DeAndra Cullen: Preventing housing discrimination by educating people about rights


((Ron Holloway/Department of Housing and Urban Development))
April 8

Facing housing discrimination? There’s an app for that.

DeAndra Cullen at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) helped with the launch of a fair housing mobile app as part of her broader efforts to heighten public awareness of housing discrimination and Americans’ rights under the Fair Housing Act.

Cullen’s job is to do outreach and educate people whose civil rights could be violated during their search for housing, as well as inform housing providers who need to comply with the law.

“My office is the gatekeeper making sure our message is getting out,” said Cullen, acting director for HUD’s Division of Education and Outreach in the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).

Launched in February 2013, the mobile app is the first to address federal housing discrimination, allowing users to find information on fair housing laws, as well as file housing discrimination complaints directly from their iPhones.

Who is DeAndra Cullen?

POSITION: Acting Director for the Division of Education and Outreach, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

RESIDENCE: Bowie, Md.

AGE: 40

EDUCATION: North Carolina A&T State University, B.S.; Indiana University School of Law, J.D.

AWARDS: Trumpet Award Foundation’s "High Heels Award" for promoting civil rights and higher education; Distinguished Assistant Secretary Award, from HUD; Distinguished Secretary of Labor Award, from previous job at the Department of Labor

HOBBIES: Zumba, international travel

VOLUNTEER WORK: Mentor at Bowie State University

Whether it’s related to discrimination based on race, religion, national origin or familial status, Cullen helps get the anti-discrimination message out in many ways—conducting webinars, posting information on HUD’s website and partnering with affinity groups such as the National Fair Housing Alliance, NAACP and others.

“She’s coming up with innovative strategies to reach the general public, making better use of our web presence, web communication and the other tools we use,” said Bryan Greene, FHEO assistant secretary. “She’s thinking how we reach the younger population entering the housing market for the first time.”

One of her jobs involves overseeing the budget for awarding competitive grants to national fair housing organizations to do national media campaigns. The ads have appeared at bus stops, onscreen before movie showings and on large posters in malls. Public service announcements on television and radio also have addressed discrimination against women on maternity leave, explaining they cannot be denied loans.

To extend the messages to a younger generation, Cullen pioneered the idea of partnerships between HUD and colleges around the country to educate students about fair housing laws and opportunities for HUD careers.

“We realized it was a community we hadn’t touched or reached out to,” Cullen said. Universities that enter these partnerships might create internships, classroom work, training, community service opportunities or a combination of some or all of these activities. The department also uses these partnerships for recruiting, hoping students consider public service as a career option—ideally at HUD.

Cullen returned from Florida recently where she formalized a partnership with Florida Memorial University that involves sending a handful of students to HUD’s Miami office in the fall to learn how housing discrimination testing is done and get school credit. “It will get their feet wet in the whole idea of fair housing [opportunities] with the federal government.”

Fair housing testing involves sending different people to the same places to seek housing to see if they are treated differently based on gender or race. “It’s like mystery shopping,” said Greene. “Her program has created fair housing shoppers that has led these young people to serve as fair housing advocates for the next generation.”

As she helps shape the outreach and education effort, Cullen faces challenges in keeping up with societal changes. “Discrimination is changing every day,” Cullen said. “It used to be blatant. Now it’s subtle.”

That can make it difficult to educate the public on how these subtle forms of discrimination are still important to root out. “It’s discrimination with a smile,” Cullen said. “Any discrimination in housing is wrong and we will go after the bad actors.”

Those societal changes also affect how to convey the message. Creating a mobile app is one of the ways HUD is trying to keep up and, according to Greene, it’s been particularly helpful for people who work with potential tenants to have the app readily available.

Cullen’s family was no stranger to prejudice. Her parents grew up in the Jim Crow south where a racial caste system prevailed until the mid-1960s. She heard their stories about having to sit in the back of buses and in “Colored-only” sections of white establishments. Her father told her and her siblings about going to the Georgia State Fair on “Colored” days and being called names because of his race.

“My parents’ experiences during the height of the civil rights movement was the motivation I needed to pursue a career in public service in civil rights,” she said.

Her passion for the work inspires people, said Greene. “She is the person I want speaking for us,” he said. “I will often call her Ambassador Cullen because she’s an effective ambassador to the public about what fair housing is and how people can exercise their rights.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

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