Diversity efforts, DeSantis pressure equals OneJax split from UNF

The OneJax Institute, an interfaith organization that promotes racial, religious and cultural tolerance in the Jacksonville area, plans to dissolve its 10-year affiliation with the University of North Florida, citing the current “political climate” enveloping state universities.

The institute’s board recently voted unanimously to terminate the Memorandum of Understanding the two entities approved in 2012 and re-activate its independent 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The goal is to finalize the separation, including relocating from downtown office space leased by UNF, by June 30, Executive Director Kyle Reese said.

“OneJax is proud to have been a part of the UNF community and appreciates the mutually beneficial relationship we have enjoyed with the university these past 11 years,” he said. “The current political climate in our state is impacting every state university and we do not want the core mission and vision of our 53-year-old organization to be restrained or restricted.”

Having raised its own operating funds during the UNF relationship, the OneJax organization can support itself, Reese said. “We are in a good financial position and expect to continue raising the operating funds necessary for us to continue our plans for growth and expansion,” he said.

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UNF President Moez Limayem, appointed last summer, said such affiliations tend to evolve.

“This is not an unusual occurrence,” Limayem said. “We part as friends and I wish OneJax well as it continues to pursue its work in the greater Jacksonville community.”

John Delaney, who was UNF president when the relationship with OneJax began and is now president of Flagler College, agreed.

‘It was a great partnership while it lasted and it helped bring immense benefits to both the school and to the community. Everything has its time,” he said.

OneJax was originally formed as a local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1970 and later known as the National Conference for Community and Justice. In 2005 the Jacksonville chapter disaffiliated from its national group and formed OneJax as a separate nonprofit.

Discussions about a relationship with UNF began in 2011 and came to fruition in 2012.

At the time, Delaney told the Times-Union that bringing OneJax onto campus will allow the university to “strengthen its community partnerships and play an even more significant role in Northeast Florida’s conversations on diversity and inclusion.”

The timing is amid political strife involving Gov. DeSantis and education

The institute’s latest decision may be a step to avoid being caught unprepared for anticipated changes in state law that could leave the organization without a home. 

Legislation pending in Florida’s Senate would ban any state university from spending money from any source, including private donations, “to promote, support or maintain any programs … that espouse diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric.” If it passes, the bill would become law July 1.

A page on UNF’s website written before the legislation was filed says that “by bringing OneJax onto its campus, the university has positioned itself to strengthen its community partnerships to play an even more significant role in Northeast Florida’s conversations about diversity and inclusion.”  

The OneJax separation from UNF is happening as students and faculty ponder, some fearfully, how life around the campus will be changed by new directions from lawmakers in Tallahassee. 

E'Niya Douglas (from left), Josias Vilbrun, Jada Hewitt, Erin Jaxon and Kendra Francois cheer and chant at a Feb. 21 rally at the University of North Florida. The rally was organized by the Students for Democratic Society and Students United for Workers’ Advocacy to urge protection of UNF's diversity efforts.

Last month about 75 people gathered outside UNF’s Fine Arts Center to wave signs and voice opposition to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s plans to dismantle some programs statewide framed as fostering diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, on campuses. 

Students, many of them racial or sexual minorities, expressed dismay about the governor’s stance and said it should inspire diversity supporters to vote for politicians who support their values.    

Ziena Baker, 20, told the group that people in DEI programs at UNF had helped her feel a greater sense of community than anything else she’d found on campus. 

“I don’t know where I’d be without them,” Baker said. “I don’t want them to be put out of jobs.” 

Condemning anti-DEI efforts to an audience that answered “Shame! Shame,” speakers led the group in chants to show their opposition.  

“When our education is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” the chants declared, before organizers announced plans to deliver a DEI-supporting message to Limayem.

Following a town hall meeting where students again raised the issue, Limayem circulated a campus-wide email affirming that “we remain dedicated to being a welcoming campus, where individuals from all backgrounds experience a sense of belonging,” the Spinnaker, UNF’s campus newspaper, reported this month.

Michelle Dumars holds a sign at a Feb. 21 rally at the University of North Florida to urge protection of UNF's diversity efforts. Talking points centered around Gov. Ron DeSantis' book bans.

