What it's like to protect civil rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center
Earlier today, Donald Trump — our president — retweeted three anti-Muslim videos from a British hate group. In August, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville, and a white supremacist purposely drove his car through a crowd of anti-racist protesters, murdering Heather Heyer. Trump waited 48 hours to condemn white supremacists, only to backtrack and defend them in a later press conference. Of course, America has always been teeming with racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and hate — but Trump’s words and actions have motivated white supremacists to openly act on that hate.
That’s why the work of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — and their Outreach Director, Lecia Brooks — is so important.
Founded in 1971 by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr., Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit organization focused on exposing and fighting bigotry in American society. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, SPLC has secured numerous civil rights victories for the most marginalized people. The organization monitors the actions of hate groups and extremists, exposing them to the media and law enforcement. Through their Teaching Tolerance programs, SPLC works with schools to help children fight prejudice and unlearn biases. In the words of SPLC, “Our lawsuits have toppled institutional racism and stamped out remnants of Jim Crow segregation; destroyed some of the nation’s most violent white supremacist groups; and protected the civil rights of children, women, the disabled, immigrants and migrant workers, the LGBT community, prisoners, and many others who faced discrimination, abuse or exploitation.”
As SPLC’s Outreach Director, Lecia Brooks travels across the country to educate people about diversity and tolerance.
Lecia first joined SPLC in 2004. Before taking over outreach initiatives, she directed a Teaching Tolerance program called Mix It Up at Lunch Day. Organized at various schools, Mix It Up at Lunch aims to “break down racial, cultural, and social barriers in schools.” Now the Outreach Director, she is also the director of SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial. In addition to speaking in numerous presentations and panels nationwide, Lecia has been a commentator on MSNBC and other news programs, discussing civil rights and race in America.
As the subject of this month’s Working Girl Diaries, Lecia takes us through two days in her life as she travels from Montgomery, Alabama to Peoria, Illinois to give a presentation at Bradley University.
5 a.m.: Time to get back on the road! Though my flight to Illinois doesn’t board until 11 a.m., I set my alarm for 5 a.m., like every other workday.
5:15 a.m.: I rise and immediately grind beans for coffee, soon to be enjoyed with morning meditation and readings.
6 a.m.: I spend a little special time with Prince, my cat. She can sense that I’m leaving. I wait until the last possible moment to pack, so as not to upset her.
6:30 a.m.: Time to spare — all the permission I need to check my work email. Thank the Goddesses; I finally cleared about 500 emails from my box. I can scan NYT, WaPo, and Quartz guilt-free!
7 a.m.: I decide to Uber to the airport instead of driving myself. The little Montgomery airport doesn’t require an early arrival, so I sail through TSA just ahead of the boarding call.
10 a.m.: I run into a former SPLC colleague during my brief layover in ATL. We chat, and then keep it moving. No delays. This is a good travel day.
1 p.m.: I arrive in Peoria, Illinois right on time. My host, Clare, is there to pick me up. She’s been waiting for this day to come since January 2017 when she first invited me. Clare was in the room when I spoke at a Jewish synagogue in nearby Ellensburg. She invited me to Peoria right after my talk. I, as always, agreed too quickly.
4:25 p.m.: Clare has big plans for my time here, beginning with dinner tonight. It’s about 4:30 p.m. by the time I check into the Mark Twain Hotel. I have one hour before meeting some of the fine people who pooled their money together to pay for my plane ticket and hotel.
6 p.m.: I try to walk around the room during the reception before dinner and say hello to each person; I count about 16. After we order dinner, Clare asks me to say a few words. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. I decide to facilitate discussion instead of presenting something. I asked each person to introduce him or herself and share why they invested in bringing me to Peoria and what they hoped would come of it. (Brilliant! I had to do very little talking.)
8:30 p.m.: I enjoy my veggie pizza and the conversation. I’m back in my room by 8:30 p.m. Emails from the day have increased, demanding my attention. I get to sleep around 11:00 pm, and I don’t sleep well.
5:30 a.m.: I’m up at 5:30, but not refreshed. I get it together enough to run downstairs for coffee. Not strong, but it is coffee.
7:15 a.m.: Clare picks me up at 7:15 in the morning. Our first engagement of the day is at City Hall. Billed as “Coffee and Conversation” with city leaders, the room appears to be set up for a presentation. How does a conversation take place when you’re on one side of a table and everyone else is seated in rows of chairs? Sigh. More coffee, please.
8:45 a.m.: I pull it together and make a brief presentation to the city managers and law enforcement leaders. No time to rest just yet. The superintendent of schools is expecting us. We drive 20 minutes across town, arrive early, and sit in hard plastic chairs. Another 20 minutes passes before we’re invited in. She’s lovely and offers coffee!
10 a.m.: I spend an hour speaking with the supervisor, her HR exec, and an equity specialist. I introduce SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance resources and we talk about education issues in general. Honestly, the time passes quickly. Time for our next engagement!
11:30 a.m.: We take a quick drive to a State Senator’s home for lunch with more people. I begin to wonder if anyone will show up for the main event at 7 p.m. I also wonder, and worry, about giving away all my talking points before tonight. After I share a few words and invite questions, I’m reminded of the fact that people really want to talk about the important issues we’re facing as a country right now. SPLC is well known for our work exposing hate and extremism. After the awful events in Charlottesville, they want to hear about white supremacy and talk about it. That’s a very good thing.
1 p.m.: One more stop: police headquarters. The police chief asked to meet with me — that’s a good thing, too! SPLC offers free training to law enforcement officers combating threats from far-right extremists. The assistant chief and another officer join us for the 20-minute meeting.
2:15 p.m.: I’m back at the hotel with just under two hours to myself before Clare picks me up at 4:30 for the evening activities.
4:15 p.m.: Clare is, of course, early. We make it to the Bradley University campus in about 10 minutes. I’m grateful to see the venue in advance and test my equipment. Student workers are busy setting up a fairly elaborate light and sound system.
6 p.m.: Soon, it’s time to have dinner with Bradley University faculty and community members, benefactors, and speakers on the same panel tonight. I eat just a bit and excuse myself —I really need to be alone with my thoughts before I speak tonight.
7 p.m.: That alone time lasted about 5 minutes! The university public affairs director informs me that my presence is required at a press conference. Surprise! There are two television stations and maybe four folks from print media. The good news is I’m talking to all of them at the same time. The bad news is it’s 7:00 pm! I reenter the event space and hardly recognize it. The room is packed and set for 500 people. No chance to be nervous though — it’s time.
I begin my talk, as I always do, with the Civil Rights Memorial. Acknowledging and honoring those who came before me — and before SPLC — grounds me. I am but a link in a chain they created. The March Continues, as we say. And this is how I contribute.
I speak about the founding of the Center, the miracle of our co-founders, Morris and Joe, and our foray into battling hate and extremism. Soon, I’m talking about — and showing images of — Charlottesville. It is so reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement. Too reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement.
It is up to us to push hate back into the margins of society. We must not allow these displays of hate to become normalized. That is why I’m here. That is why people invited me here. Following my talk, I participate in a great panel discussion with four community leaders.
7 a.m.: About 12 hours later, I’m back in Montgomery prepping for the next one.
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