Nationwide community colleges educate the largest proportion of low-income students, students of color and students from a variety of other disadvantaged or underserved backgrounds -- more than any other sector of higher education.

From our very beginnings, community colleges have also been known as “open door” institutions, welcoming everyone; meeting them wherever they are academically, socially and economically; and helping them get where they want to go.

Striving toward social justice and creating a more equitable society has always been part of our mission.

This is particularly true for Northern Essex Community College. We have one of the lowest income student populations out of all 106 colleges and universities in the commonwealth.

In 2001, we became the first federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution in New England; and since 2017, over half of our students are students of color.

In some important ways, we are good at our social justice mission. While some of the best universities in the world, and right here in Massachusetts, have very little impact on whether their students climb the socioeconomic ladder, mostly because they are already a rung or two from the top, community colleges like Northern Essex are far better at serving disadvantaged students and helping them reach upward mobility.

For more than a decade, we have worked with Achieving the Dream, a national network of community colleges committed to closing student success gaps, particularly among low income students and students of color, and we have made closing those gaps -- what we call the Equity Imperative -- our No. 1 goal. We have worked with Campus Compact to create a college-wide civic action plan, and we have been recognized by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for our high rates of student voter engagement.

We are a founding member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Immigration and Higher Education, a coalition of higher education leaders dedicated to increasing public understanding of how immigration policies and practices impact students, campuses and communities.

We helped create, and continue to incubate, the Lawrence Partnership, a private-public collaboration of community leaders devoted to improving economic development and the quality of life in the city of Lawrence.

Not nearly enough

But for all the good we have done and continue to do, it is not nearly enough for our students and the communities we serve.

Our overall student success rates for retention, graduation and transfer are not what we want them to be, and the success gap between our white students and Hispanic students, and between our low- and moderate-income students, despite progress over the years, is still unacceptably high.

Recent events have further demonstrated the tremendous socioeconomic inequities that exist all around us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, Latino and immigrant communities in Massachusetts, especially in Lawrence and Haverhill.

The economic fallout from the pandemic -- closed businesses that may never reopen, soaring unemployment, housing and food insecurity -- has similarly hit hardest in already low-income communities of color.

While the state unemployment rate has jumped to an alarming 16%, in Haverhill it is 19%, and Lawrence leads the state at 31%.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the months of protests that have followed are signs not just of anger at police brutality, but at systemic racism in our nation that has created these tremendous disparities in education, employment and quality of life.

There is a lot more we can and should be doing at Northern Essex to live up to our own ideals of social justice, including expanding our engagement with our local communities in order to better support our students.

Supporting our communities

Unlike many students at four-year private and public universities, who come from other states and other countries to study, and then to return home again, the students of Northern Essex Community College -- all 9,000 of them in our academic and community education programs -- are part of the very communities we serve. They spend their lives here in the Merrimack Valley.

Over 90% of our students come from within five miles of our campuses in Lawrence and in Haverhill.

Beyond the classroom and the campus, there are many features of our students’ lives in their communities that affect their academic progress and success. These include safety; physical and mental health; housing security; food security; English language ability; employment; immigration status; criminal record; and much more. 

Center for Equity and Social Justice

Northern Essex may not have the staff or resources to fully respond to every socioeconomic need our students have.

But we must still do all we can with what we have to support our students, not only when they reach us on campus and in the classroom but in the communities where they live, work and raise their families. 

Therefore, we are committing to examining and organizing college staff and resources into a new Northern Essex Community College Center for Equity and Social Justice, and to actively engaging with campus and community partners to identify opportunities for the college to create or contribute to new services and partnerships, or enhance existing ones, that will benefit our students through strengthening their communities, ensuring equity and addressing social justice needs.

Some of the ways a new Center for Equity and Social Justice may serve as a vital resource to supporting our students and communities may include:

> Working closely with community organizations with missions that serve the needs of our students and support their academic, social and economic progress and success;

> Serving as an educational resource for immigrants in our communities;

> Providing education and training for police, public safety and correctional officers;

> Expanding access to civic engagement, service learning and volunteer opportunities for students;

> Providing support and resources to students experiencing housing and food insecurity;

> Expanding access to English language instruction;

> Recognizing accomplishments in community service and social justice; and

> Supporting leadership development opportunities focused on equity, inclusion and social justice.

The need for equity and social justice in the world around us compels our vision for a better future and urges us forward in this vital work.

We are actively looking for more individual and organizational partners. 

We hope you will join us.

Dr. Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College. Dr. Noemi Custodia-Lora is vice president of the Lawrence campus and community relations at Northern Essex. 

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