Photo of Ehsan Zaffar

ASU announces new initiative to address inequality


Julie Tenney

Through an interdisciplinary approach jointly formed by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, W. P. Carey School of Business and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University is launching a new initiative to help reduce inequality in the United States.

ASU President Michael Crow was instrumental in bringing together the interdisciplinary group and recruiting Ehsan Zaffar, a senior adviser on civil rights and civil liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to launch and lead the initiative beginning in January 2021. Collaboration throughout the university is critical for the success of this initiative because social, political and economic inequality is systemic and affects society as a whole.

“The U.S. Constitution’s aspirations of the right to equal justice, the right to pursue happiness and the right to individual liberty, are, in fact, unfairly and inequitably distributed across our society,” Crow said. “With systemic racism, economic disparities and many more issues of injustice and inequality we are facing, ASU must do more to make a practical and meaningful impact. Our deans, faculty and students across ASU made a commitment earlier this year to outline new programs that we can initiate with our own resources and then pursue additional partners in creating and deploying new solutions to transform social justice. The creation of this initiative is one of these new concepts.”

Zaffar, who was appointed ASU Law professor of practice, envisions the initiative as an applied center that will leverage cross-functional proficiencies at ASU to create classes, comprehensive private-sector partnerships, and tangible “products” to help students learn, help faculty broaden their areas of expertise, and provide affected communities with the tools to diminish structural inequality.

These products would range from educational tools for use inside and outside the classroom to indexes and maps for nonprofit and government organizations to smartphone apps that can be shared widely throughout impacted communities.

“Reducing inequality will rely on all of ASU’s fundamental strengths: an openness to innovation, a community of amazing students and faculty, and the involvement of a network of supporters, alumni and citizens who are passionate about eliminating unfair systems,” Zaffar said. “The COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police brutality make it even clearer why we must rebuild equitable systems, and I am grateful to President Crow for the opportunity to realize this vision at ASU. It is my hope that 50 years from now, students who join this initiative will help create a world where people don’t feel like they have to join protests to obtain basic, fundamental rights.”

A civil rights attorney, educator and advocate, Zaffar began serving during President Barack Obama’s administration as a “peacemaker” for community and faith-based conflicts arising from actual or alleged discrimination at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. He continues to provide leadership on these issues as a board member at Team Rubicon and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Zaffar joined government service as a well-known expert in the areas of civil rights, inequality and social justice, having taught courses on these subjects at George Washington University and George Mason University. Prior to his work at DHS, he served at Los Angeles County’s office of the public defender, where he represented juvenile defendants in Compton, California, and also founded the Los Angeles Mobile Legal Aid Clinic — a “law firm on wheels” that helped to pioneer the delivery of legal care to vulnerable populations in California and abroad.

His latest book “Understanding Homeland Security” (2019) helps students understand the role of the homeland security enterprise on American communities and his podcast “UnfairNation” features interviews with leaders working to make the U.S. a fairer place for all.

If you are interested in participating in, or contributing to, the initiative, contact Terri Burkel at