To commemorate Juneteenth, we’re donating 10% of June sales towards the Advancement Project, advocating for civil rights and racial justice. We are also honored to interview Judith Browne Dianis, the Executive Director of Advancement Project. Advancement Project is a multi-racial, multi-generational racial justice organization with expertise in research, advocacy, and policy.
Judith Browne-Dianis has served as a lawyer, professor and civil rights advocate in the movement for racial justice and is hailed as a voting rights expert and pioneer in the movement to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Dianis was raised in Hollis, Queens by two Harlem natives – one, an educator and community activist; the other a veteran of the nation’s segregated Army. It was this upbringing that sparked Dianis’ passion for civil rights. Her protest of racism as a student at the University of Pennsylvania and survival of job discrimination prompted Dianis to pursue a career in movement lawyering. She later graduated from Columbia University School of Law, received a Skadden Fellowship and went on to become the Managing Attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. She then founded Advancement Project with a group of lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and, now as Executive Director, Dianis leads Advancement Project National Office’s work in combating structural racism in education, voting, policing, criminal justice and immigration.
For those who are new to your organization, tell us more about the Advancement Project?
Advancement Project is a next generation, multi-racial, policy, communications, and legal action group committed to civil rights and racial justice. Founded by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers in 1999, we are rooted in the great human rights struggle for equality and justice. Our mission is to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. In order for America to fulfill its promise, structural racism must be eliminated, and communities must have more control over and input into the decisions made that affect them, as well be able to hold their leaders and systems accountable. Our theory of change rests on the beliefs that this power must be built at the local level and that our movement lawyering model allows us to work alongside grassroots partners, using political education, communications support, and strategic litigation to advance their campaigns. In many ways, our work focuses on two goals: advancing the issue at hand and building the capacity of our partners on the ground. Legal cases, which ultimately seek remedy for a wrongdoing, can very easily be used as a platform to provide political education for a partner’s constituency, launch a communications campaign to raise awareness of an issue, or to provide a means by which to develop leaders.
What does Juneteenth represent to your organization?
First, we celebrate Juneteenth for its recognition of the end of slavery in the United States. However, we also recognize that Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, TX, and informed the townspeople that slavery had been abolished when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—two years earlier in 1863. This delay is emblematic of the disconnect that so often presents itself in U.S. history and culture, one that begins with the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal” despite the institution of chattel slavery, continued in the Union’s desertion of black southerners at the end of Reconstruction in order to “preserve” the union, and persists in the ways in which communities of color experience policing as “law and order” rather than “protect and serve.” Finally, we celebrate Juneteenth as a reaffirmation of the work that we are committed to completing: helping build power in communities of color so that they can hold authorities accountable to fulfilling its promise of a caring, inclusive and just society.
What are your top current key issues you’d like to share with our EM Community?
Our programmatic work at Advancement Project center on issues that are entry points for communities of color to transform racist systems and institutions and hold them accountable—ultimately, building power in their communities. Our core programs are Power & Democracy, Opportunity to Learn, and Justice Project. For decades, our Power & Democracy Program has worked to protect the right to vote for communities of color—calling for an affirmative right to vote at the federal level— and the last few years have been no different. We do this work through Power & Democracy’s programmatic priority areas that are: Voter Protection that protects voters’ right to exercise their power at the polls by combating voter suppression, including through advocacy, litigation, and political education to increase voter engagement across the country;, and Right to Vote that works to establish an affirmative right to vote for all citizens, including through rights restoration for impacted individuals, voter mobilization and voter education, and the larger narrative work around the fundamental right to vote. Our Opportunity to Learn program envisions a future in which Black students and other students of color have the self determination to create the schools of their dreams. We believe that a comprehensive, youth-led, intergenerational effort is necessary to build power for students of color and dismantle decades-old practices that wear away at their dignity and wellbeing. Specifically, we work in two programmatic priority areas that are: Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track that supports grassroots youth organizing campaigns aimed at dismantling the school policing infrastructure and eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, using a framework of abolition; and Ensuring Quality Education that supports grassroots youth organizing campaigns working to end the dismantling, defunding, and privatization of K-12 public schools, and to move us into abundance. Finally, the Justice Project envisions a world where police and prisons are obsolete and where Black and Brown people thrive and are free to define safety and accountability in their own communities, without state-based oppression and violence. Our vision of true freedom is rooted in abolition and community-based power. The Justice Project supports grassroots movements in communities of color that are led by Black, Brown, and carcerally impacted individuals to challenge racial criminalization and attack all aspects of the criminal legal system. We help local campaigns in cities across the country seeking not simply to reform, but to wholly dismantle systems that criminalize and incarcerate people of color in the name of “law and order.” We aim to help impacted communities define their own terms for safety, as well as help them to develop and outline ways to navigate harm and accountability within their communities.
Can you share with us future goals your organization aspires to achieve?
We envision a future where people of color are free – where they can thrive, be safe and exercise power. Driven by the genius of ordinary people and their movements, racism will no longer exist and justice will be radically transformed. More specifically, we want local constituents to understand voting rights issues, know their rights, and have the power to hold local election officials accountable to their communities. We will shift the narrative about how police and safety are discussed and advocate against oppressive police tactics. Finally, we will expand the footprint of our national Police Free Schools campaign, create a demand for a fundamental right to education, and confront attacks on public education.
What is the best way the world can honor this day?
While Juneteenth is not a new important moment in history, it is a newly recognized federal holiday. With that, the first way to honor this day is to take the time to learn about the history of the day while recognizing the structures steeped in white supremacy that created the conditions for such a day. Second, it is very important to use this time to get involved with organizations doing the work to build power in communities of color that were deeply impacted by Juneteenth and the history of slavery in this country. We must support those who are working to dismantle white supremacy and create a free and safe community for people of color to thrive.
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