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Employment and Jobs

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: Fulfilling the Promise of Equal Opportunity

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People of color, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and people from various faith traditions have been at the forefront of the long march toward civil rights and equality in the U.S. A significant part of this struggle has been the fight to be free from discrimination in employment and harassment in the workplace. That battle has been fought in factories and farms, mines and construction sites, hotels and restaurants, warehouses and offices, hospitals and every other workplace imaginable. The marches and protests have inspired generations and delivered landmark victories such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), or religion, and it created the Equal Opportunity Commission. The law reshaped economic opportunity horizons for millions of people, and its impact on the American workplace remains profound. But the work of creating equitable and inclusive workplaces is far from done. Racial and gender wage gaps persist, discrimination still limits opportunity for many, and harassment continues to make many workplaces unproductive and unsafe. Today the American workforce is far more diverse than it was 60 years ago, making progress toward the realizing equal opportunity at work even more urgent. As we look to address the issues of today, and build toward a better future, what can we learn from the history and legacy of Title VII?

This is the third conversation in our five-part series, The History and Future of U.S. Labor Law: Conversations to Shape the Future of Work.


In this video, hear @AspenJobQuality #talkopportunity with Robert Barea @Prudential, @OlatiJ, @ThomasASaenz, Tanya Wallace-Gobern @NationalBWC, and @MekaeliaD about Title VII, civil rights, and equal opportunity.

Video: Title VII, Civil Rights, and Equal Opportunity. Feat Rob Barea @Prudential, @OlatiJ @ColumbiaLaw, @ThomasASaenz @MALDEF, Tanya Wallace-Gobern @NationalBWC, and @MekaeliaD @Surdna_Fndn. By @AspenJobQuality.

The Civil Rights Act outlawed employment discrimination by race, color, nationality, sex, and religion. But equal opportunity has not yet been realized. How can we live up to this promise?

Despite bans on employment discrimination, wage gaps persist, harassment continues, and front-line workers look very different than the boardroom. What lessons can we draw from history?

Civil rights includes freedom from workplace discrimination — and the struggle continues today. What can we learn from this history, and how can we live up to the promise of equal opportunity?

POC, women, LGBTQ, immigrants, people with disabilities, and various faith traditions have long been leaders in the march toward equality. And today’s coalition is broader than ever before.

That battle for equal opportunity has been fought in every workplace imaginable — factories, farms, mines, hotels, restaurants, warehouses, hospitals, and more. Hear @AspenJobQuality and guests #talkopportunity in this video.


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Robert Barea
Vice President, Culture, Diversity & Engagement, Prudential Financial, Inc. @Prudential

Rob Barea is vice president of culture, diversity, and engagement at Prudential Financial, Inc. In this role, he is responsible for the firm’s enterprise-side inclusion and diversity strategy, including culture programming, oversight of the company’s eight business resource groups, and driving change through inclusion councils that support Prudential’s purpose and values.

Rob has more than 20 years of expertise in strategic human capital management, learning management, inclusion and diversity, and organizational development. Prior to Prudential, Rob led the design and implementation of enterprise-wide inclusion and diversity initiatives at KPMG. Prior to that, Rob served in other senior diversity and inclusion roles in Fortune 500 companies and within the US Army, where he retired as an active-duty chief warrant officer after 24 years of service.

Supporting his passion to promote inclusive leadership behaviors and equitable workplaces, Rob serves on two nonprofit boards. He is a board member of the APEX Solutions Group, a small DBE professional service firm, and a corporate advisory board member for the Association of Latino Professionals for America, which focuses on empowering and developing Latinos in every sector of the global economy.
Building on his military experience of servant leadership, Rob also volunteers his time with young people in his community as a motivational speaker at local high schools and is an active coach and mentor with the Travis Manion Foundation, which works to improve the lives of underserved youth in Black and brown communities.

Rob earned his MBA from Liberty University and his bachelor’s degree in general business from Nichols College. Rob is a certified project manager and earned his project management certification from the Project Management Institute and his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt from the US Army’s Office of Business Transformation during his military service.

A Harlem native, Rob married his high school sweetheart. Together, they have three sons who all model his leadership in community service.


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Olatunde Johnson @OlatiJ
Professor, Columbia Law School @ColumbiaLaw

Known for her distinguished scholarship in civil procedure, legislation, and anti-discrimination law, Olatunde Johnson is equally committed to cultivating the next generation of civic-minded lawyers. In the classroom, Johnson draws on her background in legal practice and government service to illustrate how social change can be effected through litigation as well as problem-solving outside the courtroom.

Johnson’s research has helped shape the national conversation on modern civil rights legislation, anti-discrimination, fair housing, congressional power, and innovations to address discrimination and inequality. Her recent work examines state and local governments’ efforts to enhance opportunities for historically excluded groups, as well as the conflicts that arise when states preempt local efforts to address discrimination and promote wage increases and affordable housing.

In 2016, Johnson was awarded the Law School’s Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching and Columbia University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. In 2009, Columbia Law School students selected Johnson as the Public Interest Professor of the Year, praising her as a “role model for aspiring public interest lawyers.” In February 2020, she was appointed by the US Department of Justice to the Resolutions Committee honoring Justice John Paul Stevens, for whom she clerked.

