inclusion issues. In the last few years, we have had issues ranging from bleach-bombs targeting students of color to challenges to the school’s holistic admissions policy in the Fisher v. University of Texas U.S. Supreme Court case, in which the school prevailed.

But UT Austin’s history is also filled with many successes, thanks in large part to student efforts. Our Center for Asian American Studies is the result of students who protested and were arrested in the university president’s office. Our Multicultural Engagement Center, one of the main hubs of student organizing, and of which I am a proud product, is the result of marginalized students who came together to create a space (at the time, an abandoned closet) for themselves.

Each of these efforts were driven by passionate and dedicated students who knew, like their contemporary peers at Colgate, that one of the key ways to get their administration’s attention was to demonstrate and make their concerns known. Campus organizing has been one of the predominant ways through which university policy on diversity and inclusion issues has changed.

When my peers and I organized around Fisher on campus, national outreach was outside the scope of our consideration. It was not until we were approached by various advocacy organizations (and in the case of Fisher, The Leadership Conference Education Fund) that we began to understand how we could expand our campaign with media, demonstrations, and other events.

This knowledge and skill set is certainly not intuitive to most students, but can catapult movements into the national spotlight, much like it did for Colgate.

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New Report Highlights Dangerous Trajectory of Transportation Funding

By Angela Pavao, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on the state of transportation funding, drawing much needed attention to an increasingly relevant issue. The report, “Intergovernmental Challenges in Surface Transportation Funding,” examines the current funding system for highways and public transit, notes a growing gap between available funding and existing needs, and looks at the potential of government policy going forward. Decreased funding poses a threat not only to balanced budgets but also to equity and civil rights. With large segments of the U.S. population already lacking access to transportation, progress towards transportation equity could easily be stalled or even reversed.

The report outlines the multi-layered transportation funding structure and looks at the contributions and roles of each level of government. Approximately 36 percent of funding stems from the local level, 40 percent from states, and 25 percent from the federal government. The current problem, and the driving factor for this report, is the decreasing funding available for transportation management and development on every level. All three levels of government have been forced to steadily cut back their transportation budgets over the past decade, largely due to declining revenue.

On the whole, transportation funding fell by $27 billion, which is approximately 12 percent, between 2002 and 2011. Funding has since plummeted further, as the Department of Transportation has run out of supplementary funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The situation is already dire: according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, “just maintaining the current performance of the highway and transit system would require at least $13 billion more per year.” Already, local and state governments are anticipating less reliable funding and foregoing important long-term projects.

Transportation inequity is a major civil rights issue that is often overlooked by those not directly affected. According to The Leadership Conference Education Fund, “transportation investment to date has often excluded or inadequately addressed the needs of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, seniors, and many people in rural areas.” As other reports by The Education Fund have highlighted, those without access to transportation are often held back from employment, struggle to obtain routine or emergency medical care, and are severely limited in affordable housing options. To resolve an issue of this magnitude would require a focused increase in transportation investment.

Where, then, does a budgetary crisis leave these hundreds of thousands of individuals already lacking sufficient access to transportation? With resource cuts stunting the development of new initiatives and even current infrastructure threatened, it seems we may be heading in reverse – towards even greater inequity. One of the four key principles highlighted by the Pew report is that “falling revenue forces hard choices.” It is critical that these hard choices do not further isolate these underrepresented groups or deprive more individuals of access. Ideally, revenue sources will be adjusted and funding will return to previous levels. Regardless of specific numbers, however, the government must begin to prioritize equity in all transportation strategies they pursue.

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Conference Brings Transportation Equity to Forefront

By Bree Romero, Field Manager

Nestled at the intersection of three rivers connecting the Midwest to the Atlantic coast is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – host of the 18th annual Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Conference earlier this month. It was a perfect meeting space for over 1,000 city planners, transportation engineers, public health advocates, elected officials, community leaders, and professional walking and bicycling advocates to gather and build on an active transportation network.

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As Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and presenter during the opening plenary noted, “ever since it was first organized as Pro Bike in 1980, this event has served a critical role in the active transportation movement – a place for advocates and practitioners to come together to reflect on needs and lessons learned, to develop a vision for the future, and of course, to build relationships and create new friendships.”

The conference’s four tracks – change, connect, prosper, and sustain – represented the importance of advocacy, infrastructure change, evaluation, and partnership building. And to ensure a lasting impact, interactive activities and workshops were added, including local demonstration projects, trainings leading up to the event, mobile sessions (such as “Connecting Pittsburgh’s Neighborhoods to the Riverfront: A Boat Tour”), and a free community open house available for anyone to attend.

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I was excited to participate in the conference and join the Safe Routes to School National Partnership session, “Policies for Pupils: Working with School Boards on Walking and Bicycling Policies.” The session not only highlighted how to engage schools in walking and bicycling projects that focus on infrastructure improvements, student traffic education, and driver enforcement that improves safety for children (many of whom already walk or bicycle in unsafe conditions), but it also provided an overview of transportation equity. I joined several sessions on behalf of The Leadership Conference Education Fund and PolicyLink, co-chairs of the Transportation Equity Caucus (a coalition of partner organizations that further transportation policies that advance economic and social equity in America), where I explained what transportation equity is and why it’s a critical component of bike share programs.

Transportation equity means a transportation system that works for everyone and provides people with multiple transportation options, including the promotion of equal employment opportunities, a requirement of equal decision-making power, the promotion of healthy and sustainable communities, and a requirement for meaningful civil rights protections.

Learn more about transportation equity here.

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