How the Nation’s Capital is Trying to Lead on Women’s Equality

A month after we commemorated the 35th anniversary of its U.N. adoption, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – or CEDAW – celebrated local progress on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., when the United Nations Association of the USA and the U.S. National Committee for UN Women announced upcoming D.C. for CEDAW legislation.

June Zeitlin, director of human rights policy at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, speaks during Tuesday’s event in Washington, D.C.

Signed by President Carter 35 years ago this July, the U.S. Senate – which ratifies international human rights treaties – has never even held a floor vote on the women’s equality treaty, but several local governments have taken action and passed CEDAW resolutions. In 1998, San Francisco became the first city to adopt an ordinance reflecting the principles of CEDAW. Most recently, the city of Louisville, Ky., approved a resolution last November that will use CEDAW as a framework for all future policy aimed toward ending gender-based discrimination.

That’s exactly what D.C. is now trying to do and, thanks to the national grassroots efforts of Cities for CEDAW, it may happen sooner rather than later. The group is trying to get pledges from 100 U.S. mayors to commit to adopting a CEDAW-based measure by December 2015 (learn more about the Cities for CEDAW campaign here).

The most recent activity in the Senate directly related to CEDAW was a hearing last June on combatting violence and discrimination against women. But until the Senate actually votes – and ratifies – the treaty, the United States remains one of only seven countries that hasn’t taken that final step.

Watch Gavin Newsom (below), current lieutenant governor of California (and former mayor of San Francisco) talk about why he supported the city’s CEDAW ordinance as a member of the county board of supervisors: “The issue of gender equality has not been resolved.”

For more information about how to implement CEDAW in your city, visit or email

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The Leadership Conference Education Fund Releases Annual “Civil Rights Monitor”

This week, The Leadership Conference Education Fund released the “Civil Rights Monitor,” an annual publication that chronicles civil and human rights issues pending before the three branches of government, and other, emerging issues like the potential for big data to supercharge discrimination against disadvantaged communities.


“If 2014 taught us anything, it’s that the work of civil and human rights advocates is more vital than ever,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, in the publication’s introduction. “We have major national problems to solve. On nearly every indicator that we use in the United States to measure progress, people of color, low-income people, and other marginalized groups are falling further behind and, in many ways, doing worse than they were in 1960. Our schools are more segregated, our levels of unemployment are at an all-time high, we face continued discrimination in voting, and our incarceration rates have increased exponentially.”

This year’s edition covers a broad range of issues, including immigration reform, voting rights, criminal justice reform, education equity and equal opportunity in education, economic justice, transportation equity, and judicial and executive nominations, among others.

It also includes images from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ 38th annual Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award dinner, in addition to descriptions of reports produced last year by The Education Fund and The Leadership Conference.

Between annual publications, these and other civil and human rights priorities are documented in “Monitor Weekly,” an email newsletter that is also posted online here. To read this year’s “Civil Rights Monitor,” please click here.

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#IAmNotYourWedge: Asian American Students Rally Against Anti-Affirmative Action Lawsuits

By Tara Yarlagadda, Field Associate

On November 17, 2014, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., an advocacy group opposed to affirmative action, launched lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill). Students for Fair Admissions is the offspring of the Project for Fair Representation, headed by Edward Blum, the driving force behind the controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

In Fisher, Blum sought out a White candidate – Abigail Fisher – who had been denied admission to a highly accredited university. Fisher challenged the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT-Austin) admissions policies, which considers race as one factor out of many to create a highly qualified and diverse student body. The Supreme Court did not rule on the use of race in admissions but ordered the lower courts to reconsider UT-Austin’s policy to make sure that its consideration of race as a factor was “narrowly tailored.” In July, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UT-Austin.

The lawsuits against Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill allege that applicants, particularly Asian students, are being denied admission to universities on the basis of their race or ethnicity due to affirmative action policies requiring stronger qualifications from Asian Americans than other minority groups. Those initiating the lawsuit claim to speak for the entire Asian American demographic, even though Asian Americans constitute a diverse group of individuals from all walks of life. In fact, the majority of Asian Americans favor admissions policies that expand diversity in universities.

In similar news, a small, but vocal group of Asian Americans recently succeeded in blocking State Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA-5) – a measure intended to restore affirmative action in higher education in California – believing the proposed referendum would adversely affect all Asian American students.

But such efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Asian American community. Asian American students and civil rights groups are fighting back in full force. The UNC Asian American Students Association (ASA) recently issued a statement opposing Students for Fair Admissions’ claims, stating that “UNC ASA favors admission policies that ensure diversity, which is integral for the learning experience on college campuses. … Additionally, the filing fails to present a holistic portrayal of UNC’s Asian student community, which is comprised of diverse ethnicities and spans an array of socio-economic backgrounds.” In response to the Fisher case, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and 70 other Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations filed a legal brief in 2012 to voice their support of UT-Austin’s admissions policies.

Furthermore, the hashtag #IAmNotYourWedge has gone viral as Asian Americans, frustrated with their community being co-opted by the mainstream media and other prominent figures, are speaking out.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison could be the next target of Students for Fair Admissions’ strategy. With such a barrage of attacks on access to higher education, we need a solid show of support from all groups to weather these attacks and come out stronger in the campaign for equal opportunity and diversity in colleges across the United States.

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In Absence of Senate Ratification, CEDAW Progress Moves to Local Level

On December 18, 1979, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. But today, 35 years later, the United States is one of only seven countries that hasn’t ratified the treaty.

