Administrator named chair of human rights commission

After seven years on a prominent state human rights commission, Donna Elam, an administrator in USF’s College of Education, will soon be in a unique position to tackle discrimination in Florida.

On Tuesday, Elam was named as the chair of the state-created Florida Commission on Human Relations, which has the power to enforce the Florida Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts.

“It’s been a long, long, long time coming (for Elam),” said Derick Daniel, the Executive Director of the Florida Commission on Human and Civil Rights.

Elam, the associate director of Program Development and External Affairs for the David C. Anchin Center, has an illustrious track record working to improve civil and human rights, colleagues said.

“Donna is an expert when it comes to diversity … she is at the forefront when it comes to the field of education and activism for civil rights,” College of Education Dean Colleen Kennedy said.

A reception Thursday evening honoring Elam, who has served on the commission for the past seven years in various functions, drew guests from the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence.

“For Florida to have Dr. Elam as its chair (of the Commission on Human Relations) bodes well for the state,” said Monica Hayes, the Regional Director for the National Math and Science Initiative. “(Florida) is culturally diverse, racially and ethnically. That’s her passion, bringing people together.”

Colleagues said Elam has a gift for drawing people together and mitigating the tension that inevitably follows discussions of race and discrimination.

“She is so embracing, so inclusive. She has a manner and a demeanor with people that’s just unnatural, I’ve never seen it before – it’s almost magical,” Anchin Center Director Bruce Jones said.

Elam, who completed her doctorate in education at New York University, said the FCHR plans to partner with USF and governmental agencies to study the state of civil and human rights in Florida. Using those results, they will inform the public and influence public policy, she said.

“We want to position the FCHR to be the catalyst for changing the discourse about civil rights and human rights in Florida through identifying the facts and raising awareness – providing action-oriented resolutions,” Elam said.

Elam, who was appointed to the commission in 2000 by Gov. Jeb Bush and confirmed by the Florida Senate, has recently written Why They Marched: The Struggle for the Right to Vote, a children’s book featured in the Florida Department of Education’s Just Read! Program.

The Florida Legislature created the Commission in 1969 as a way to enforce the newly passed Civil Rights Act, and in the years since, has taken on other responsibilities, such as regulating the Fair Housing and Whistleblower Acts.

The 12 members of the Commission, appointed by the governor to serve four-year terms, are also charged with mediating conflicts and hearing complaints of discrimination in communities and institutions.

Dan Catlin can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or