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You are here: Home News CRP Bulletin/Noticiero Volume 1, Issue 2 ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Andrew Grant-Thomas

ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Andrew Grant-Thomas

Jenny Vasquez interviews Andrew Grant-Thomas, who shares some insights and lessons learned from his experiences at CRP.

CRP: Describe your experience in civil rights research or policy prior to joining the CRP.

AGT: I had done a bunch of relevant things: served as a tester in an employment discrimination study in Chicago, helped design and run a similar study myself, worked for a DC nonprofit that advocated on the Hill for education programs that serve poor kids and kids of color. I wrote a dissertation on the race, gender and class politics that shape the disproportionate attention to black males while discounting the difficulties so many black women and girls face. But I’d say that CRP marked my entry into the civil rights big leagues.

CRP: How or why did you first become involved with the CRP?

AGT: I really wanted to invest more seriously in civil rights and race work, had admired Chris [Edley] and Gary [Orfield] from a distance, and happened across the position announcement for the 2003 Color Lines Conference. It sounded like an amazing opportunity to learn about stuff I cared about, and to do it very intensively with some of the fabulous people working on these issues at Harvard and elsewhere… At the time, I was footloose and fancy-free and a move to Cambridge worked for my partner as well, so just a no-brainer decision for me.

CRP: You directed the 2003 “Color Lines Conference: Segregation and Integration in America’s Present and Future.” Share what the goals and outcomes of this conference were.

AGT: Color Lines was a beautiful, beautiful thing and I have to give a lot of love to all my former colleagues – Sofia, Michal, Jerry, Marilyn, Christina, Laurent, all the grad and law students, many others (hugs!) – now scattered far and wide, who worked so hard and so well to pull it off. We wanted to document trends in and implications of racial segregation and integration across a huge range of social contexts – schools, colleges and universities, neighborhoods, workplaces, places of worship, in political life, economic life, family life.  And it was about the role and potential of legal and policy advocacy, research, and activism in mitigating the effects of what we were seeing. The chapters in Twenty-First Century Color Lines: Multiracial Change in Contemporary America deal with some of the issues the conference engaged and the original versions of some chapters were written for the conference. But many of the chapters were written or substantially revised after Color Lines.

My guess is that the most meaningful outcomes were the ones hardest to document. Over 1,000 people attended that conference over three days, including students, community folks, activists, teachers, professors, elected officials, business people… you name it. Afterwards, I had any number of people tell me that their life’s work was now different because of the experience. I attended one session where three or four legal giants in education outlined some specific litigation opportunities looming in their areas of interest, and specified the research they’d need to take advantage of them. There were maybe 100 people taking notes furiously. I think that some very gifted researchers and advocates formed partnerships and got their marching orders over those three days, and that this country will be better off for the work they did or will do as a result.

CRP: Describe the most memorable CRP projects you were involved in and why.

AGT: I’m pretty sure I was the only researcher at CRP who generally didn’t work on education issues, meaning that I worked on related issues like federal housing policy, transportation policy, and the structural roots of racial inequality. Even the work I didn’t love I learned a lot from. Besides Color Lines, probably the most exciting and memorable project was one that ultimately didn’t get funded, but we got to do a lot of great thinking and it really sparked my imagination. The question was: what would it take to create a truly racially integrated society in which people valued and embraced integrated neighborhoods and schools?  john powell, now at Berkeley, was in that mix, Marge Turner from the Urban Institute, Phil Tegeler from PRRAC, others -- good, smart, creative folks. And we weren’t just talking about getting rid of exclusionary zoning or enforcing fair housing laws, important as those are. Part of the challenge was to generate a compelling, affirmative vision of what such a society might look like, beginning to think about how it might function and strategizing about how to get more people to buy into the vision. Really interesting and important gig.

CRP: What was the most valuable lesson you took away from your CRP experience?

AGT: That there are a good number of really smart and deeply decent people working as hard as they can to bow the arc of the moral universe toward greater racial justice and equity, and I not only have a part to play, but that I have to play that part. (And that Harvard has amazing resources!) Before CRP, I was certainly interested in pursuing racial and social justice work, which is why I came in the first place. After CRP, professionally speaking, there was no turning back.

CRP: Trace your experience from CRP to your current work. What were some important milestones along the way? Is the work that you are currently doing related to the work of the CRP in any way?

AGT: I left CRP in 2006 to work with john powell at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. After six years as deputy director at Kirwan, I joined the Proteus Fund and, yes, it’s all very related. Grantmaking, not research, is the coin of my realm now, but racial equity remains my deep concern, and my main analytical lens is structural. Right now, for example, I’m developing a grantmaking program that would support communities of color to muster and organize their civic power, elect the candidates they want, and then hold those officials accountable. And I’ve reached out to two former CRP colleagues, Gary [Orfield] and Erica Frankenberg, to help me think through opportunities to do work on school district lines. You can take me out of the CRP, but you can’t take the CRP out of me, as they say.

CRP: You are currently overseeing programming at Proteus. Can you elaborate on how research, policy and programming intersect?

AGT: In a nutshell, the strategies for Proteus’ grantmaking programs are informed by research and often aimed at generating policy reform. Which points to another fundamental insight my CRP experience underlined for me: the power of a well-integrated social change chain with links that include research, social analysis, legal advocacy, policy advocacy, policy reform, and so on. Too often, experts [working] on different pieces of what’s needed to effect deep, systemic change operate in isolation from each other, even when each would like nothing more than to have their work support the greater good.

CRP: What advice would you give a student or beginning professional who is interested in civil rights research and/or policy?

AGT: Um, don’t take advice from strangers? I kid! Read! Read to stay informed, but also read sharply, passionately argued stuff that shakes up your worldview. The first time I heard and read Angela Davis' advocacy for prison abolition – wow! She taught me a lot about the ‘prison industrial complex,’ sure, but it also brought home some incredible insights about the work ideology does and how it operates. If you call the United States home, appreciate that we have a lot to learn from the rest of the world. Exercise your critical thinking faculties. Recognize your own privileges as well as the ways in which you are not. Finally, do the work, but realize that, ultimately, simply playing a role, any old role, in pursuing even the most inspiring mission is almost never enough. You need to find the role and environment that speaks to who you are and how you want to move through the world. And then I'd say: Gosh, look at the time! Sorry for talking at you so long - but thank you so much for your interest in doing this work, and good luck!


Andrew Grant-Thomas is director of programs at Proteus Fund. His expertise includes structural opportunity and systems thinking, racial equity, poverty alleviation, implicit bias and racial communications, and multiracial alliance-building. Before joining Proteus in 2012, he was deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, overseeing much of its US-based and global justice programming while serving as editor-in-chief of the Institute’s journal, “Race/Ethnicity,” and director of its biennial Transforming Race conference.  Prior to that, Andrew worked with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. He earned his BA in Literature from Yale University, his MA in International Relations from The University of Chicago, and his PhD in Political Science from The University of Chicago.

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