Queens-raised civil rights lawyer, activist and voting rights expert Judith Browne Dianis has focused her career on the movement for racial justice. She joined the Advancement Project in 1999 and now serves as the organization’s Executive Director, working on combating systemic racism in all aspects of society, from dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline to voter suppression. Dianis explains how her parents ignited her interest in social justice at a young age, the highs and lows of her career so far and what makes her hopeful about the future.
Is there a personal story or experience that led you to this work?
My father was in the segregated army and at a very young age, he told me about the indignity of wearing the uniform and being told that he couldn’t sit in a restaurant or that he had to be upstairs in a movie theater.
My mother was a community activist, and I remember her taking me to my very first protest at the age of three. A young boy had been killed on a major thoroughfare by a speeding car [where] the community had been asking for a traffic light for years. My mother organized the mothers in our community and they took their children down to [that street] and they sat us in the middle of the road, blocking the traffic. I remember yelling, ‘We want a light. We want a light.’
It’s my mother and my father who grounded me in this, but I also know that it is my purpose to do this work.
What was one of the lowest points in your work and what did you learn from it?
I remember one particular loss that was very hard for me. After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of families in New Orleans who lived in public housing were pushed out of their homes. When they came back, their homes were boarded up and they were told that the New Orleans Housing Authority was going to demolish the buildings so Advancement Project and local lawyers got together and filed a lawsuit on behalf of those survivors.
Unfortunately, we lost that lawsuit and that meant that dozens of families would not be able to return home. What I learned in that moment is that as a civil rights lawyer, I can’t just operate in the courtroom. We have to be at the city council meeting, we have to be on TV convincing people that we are right about freedom and justice, we have to be in the streets protesting, we have to be at the city council meetings and we also have to be in the voting booth. It’s going to take all of those mechanisms for us to win racial justice in this country.
What is one of your biggest accomplishments or victories?
One of the greatest victories that I have been honored to be a part of has been around the restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions. Advancement Project, back to 2001, started to work in Virginia to restore voting rights for returning citizens, which had in place a lifetime ban, just like Florida, where people who have been convicted of a felony had to go to the governor in order to have their rights restored.
For years we pushed on several of the governors in Virginia to restore voting rights to make it faster and easier for people. We trained people and helped them through the process, which was a very difficult process just to have their voice [heard]. Then Governor McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights. It was challenged by Republicans in Virginia, but the governor decided that he was committed to this and so he signed off on restoring voting rights for individuals. And as a result, 150,000 people, disproportionately Black people, had their rights restored.
What makes you hopeful right now?
What makes me hopeful in this moment are the young people who are taking to the streets. First, they’re taking to the streets in a pandemic, and they’ve decided that their health is important, but this fight for the freedom of Black and Brown people is also important. What makes me hopeful is that the people who are showing up in the streets are Black people or Brown people or white people or Asian folks and indigenous folks and that they’ve come together and said, ‘We’re not going to stand by and stand on the sidelines.’
This generation, and the young people who are in the streets now, are the ones who are bringing us a lot closer to where we need to be on this journey towards freedom.
For more information, visit the Advancement Project’s website.