CEDAW has been ratified by 188 countries and is an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s rights. It is the only international agreement that comprehensively addresses women’s political, civil, cultural, economic, and social rights, and has been instrumental in expanding educational opportunities and voting rights and decreasing domestic violence and sex trafficking in ratifying countries.

President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty 34 years ago, but the United States remains the only Western and industrialized democracy not to have ratified it. Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, and Tonga haven’t taken that step, either.

The U.S. Senate has never even held a floor vote on the treaty, but several city and state governments have taken action and passed local CEDAW resolutions. In 1998, San Francisco became the first city to adopt an ordinance reflecting the principles of CEDAW. Most recently, the city of Louisville, Ky., approved a resolution in November that will use CEDAW as a framework for all future policy aimed toward ending gender-based discrimination.

Ratifying CEDAW would affirm the United States as a leader and model in protecting the rights of women and girls worldwide. At a Senate hearing on combatting violence and discrimination against women in June, Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian attorney, emphasized how the U.S. ratification of CEDAW would strengthen efforts to expand opportunities for women worldwide, stating, “You are indeed a beacon of hope, and a city on a hill. The passing of IVAWA and CEDAW would lighten our load.”

The hearing featured a panel of seven women senators, who shared instances of violence against women across the globe and detailed the role the U.S. should take in protecting women. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D., Mass., said, “The U.S. must be committed to protecting the rights of women and girls, committed to preventing violence and discrimination against women across the globe.” Warren also urged, “Investing in women and girls means investing in the future. It is prosperous, secure, just, and peaceful for all and it’s time for Congress to carry this fight forward.”

Without ratification, grassroots efforts like Cities for CEDAW, a campaign created last year to empower local women’s groups to push for CEDAW initiatives, are aiming to build momentum for a fix to our nation’s still imperfect commitment to promoting women’s rights – a commitment the world will only notice with the ratification of CEDAW.

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One Way We Can Help Narrow the Expanding Racial Wealth Gap

On Friday, Pew Research Center released data showing that, since the end of the Great Recession, the racial wealth gap has only gotten larger. In 2013, White households had 13 times the median wealth of Black households and 10 times the median wealth of Hispanic households – both which are higher than 2010 levels.


As Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted earlier this year writing for Spotlight on Poverty, payday lending regulation can contribute to narrowing that gap. According to Henderson,

“This broadening wealth gap can be attributed in no small part to predatory payday lending activity that disproportionately – and aggressively – targets minority communities. Payday loans alluringly, and often deceptively, provide a quick route to credit for consumers who might not qualify otherwise. However, they must be fully repaid in a very short period of time – often on the borrower’s next payday. This repayment structure and the lack of underwriting for affordability for the loan contributes to a hopeless cycle of indebtedness, causing borrowers to pay more in fees alone than the amount they borrowed and forcing them into even more dire financial situations. In turn, many payday loan borrowers struggle to afford necessities like food, healthcare, and education – leaving them at risk of bankruptcy and deeper levels of poverty.”

The Leadership Conference at its annual meeting in December 2013 unanimously approved a resolution urging states, Congress, and federal agencies to increase regulatory oversight and enforcement of payday lenders, and in October 2014 signed on to a letter with more than 450 other groups urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to stop the payday loan debt trap.

As the letter states, “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. Additionally, these loans are particularly devastating to individuals with a fixed-income, such as seniors on retirement or Social Security Income.”

The CFPB’s upcoming payday lending rule, expected in early 2015, could stop this debt trap and – in the process – help to narrow our nation’s already alarming, but still expanding racial wealth gap.

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Senate Hearing on Civil and Human Rights Highlights Discrimination in Justice System

On Tuesday, December 9, lawmakers and civil rights leaders testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on the current state of civil and human rights in the United States.

The hearing came on the heels of grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., that failed to indict White police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unarmed Black men, and focused heavily on the need for reforms to end the harmful biases against people of color in our justice system.

During the hearing’s first panel, Sen. Cory Booker, D., N.J., and Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D. Ill., and Keith Ellison, D. Minn., gave testimony on the discrimination minority communities face when dealing with law enforcement, and called for an end to racial profiling. Gutierrez shared how he was profiled while entering the U.S. Capitol in 1996 when he was told by police that he did not look like a congressman.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, testified during the second panel, and discussed how people of color are falling behind according to nearly every measure of progress in the United States – including in education, unemployment, voting rights, and incarceration rates.

“Our justice system is in crisis. Racial and ethnic bias persist at every stage, from policing to trial to sentencing and, finally, to re-entry,” Henderson said. To combat such discrimination, Henderson called for commonsense reforms to prohibit discriminatory profiling, demilitarize local police, and establish police accountability.

Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, also testified during the second panel (read their testimony here).

While our country should celebrate how far we’ve come, we must acknowledge that, as Henderson noted, “stubborn obstacles to full inclusion and opportunity remain for our communities, and we’ve failed to establish the justice and equality that we all seek.”

Watch a video of Henderson testifying below:

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Come See the Documentary, “Commonwealth”

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s oldest city, Philadelphia, schools are shut down as prisons are being built. The film “Commonwealth” documents what happens to communities like Philadelphia when states invest in prisons while at the same time slashing public education funding. “Commonwealth” is an in-depth look at whether life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are possible in the gritty birthplace of American democracy, as told by the students, advocates, and people of Philadelphia.

The documentary, partly inspired by this op-ed by Wade Henderson, will be shown this Sunday, December 14, at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. The Leadership Conference Education Fund along with DIRECTV will host the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion and reception with the director and education activists working toward education equity. The film is an original DIRECTV documentary.

Join us for the screening and important discussion on Sunday, December 14.

Click here to RSVP.

Link to our Facebook Invite.

Watch the trailer below.

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