Matt Hartley, director of UNF’s Interfaith Center, said the loss of OneJax as a part of the university that advocated for diversity could have long-term impacts. He stressed that he commented as an individual and not as a representative of the UNF.

“As a longtime supporter, I am happy for OneJax to continue their vital work unimpeded by proposed legislative attacks on diversity and inclusion at state universities,” he said. “UNF loses an ambassador to the city, a bridge for diversity and civic engagement. Thankfully, OneJax will march on.”

“What is concerning is that diversity work on campus remains under threat,” he said.

The Interfaith Center is under UNF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion umbrella, along with other centers that support students, faculty and staff who are women, members of the LGBTQ community or have varying cultural, racial and ethnic identities. Their collective 20-plus staff members and the hundreds of students they serve cannot leave campus, Hartley said.

“OneJax has a board of civic leaders who stood up for them,” he said. “Who will stand up for those of us who remain on campus doing inclusion work? I am still waiting to hear anyone from off campus, civic leaders, business leaders, any in the community who will say something publicly. The silence is loud.”

OneJax saw threat to freedom

DeSantis, who won reelection in November by an overwhelming margin, governs with a loyal GOP-dominated Legislature as he eyes a presidential run. He wields power more aggressively than any governor in modern memory.

Many of his policies have impacted marginalized groups, including banning a course on African-American history, flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, curtailing transgender health care and reshaping Florida’s education system from kindergarten to college — to limit how race and LGBTQ issues are discussed. He has targeted key pillars of democracy, restricting protests and voting access while seeking new limits on media companies. 

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Such policies led to two UNF directives that prompted the OneJax board to broach separating from the university.

OneJax planned to introduce a “civility pledge” for mayoral candidates in this year’s municipal elections and was developing a diversity initiative. UNF officials told them “don’t do a pledge” and discouraged OneJax from pursuing the diversity initiative.

With ongoing pressure from the state, “UNF just has so many challenges right now,” Reese said.

As a result, the OneJax feared the loss of their “freedom” to promote tolerance, board president Mobeen Rathore said.

“It has been an ongoing thing. Things have been changing for months,” he said. “More recently we thought we were at a stage where we need to be able to continue our own work without hindrance.” Although OneJax had long been “delighted to be part of UNF,” he said, independence was now necessary.

Sammie Fowler holds a sign at a Feb. 21 rally at the University of North Florida to urge protection of UNF's diversity efforts, which some view as under attack by Gov. Ron DeSantis' policies.

Sabeen Perwaiz is president and CEO of the Jacksonville-based Florida Nonprofit Alliance. She said such actions by nonprofits affiliated with state agencies are not a “matter of fear but compliance.”

“They have to be aware of the rules [changes] with each legislative session … and be engaged,” she said.

Reese and Rathore said they are not worried about OneJax’s future. Fundraising has been ongoing and community support has never wavered, they said.

“I think we should be fine. We’re doing well,” Rathore said.

Nina Waters, president of The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, leads the OneJax advisory council. She noted that although UNF did not provide funding, it did provide office space, administrative support and other resources.

“A lot of people are wondering how they can support this work right now,” she said. “OneJax will need our help, as it fundraises both for its programmatic work and also now to replace the in-kind support it received from UNF. I think this move underscores the critical importance of the nonprofit sector, especially community-based nonprofits. Because we don’t depend on public funding, because we count on support from a large number of community members, our sector’s work transcends politics and endures across administrations.”

bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109, and spatterson@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4263


To donate, volunteer or get more information, contact OneJax at 112 W. Adams St., 4th Floor, Jacksonville, FL 32202; (904) 620-1529; or onejax@unf.edu or go to unf.edu/onejax.

∙ OneJax will have in-person community suppers at four locations March 23 and a virtual one April 3. The topic will be “The Soul of Our City: What kind of community do we want to become?” To register for a March 23 supper, go to bit.ly/3yzEEAh; to register for the April 3 virtual session, go to bit.ly/3TaO7Y6. For more information email onejax@unf.edu

∙ OneJax’s 2023 Humanitarian Awards event will be May 4 at the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts, 300 Water St. downtown. More information will be posted on the OneJax website at a later date.

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