I sat down with Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), over Zoom—on the day after the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman Supreme Court justice. Acknowledging the enormity of the moment, Nelson and I, two Black female attorneys, even did a little dance in our seats. Our joy was reminiscent of the scene from A Black Lady Sketch Show that celebrated the first all-Black lady courtroom.
Nelson’s elation was palpable as she described how she had been in the Senate Gallery watching “a Black woman Vice President presiding over the proceedings to confirm the nomination of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court—it was just awesome.”
Nelson is no stranger to watershed events. She assumed her current role from predecessor Sherrilyn Ifill in March of this year, marking yet another momentous beginning for Black women: This leadership transition was the first time, since LDF was founded by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall eighty-two years ago, that a woman had succeeded another woman in the group’s head position. During Ifill’s tenure, LDF grew almost fourfold, expanding from a staff of approximately 55 to 200. It also increased its budget; assembled an award-winning communications team; grew its offices in the nation’s capital; and became more widely recognized nationally. Today, most people are aware of the organization, which was created in 1940 to serve and represent people in the legal sphere in order to defend their civil rights.
Reflecting on the exceptional career path that led to her stepping into LDF’s leadership role, Nelson shares that she didn’t always know that she would be a lawyer—despite often being told she should become one. “It’s something that people say to girls who have strong opinions and who are competent enough to speak up and share it with other people,” Nelson says with a chuckle. “But I really didn’t know what a lawyer was. I didn’t have any lawyers in my family or in my community. I didn’t meet anyone who was a lawyer until law school, really. But I always had a keen sense of justice and fairness.”
A glance at Nelson’s prolific résumé shows accolade upon accolade since she graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1996. These include successfully challenging Texas’s voter-ID laws and helping to get a death-row inmate’s sentence commuted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003—all while balancing family life as a mother.
“I don’t balance it perfectly, and I think many people have said that balance is not 50/50 every day,” she admits. “There are highs and lows. There are periods of intensity and then periods where you must pull back and recharge, and that’s something that is a work in progress. But the way that I keep myself grounded is to put my family first at all times—and by making sure that I have a circle of friends with whom I can cut up and have a good time [with], people with whom I can enjoy some levity in life.”
Nelson grew up in New York, where she lived in public housing—an experience that helped shape how she understood the world. “I saw segregation and concentrated poverty up close,” she explains. “I knew that there was something deeply unfair about that and that it didn’t quite make sense, but I didn’t have the language to name it and to name the cause. Then, when I got to college, I started hanging out with some law students, and they had the language for what I had witnessed. They were able to talk about discrimination, and talk about structural racism, and talk about inequity and disparities. All of that made sense. It really gave me the information and the vocabulary to name what it was that I was seeing. And that’s when I actually realized, ‘I think I want to pursue that. I want to be a lawyer.’”
More recently, Nelson has seen our country become embroiled in a nearly decade-long battle to center historical and social truth; and she is focused on LDF’s role in this challenge. “How do we limit distortion and indoctrination—which is what is happening, through what we’ve been calling an anti-truth movement in our public schools, and in workplaces and in other spaces?” she asks. “We know the primary target is our public school system. We saw this early on, when President Trump issued an executive order limiting the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion in federally funded spaces.”
LDF has been pushing back. “We brought a lawsuit challenging that executive order, and ultimately, the executive order was rescinded by President Biden,” Nelson notes. “But unfortunately, in its aftermath, we’ve seen a deluge of laws across the country, in 30 states, where some form of a ban on the truth has been enacted—to limit the teaching of history, to limit discussions about race and gender and inequity. Anything that makes people feel discomfort or distress or anxiety. If it weren’t so dangerous, it would be laughable that these laws are part of a supposed modern-day democracy. I think they’re among the biggest challenges that we’re facing—in addition to efforts to limit our political power; in addition to the deepening wealth gap; in addition to the ongoing fight for educational equity.”
“We can either create a new model of what it means to be a multiracial, multiethnic democracy that is inclusive—where power is shared, where there is an opportunity for everyone to thrive—or we can descend into authoritarianism.”
– Janai Nelson, LDF President and Director-Counsel
As for what’s next for LDF under Nelson’s direction, she is excited about the organization’s new chapter. Working with the historic civil rights organization “has been the journey of a lifetime,” she says. “It’s been the most amazing professional endeavor that I could have ever hoped for. I think we are coming out of a period of transformation—and now we are in what I hope will be a period of great ascension, in which we can use the tools and the resources that we’ve acquired, as well as the skills, the vision, all of it, to deeply transform Black communities and our democracy.
“Our country is at a crossroads in this moment,” she adds. “We can either create a new model of what it means to be a multiracial, multiethnic democracy that is inclusive—where power is shared, where there is an opportunity for everyone to thrive—or we can descend into authoritarianism, some state of being where we regress and we turn the clock backward.”
LDF’s multigenerational and multiethnic staff reflects this vision. “I’m not prepared in any way, shape or form to even begin to think about turning the clock back,” Nelson says. “There’s too much at stake. As we’ve already proven time and time again, when we advance the rights of Black people in this country, we advance America as a whole. We become a better country, we become a better example for the entire world—and that is my mission for our future.”
This story appears in the July/August 2022 issue of ESSENCE Magazine
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