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Veteran Lawyer, Education Advocate Nominated to Head Office of Civil Rights

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants a lawyer with a deeply unique understanding of academic challenges facing students of color to oversee the civil rights division in his department.

If confirmed, Duncan will get both in the form of Russlynn Ali, whom he nominated Wednesday to fill the position. Ali knows first-hand the challenges faced by students of color, something education advocates praised upon hearing about her nomination.

“Based on what I know about her, she has the qualifications and the temperament to be confirmed to the position,” said Dr. Antonio R. Flores,  president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), representing 450 colleges and universities that serve two-thirds of the more than 2 million Hispanic students in U.S. higher education.

“Considering her experience in law and prior experience with the Board of Education in L.A., and other experiences she has had with the Children’s Defense Fund, I think she has had exposure to the realities faced by young people and students across the board,” Flores added. “She has experience that is important to bring to a position like this. She is a lawyer by training and understands the legal aspects of her role.”

Ali attended Spelman College and graduated from American University with a bachelor’s degree in law and society. She also holds a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law.

She is currently a vice president of the Education Trust, which works to promote academic achievement for students at all levels, with an emphasis on serving Latino, African American, Native American and low-income students. She also held the position of liaison to the president of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

In addition to her role at the Children’s Defense Fund, Ali has served as assistant director of policy and research for The Broad Foundation in Los Angeles. While at the foundation, she served as chief of staff to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education president. Prior to joining The Broad Foundation, she was counsel to the civil rights law firm English, Munger & Rice in Los Angeles, concurrently serving as deputy co-director of the Advancement Project and adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California School of Law.

All of this she achieved prior to launching a career in the nonprofit sector.

“Russlynn brings passion for, expertise in and dedication to equality and fairness in education, and her tireless work and commitment have changed the lives of low-income students from across the nation,” Duncan said of Ali in a press release. 

If confirmed, Ali will face significant challenges: failing schools, long-term achievement disparities among low-income students, as well as funding inequities amid a budget crisis.

“I’m sure she’s an excellent choice,” said Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “The Children’s Defense Fund and the Education Trust are excellent organizations. Our top priorities in higher education are affirmative action and equity throughout all higher education, especially for tribal colleges.”

Billy represents 36 colleges in the United States and one in Canada. “We are constantly trying to achieve equity with mainstream higher education institutions. We’ve historically not seen equitable funding to tribal land,” Billy said. “That’s something that we would like to work on with this administration.”

The United Negro College Fund as well as the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents private and public historically Black colleges and universities, respectively, were not immediately available to comment on this article. 

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