A career of civil rights activism inspired by the Critical Race Studies Program

January 9, 2024
Christine Byrd
Kendra Fox-Davis

Kendra Fox-Davis ’06 brings a unique “inside-outside” perspective to her work. She has dedicated her career to protecting civil rights, from grassroots activism as a student to being a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, and later working within the University of California to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws and policies. Now, as the chief program officer of the Rosenberg Foundation, Fox-Davis steers philanthropic investments to social causes and organizations, from civil rights to criminal justice reform.

Fox-Davis says the experiences she gained and the people she met in UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies (CRS) program not only shaped her understanding of racial justice in America, but also influenced her perspective and strategy at every step of her career.

“CRS was everything to me as a law student — an intellectual home, an inspiration, a North Star in terms of staying focused on the purpose of why I came to law school,” she says. “And learning from CRS faculty and alumni was proof that there was a career to be made of civil rights and racial justice in the law.”

Law as a tool

Fox-Davis grew up in Oakland, California, and was drawn to UCLA as an undergraduate for its history of student activism. She majored in women’s studies and says that she spent as much time protesting as she did going to classes, adding that those experiences were instrumental in her first roles as a grassroots organizer, leading the U.S. Student Association, and supporting Black voter engagement with the NAACP National Voter Fund.

Ultimately, those jobs led her back to school, seeking to “learn how to use law as a tool to work toward race, gender and economic justice.”

Fox-Davis chose UCLA Law specifically for its Critical Race Studies and Public Interest Law and Policy programs.

Founded in 2000, UCLA Law’s Critical Race Studies program was the first law school program in the United States dedicated to Critical Race Theory in legal scholarship. The cornerstone of the program is the critical race studies specialization, a competitive academic course of study that engages students like Fox-Davis who are committed to racial justice scholarship and legal practice.

The program also houses the CRT Forward Tracking Project, the first of its kind to precisely identify, catalog and contextualize efforts to ban the study of CRT at the local, state and federal levels.

“Critical Race Studies faculty were instrumental in shaping not just my early legal career, but the entirety of it,” Fox- Davis says.

Fox-Davis describes working at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights as a full-circle moment, particularly since she had written about how federal antidiscrimination laws could be used to protect university students from racial harassment in law schools when she was a CRS student.

“Working to investigate civil rights complaints in K-12 schools and higher education institutions, I was informed by my own experience as a Black woman, but I also had the CRS analytical framework to better understand the role of the law in creating racial segregation in education, the history of efforts to dismantle it at both the local and national level, and an understanding of the cycles of progress and retrenchment,” she says. “Those helped me shape how I approached investigations, centering the experiences of students and parents of color, and the remedies we put in place when we found that discrimination or harassment had occurred.”

Later, Fox-Davis worked as a Title IX deputy director for the University of California Office of the President. In her role with UCOP, she often found herself engaging with student activists advocating for systemic change within the university, just as she had done as a student.

“I have been on different sides of the same table, so I understand that whether I was there as an activist, a civil rights attorney for the government, or as an administrator within an institution, ultimately we were all trying to move in the same direction,” she says. “It’s important for activists and advocates to keep our institution’s feet to the fire, and also to have like-minded people who care about justice teaching and working on the inside.”

She adds, “I think there’s a benefit to having an insideoutside strategy in any work – it helps to have as broad an understanding as possible of the institutions, the individuals and the dynamics that are at issue.”

Blueprint for continued progress

Over the years, Fox-Davis has come back as a guest lecturer in her former professors’ CRS courses, spoken on career day panels, and helped hire UCLA Law and CRS students into internships. She is especially proud of how the program has flourished, growing from about 40 students when she was in school to 116 today.

Individuals Fox-Davis met while specializing in CRS — sometimes just by the happy accident of sitting next to each other in class — have become lifelong friends who celebrate one another’s professional successes and personal milestones, even 20 years later.

“As alumni, we should support CRS, because training the next generation of civil rights attorneys and advocates is essential to building a just, multiracial democracy and to our collective battle for the soul of this country,” she says.

As the chief program officer for the Rosenberg Foundation, which funds grassroots organizations, advocacy groups and policymaking that supports racial and economic justice in California, Fox-Davis is now in a position to leverage her voice and leadership to highlight the CRS program and its projects in a new way.

In October, the Rosenberg Foundation, in collaboration with the California Black Freedom Fund and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, hosted a briefing to introduce funders to UCLA Law’s CRT Forward Tracking Project.

At the session, CRT Forward Project Director Taifha Alexander and CRS Faculty Director LaToya Baldwin Clark discussed the landscape of anti-CRT bans in California and across the nation, and the urgent need for funding to support research, convene academics and grassroots organizations, and develop local and statewide solutions. Leaders of community organizations spoke about how the anti-CRT push is impacting students and families, and state assembly member Cory Jackson discussed the recent passage of AB 1078, a state law designed to end book
bans in California schools.

“I was surprised to learn through CRT Forward that California has one of the highest numbers of local school board resolutions attacking Critical Race Studies, banning books and [engaging in] other anti-democratic efforts,” Fox-Davis says. “To date, over 100,000 students have been impacted by these anti-CRT resolutions and bans on teaching real history.”

She continues, “This was an opportunity for grant-making foundations like Rosenberg, and also individual donors and alumni, to learn about how [these efforts] have really taken root in California schools. Together, we can mobilize to push back against those attacks.”

Fox-Davis sees the role of CRS as increasingly important in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to end affirmative action in college admissions, which she worries will have a chilling effect on diversity programs.

“The progress we’ve made for women, people of color and other marginalized communities hasn’t been made because we did a really great job avoiding lawsuits — it’s because we used the law as a tool to challenge injustice,” she says. “I see the ruling as a great injustice that needs to be challenged, and one that will take a generational strategy to undo.”

“What we need right now is a blueprint for how to continue to fight, not a memo for how to give up,” she adds. “That’s what CRS can provide.”

“CRS was everything to me as a law student — an intellectual home, an inspiration, a North Star in terms of staying focused on the purpose of why I came to law school.”

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