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Racial and social justice advocacy is in an era of transition. Race continues to permeate people's lives and to structure the social and economic hierarchy, but often in complicated ways that elude bright line categories. Disparities frequently result from cognitive bias, unequal access to opportunity networks, and other structural dynamics, rather than from intentional exclusion. For example, disparities in access to higher education persist as a result of differences in access, information, resources, networks, and evaluation, which give rise to achievement differentials at each critical turning point affecting successful advancement. These differences accumulate to produce substantial disparities in college participation rates, graduation, and movement into graduate and faculty positions.

Recent Supreme Court decisions provide further evidence that the hallmark narratives and strategies of the civil rights era have to be rethought. Discrimination – as defined by the courts – does not adequately account for persistent disparities in the core institutions that define citizenship, including education, criminal justice, housing, employment, and political participation. The federal judiciary has largely withdrawn from the affirmative project of eradicating persistent bias and structural inequality. Civil rights advocates are more likely to be in court to defend the legality of long-standing programs, rather than to advance affirmative racial justice goals. Community mobilization now takes forms that may differ dramatically from the grass roots, protest-based mobilization of the 1960s. Activism's center of gravity has shifted from a singular focus on federal government action to a multi-level, public/private array of local, regional, national, and international arenas. There is a need for new frameworks and narratives for advancing full participation that are informed by a fuller understanding of the mechanisms that sustain disparities and are connected to new locations and institutions for making those narratives meaningful in practice.

At the same time, current conditions present new possibilities for tackling structural inequality and advancing genuine citizenship. Many lawyers, leaders, activists, and academics have acknowledged the need to redesign strategies, roles, and institutions. At least in some areas, pivotal institutions have begun experimenting with new ways to pursue inclusiveness in an era of complexity and legal uncertainty. The interdisciplinary character of structural inequality has attracted attention from researchers in many different disciplines and policy makers in many different domains. New technologies are creating promising opportunities for sharing knowledge and mobilizing groups. Collaborative networks of activists, professionals, and institutions have emerged. Public and non-profit intermediaries are developing the architecture to connect information and action within and across organizations. Unlikely alliances between insiders and outsiders have emerged in areas such as education, policing, and housing, and these alliances have sometimes propelled ongoing institutional reform. Multi-racial, multi-issue coalitions are emerging to address problems at the intersection of their different agendas.

The challenge is to figure out how to link this complex, interdependent, yet de-centered, activity. Conventional approaches tend to focus on one level at a time – individual behavior, organizational practice, regulatory policy. Strategies are needed that will enable mobilization that, at a minimum, take account of the multi-level dynamics that will influence the scope, impact, and effectiveness of any intervention. More ambitiously, there is a need to develop the capacity to take systematic approaches to systemic problems. Are there ways to configure the mobilization of change that can act on multiple levels simultaneously and thus locate action at leverage points that will maximize impact on those multiple levels?

This Article focuses on a particular institutional form that has the potential to activate change across different levels and spheres contributing to structural inequality. This institution does so by developing the role of boundary spanning institutional intermediaries: pivotally located catalysts with the capacity to mobilize multi-level sustainable change. These institutional intermediaries operate across multiple systems, organizations, and fields of knowledge and practice. They have the potential to serve as the instigators of institutional change, the linkages for cross-institutional learning and collaboration, the leverage to induce institutions to rethink themselves, and the architecture to sustain these networks of learning and accountability. This Article identifies the potential of boundary-spanning institutional intermediaries, using the "action arena" of higher education as a context for developing and illustrating their potential to leverage the impact of programmatic innovation and thus to produce systemic improvements in access and success of underrepresented groups.

It is also important to emphasize what this Article is not doing. It is not suggesting that institutional intermediaries necessarily, or even usually, play a transformative role that advances full participation. Indeed, as Lauren Edelman's important work illustrates, institutional intermediaries often serve as a gatekeeper for the status quo. This Article is instead offering two important observations: first, that institutional intermediaries are influential actors that are positioned to influence organizational practice and, second, that under certain conditions and with adequate conceptual tools, they have the capacity to play a transformative role. As such, they should be the focus of explicit attention and design.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Law | Law and Race | Law and Society


Center for Gender & Sexuality Law


Center for Institutional and Social Change