Nearly a decade after she joined the Columbia Law School faculty, in 2006, Johnson was appointed vice dean for Intellectual Life for the 2016-2018 term. In that role, she organized a wide range of events designed to engage the Law School community, from a Lawyers, Community, and Impact panel on recent developments in US law and politics to a roundtable discussion on integration in America, faculty film series, and a book talk.

Johnson brings extensive public service experience to her work at Columbia Law School, including clerking for Judge David Tatel on the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Justice John Paul Stevens on the US Supreme Court. From 1997 to 2001, Johnson worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she conducted trial- and appellate-level litigation to promote racial and ethnic equity in employment, health, and higher education. From 2001 to 2003, she served as constitutional and civil rights counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, then as a senior consultant on racial justice in the ACLU’s National Legal Department from 2003 to 2004.

In 2017, Johnson was elected a member of the American Law Institute.


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Thomas Saenz @ThomasASaenz
President and General Counsel, MALDEF @MALDEF

Thomas Saenz is the president and general counsel of MALDEF. He leads the organization in pursuing litigation, policy advocacy, and community education to promote the civil rights of all Latinos living in the United States in the areas of education, employment, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and freedom from open bias. Saenz rejoined MALDEF as its president in August 2009, after four years on Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s executive team. He previously spent 12 years at MALDEF practicing civil rights law, including four years as litigation director. He has served as lead counsel for MALDEF in numerous cases, including challenges to California’s Proposition 187, California’s Proposition 227, local restrictions on day laborers’ free-speech rights, and California’s 2001 congressional redistricting. In 2016, Saenz argued before the US Supreme Court in United States v. Texas, representing intervenors defending the Obama Administration’s deferred action initiatives. Saenz graduated summa cum laude from Yale College in 1987 and received his law degree from Yale Law School in 1991. He served as a law clerk for two federal judges before initially joining MALDEF in 1993.


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Tanya Wallace-Gobern
Executive Director, National Black Worker Center @NationalBWC

Tanya Wallace-Gobern brings over 20 years of experience in labor and community organizing. She became the executive director of the National Black Worker Center in June 2016. As executive director, Tanya lives out her lifelong passion while executing the mission of empowering Black workers to advance their rights and improve the quality of jobs in key employment sectors. Tanya convenes a network of membership-based, member-driven local Black worker centers that utilize a combination of leadership development, organizing, policy advocacy, and strategic communications to build power to address the black job crisis. Aggravated by the low number of African Americans among staff and union leadership, Tanya also created the AFL-CIO’s Historical Black College Recruitment program to increase the number of Black union leaders and staff members. Her professional experience includes organizing with UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees), the AFL-CIO, and the Association of Flight Attendants.

Tanya has an advanced knowledge of community and political structures. She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Executive Leadership program, and her opinions and contributions have been featured in Fast Company, Ebony, the Los Angeles Times,,, and ABC Nightly News.


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Mekaelia Davis @MekaeliaD
Program Director, Inclusive Economies, Surdna Foundation @Surdna_Fndn

Mekaelia Davis is the director of the Inclusive Economies program at the Surdna Foundation, overseeing a $9.2 million grantmaking portfolio funding interventions in entrepreneurship and economic development policy and leading the creation of a new program-related investment fund. Before joining Surdna, Mekaelia was a director of corporate giving at Prudential Financial, where she managed over $10 million in national and place-based grants in economic and community development and corporate engagement. She has spent nearly twenty years at the intersection of public and private systems to drive social and economic opportunities for communities across the United States. Mekaelia has managed several high-impact portfolios with roles at the Aspen Institute and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and she was selected for competitive fellowships including National Urban Fellows, PLACES with the Funders Network for Smart Growth, and the Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress. Mekaelia received a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Public Administration from the City University of New York. She grew up in and continues to call Brooklyn home, where she cycles and roller skates across New York City.

The History and Future of U.S. Labor Law: Conversations to Shape the Future of Work

U.S. labor laws passed in the last 100 years improved job quality for millions of workers, establishing and enhancing bargaining rights, wages, opportunities, and workplace safety while also helping to create the world’s largest economy and middle class. These laws did not redound to the benefit of all workers and too often excluded women, people of color and immigrants from their protections. In many ways, these laws were the codification of a social contract across class in the U.S., creating the conditions for economic progress with a mostly common purpose. Today, however, the power of these laws has eroded and the rights they once afforded workers–to have a voice in the workplace, to be safe from harm, to access opportunity regardless of social status, to earn a decent living–have diminished. As a result, millions of workers in the U.S. today find themselves immersed in the fight, like many workers before them, to access opportunity and improve job quality for themselves and future generations.

The future of work will be shaped by what we do now, just as the labor laws passed long ago have influenced opportunity, employment and workplaces today. Understanding our past is, therefore, vital to charting the course for what we want work and job quality to look like tomorrow and decades from now. Join The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program for this five-part discussion series, The History and Future of U.S. Labor Law: Conversations to Shape the Future of Work, where we will learn about and reflect on the history of U.S. labor law, examine current implications and challenges, and discuss how we shape a future of work that provides opportunity and dignity to all.

Opportunity in America

The Economic Opportunities Program’s Opportunity in America discussion series has moved to an all-virtual format as we all do what we can to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the conversations about the changing landscape of economic opportunity in the US and implications for individuals, families, and communities across the country remain vitally important. We hope you will participate as we bring our discussions to you in virtual formats, and we look forward to your feedback.

We are grateful to Prudential Financial, Walmart, the Surdna Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Bloomberg, and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth for their support of this series.

Learn More

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.

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