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The Marginalized Finally Make Themselves at Home

By Jasmin Bryant
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Humbly nesting on the southeast side of the UNLV campus, the Houssels House may look a little out of place. But it’s only fitting that a building so immersed in a diverse and extensive history would house UNLV’s Center for Social Justice. With its medieval architecture and soft-yellow lights glowing through dormer windows, it’s as if the house were taken from another place in time. And it was. The Houssels House was transported from its original address at 1012 S. Sixth St. on May 15, 1983.

When the Multicultural Center was removed as a facility on UNLV there was a growing need for a place to discuss the issues that affected the then 56.9 percent minority student body. “The Center for Social Justice actually came out of student protests that happened on campus,” new program coordinator Roberto Orozco said. “A few months after the Student Union was completed [in 2012] there was no inclusive space created within that Student Union for students of color or students of marginalized identities. So students protested.”

And administrators listened. Its complex history however, starts several years before the protests, before the CSJ and even before the university existed.

The little house that now serves as headquarters for the CSJ is the oldest building on campus. Built in 1933, the 2,500-square-foot house was originally located in the downtown Las Vegas area. Once owned by attorney Harley A. Harmon, for whom the local street is named, the house was later sold to gaming tycoon and casino operator J. Kell Houssels Jr. As the industrial boom of downtown Las Vegas continued to spring forward into the 1980s with fervor, the Tudor-style abode was becoming more of a challenge to preserve as commercial buildings began springing up in the neighboring area. It was in 1983— exactly five decades after it was built— that the Houssels family decided to donate the house to the university. Days after the house had been settled onto campus property, a fire damaged the roof. After a year, the house was repaired and was ready to operate.

With the addition of a new property onto an infant UNLV campus in 1983 the Houssels House was a blank canvas. Throughout its thirty years on the campus, a diverse pool of organizations, student groups, and departments have used the house and transformed it to serve UNLV students in a variety of ways. It is this special characteristic- the house’s lengthy and mixed history -that seems to foreshadow what the house’s final stop would be: a home just as diverse and eclectic as the CSJ.

It first began as the architecture department, serving as a historic and real life model for students to study. Next, students in Paranormal Studies utilized the space for meetings which jokingly spread rumors that the “little house” was haunted.

Women’s Studies was the first social and minority group to occupy the Houssels House. Dr. Anita Revilla who is a professor of Gender and Sexulaity Studies and Director of Interdisciplinary studies led the efforts. The group soon outgrew the small Houssels House and was placed in a different academic building. The Multicultural Center, led by Dr. Christine Clark, was the next group to call the house home. The group was involved in several projects that aided in starting the beginnings of a more socially-aware campus and prelude to the CSJ.

“They painted the house to make it more culturally relevant,” Orozco said. “They did a lot of programs that helped students of color on campus.” Once the Multicultural Center was taken away, Orozco says that the Houssels House was left empty and up in the air.

“Students created an action plan on creating a center for social justice where it’d be housed with multiple professionals, multiple graduate assistants from each identity. And that’s when the CSJ was created.”

Now, Orozco is new at his job as program coordinator for the center but agrees that the history of the house reverberates a message that is still relevant and present  today. And it seems that the CSJ isn’t the only club on campus to find comfort within the walls of the Houssels House. Various student clubs prefer to use the several conference rooms and comfy lounge areas as meeting places.  

“There’s been a lot of other student organizations that like to have their meetings here. They move away from other places on campus and want to be here at the CSJ,” he said. “It’s a house but it’s all that a home is.”

In addition to holding meetings and a variety of events, the CSJ also houses the Leadership and Civic Engagement minor and Orozco teaches students in the downstairs classroom.  

Only in its fourth year, the CSJ has grown exceptionally well. Orozco believes this past school year was a highlight for the center, noting events like ‘Stand Up. Speak Out.” and the impact the CSJ had on campus. “This is the first year we’ve really taken a hold of what we have,” he said. “Showing the community what we’re here to do but then also trying to make the space more inclusive for students and serve as a home away from home.”   

Orozco and his team plan on continuing to educate and provide support for the student body in regards to issues on race, identity, power, and privilege. The CSJ’s value to the university is more important than ever at a time where students are more actively protesting for changes they want to see take place on campus. Some recent protests have called for the removal of the UNLV mascot, expressing dismay at the Native American Outreach Program being cut, and opposed tuition hikes.

“Higher education is not inclusive of marginalized folks because higher education wasn’t made for us,” Orozco states. “But we still have to navigate the system. We’re not the last ones to go through here, there will be people behind us going through the same experiences. We have to be advocates for them and make it better for them.”

As program coordinator for the past nine months, Orozco noticed a prevalent issue at UNLV regarding the importance of differentiating between a minority-serving institution and a minority-enrolling institution. He believes that as administrators, students, and faculty begin to see the true definition of what those terms mean, the issue of minority students being highly represented but not taken care of will subside.

“UNLV tends to be very colorblind,” Orozco said. “We’re ranked number two most racially and ethnically diverse but not the most diverse institution. Diversity should [also] take into account ability, economic status, and documentation status. These are all identities that are forgotten.”

This May, the house will have been on campus for 33 years and will celebrate it’s 83rd birthday. Since then, the diversity at UNLV has changed. Just last school year, UNLV was nationally ranked as one of the most diverse universities in the nation coming in second and has been in the top 10 for the past five years. But Orozco suggests taking the conversation further than what the numbers imply.

“We like to boast about how diverse we are but at the end of the day, the reason you are most diverse is because of your location. There’s a very big difference in enrolling students of color and actually serving them. Because if you were serving them, our graduation rates would be a lot better.”

Orozco wants to challenge not just the administrators but the students as well to take part in social justice on campus and let their voices be heard. In the similar way that the Houssels House found its place on campus, it also serves as a home to students who feel out of place.
“I don’t think students realize how much power they have. These students pay their salaries and should hold whoever responsible accountable,” Orozco declared. “I want every student of any field to have this space in the CSJ to engage in this type of critical dialogue.”

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