As a teenager in Baltimore, Wendella P. Fox L’76 set two goals for herself: to help people and to have enough money to buy a nice dress. Her long, distinguished career in education and civil rights law has allowed her to accomplish these objectives and much more all while she drew great inspiration from Patti LaBelle’s words: “When you’ve been blessed, pass it on.”
In her current role as the Director of the Philadelphia Office with the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Fox is responsible for the investigation of complaints filed by or on behalf of students ranging from kindergarten through PhD who feel that they may have been discriminated against or bullied on account of race, national origin, language, disability, gender, or sex.
The Philadelphia Office has jurisdiction over 750 school districts, 225 charter schools, and 400 colleges spanning across Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. In shouldering such a wide breadth of cases, Fox stressed the importance of being as efficient as possible in applying the law and following the facts. OCR is a law enforcement agency and as such, its priority is to ensure a strong remedy appropriate to address the individual or systemic discrimination.
“Most students or their parents come to a federal agency and file a complaint with us because the relationship is broken,” said Fox. “They feel disrespected or that the educational institution ‘just doesn’t get it.’”
Relationships break under a wide range of circumstances. Some of the most common cases Fox and her staff encounter include those of students with disabilities as well as implicit and explicit racial discrimination and biases, sexual assault, and discrimination of LGBTQ+ students. Moreover, OCR also works to ensure that students proficient in languages other than English obtain appropriate support and resources for their success in the classroom and other activities.
Fox believes that empathy and respect are essential when investigating both sides of the complaint. She notes that, in many cases, the educational institution may not even realize it is breaking the law or discriminating against a student. In correcting an institution’s harmful practice, Fox prioritizes respectful conversations, noting that the best outcomes occur when she and her staff can facilitate agreements between families and schools, and the relationship, to some degree, is repaired.
Feeling safe and accepted go hand in hand with the opportunity to receive a quality education, and for Fox, these concepts are more than theoretical – they’re personal. She grew up in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and was one of the first Black students to integrate her middle school. She recalls volunteering to be bussed because she felt that school would have more resources – newer books, better laboratory equipment, etc. — than her neighborhood school. With her parents’ blessing, she would also go on to integrate a local high school during the late 1960s.
In Baltimore, as in many other cities across America, that era’s racial protests, demonstrations, activism, and conflict underscored many of Fox’s experiences and memories as a young African American woman obtaining an education. The same was true of Fox’s experiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Philadelphia as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.
“People didn’t hold up a sign and say, ‘We are discriminating against you and denying you the opportunity because of your race or because you are female – or because of both. They didn’t hold up a sign that told you that,” she said. “But there were few opportunities for African Americans and even fewer for females, and if you happened to be both, what was the expectation for you?”
Fox’s father was an Episcopal priest and an activist in the community (both in Baltimore and Charlottesville, Virginia), and her mother was an English teacher. Together, her parents not only encouraged Fox in her ambition to become a lawyer, but they also instilled within her a deep sense of service and community. In her work, this manifests through the compassion Fox brings to every case and encourages in her staff. Though on any given day Fox may be handling several difficult cases at once, she recognizes that each individual case represents one of the hardest moments of struggle in a young person’s life and therefore must be treated with the utmost kindness, patience, and respect.
Even when the OCR does not find “sufficient evidence” to establish a case of discrimination, Fox maintains that it is important that the student and family feel satisfied they have been heard and treated with respect. It is equally important that employees of the educational institution feel they had been treated with respect.
Despite her busy schedule, Fox makes it a priority to spend time talking to young people, especially young people of color, about her work. To Fox, it is especially important that children as young as elementary school-age see adults who look like them succeeding in careers like law.
“I won’t tell them the whole story,” Fox said in talking about her experiences when speaking with young people about her life and career path, “but I usually start the story with ‘When I was 16, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, because I wanted to help people and have enough money to buy a dress.’”
Fox summed up the work she and her staff do at the OCR as “God’s work,” because to ensure that every student has equal access to a quality education translates to ensuring that every student can thrive, grow, and succeed; in her words, “that they have an ‘even playing field,’ so that they can go as far as their God-given talents and determination will take them.”
“It is important,” Fox emphasized, “whomever you are at whatever age, to believe that you are empowered. What I want for my daughter Grace is for her to believe in her core that she is worthy to navigate storms with resources as appropriate, to be healthy and happy and productive, and to believe that she is worthy of good things happening and good people being in her life and her doing good things. It’s important for students of color and particularly for young women of color.”