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Judith Browne Dianis is ‘Stepping to the Front’ in the Fight For Racial Justice

Calls For Reforms In Wake Of Police Shooting Death Continue In Chicago
Jimmie Williams joins demonstrators in a protest outside of City Hall calling on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign on December 11, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Throughout America's history, there has been progress in the struggle for justice and equality - with each move forward met with push back. Even citizens uncertain about a changing America might agree that much work remains as we begin 2017.

Look no further than Charleston, where Dylann Roof was recently sentenced to death for the cold-blooded murder of nine parishioners who welcomed him to their prayer service at "Mother Emanuel" A.M.E.Church. The now 22-year-old white man says he purposely chose the historic African-American church in order to start a race war. And in that same city, a hung jury forced a mistrial in the case of white former police officer Michael Slager, though a video showed him shooting fleeing African-American Walter Scott in the back.

Take note of policies in schools across the country, where, at every grade level, black and brown children disproportionately are subject to harsh discipline and arrest by resource officers whose job is to keep students in line rather than teach and nurture them.

Count down the voter restrictions enacted by states after the Supreme Court three years ago struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation being contested in courts for placing unnecessary burdens on young people, the elderly, the poor and people of color.

Yet there are organizations with a mission to make a difference, with leaders devoted to that mission and plans to meet the challenges.

Judith Browne Dianis leads the Advancement Project, a multi-racial, non-profit civil rights organization.

Since its beginning in 1999, Judith Browne Dianis has been a part of Advancement Project, a multi-racial, non-profit civil rights organization that works through innovative strategies and community alliances.

Last year she was named executive director, which she says is an exciting opportunity to truly make her mark. "We can dream big and figure out how to make those big dreams come true," Browne Dianis said.

Her plan is to take stock of how Advancement Project has been most effective, working both externally and with partnerships on the ground. "For me, this moment in racial justice movement requires that we be at our best," she said. "Advancement Project was made for this moment because we are an organization that builds the capacity of grassroots movement. We're not your average inside-the-Beltway group, we're not your average civil rights legal group. We are out in the streets with our partners."

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It's notable that Browne Dianis joins other African-American women leading civil rights organizations. The by no means exhaustive list also includes Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Sherrilyn Ifill, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

"It says a lot about the moment that Sherrilyn and Kristen and I are all are products of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund," said Browne Dianis. "It means a lot because in the civil rights movement and in the civil rights field, women have always done incredible amount of work but didn't always hold visible leadership roles."

Judith Browne Dianis, Rinku Sen, Marc Morial
Judith Browne Dianis, of the Advancement Project, center, speaks while Rinku Sen, president and executive director, Applied Research Center, left, and Marc Morial, president and CEO, National Urban League, Inc., right, look on during the "No Lie can Live Forever": Healing America for our Children forum hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation at the Newseum in Washington, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. Cliff Owen / AP IMAGES FOR W.K. KELLOGG FOUNDATION

"It's important that the three of us are in the roles we are in at the same time the actual people who are in the street, the people who are Black Lives Matter, who are BYP 100 [Black Youth Project 100], some of the LGBTQ activists and organizations, have women at the helm.

"This generation of 20-something to 30-somethings, their whole model of leadership and the way in which women are stepping to the front and not pulling back is a totally different way of dealing than we have in the past 20 years," said Browne Dianis. "Those young sisters who are on the street, they inspire me to be the best leader I can be because they are not afraid."

Actor/activist and Advancement Project board of director member Jesse Williams, in fact, gave a special shout out to women in his acceptance speech for the 2016 BET Humanitarian award: "For the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you."

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There are reasons young people have taken to the streets, dealing with crisis issues that have long been on the agenda of the Advancement Project.

"We've been pioneers in the thing that's now called the school-to-prison pipeline," said Browne Dianis. "When we started off, it didn't have a name; we just knew that children of color were being pushed out of school and were being criminalized."

Though recent data from U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on school discipline and trendsin school policing for the 2013-2014 school year showed a 20 percent drop in overall school suspensions - a decrease, said Browne Dianis, due in large part to the work of Advancement Project and other organizations -- the information also showed that black and brown students continue to be over-policed and excessively punished.

"You can imagine the first time a young person gets involved with the criminal justice system is often in school, where they are supposed to be nurtured and supposed to be learning," Browne Dianis said. "So one of the things we are looking at doing is working with groups on the ground to create police-free schools, where children feel valued and loved and nurtured instead of criminalized, harassed and dehumanized."

This past November was the first presidential election without the protection of the Voting Rights Act. That many states, once freed from pre-clearance rules, passed restrictions on voting -- ranging from voter ID laws and cutbacks on early voting to proof of citizenship requirements and the ability to challenge voters at polling places -- came as no surprise to Browne Dianis.

"History tells us in the United States that any time that we have a shift in demographics, we have more aggressive attempts to restrict access to the ballot," she said. "We know that we have to continue to focus on eliminating barriers to voting, and that that will be a tool that communities will use more often."

She cited Chicagoans voting out the prosecutor there who delayed filing charges against the police officer who fatally shot teenager Laquan McDonald until video of the incident was released following a court order. "Folks on the ground understand the connection between voting and change."

In this moment, Browne Dianis said, "you have these two things going on." One is an election cycle where there is backlash, "against the black president, against the changing demographics."

Calls For Reforms In Wake Of Police Shooting Death Continue In Chicago
Demonstrators march through downtown on December 11, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

On the other hand, she said, "you have this growing vibrant racial justice movement that is becoming more inclusive," with more Muslim groups, more Latino groups, and clarity. It is a movement filled with contradictions and also opportunity, she said, with people "able to have a conversation around race that we haven't really been having."

That has never been an issue with Browne Dianis, who grew up in a Queens, N.Y., household where, she said, race was always part of the conversation. "I am a product of a mother who was a community activist and a father who carried the scars of being in a segregated Army," both born and raised in Harlem. She said she understood the beauty of growing up in a black community but also the contradictions of that beauty.

In the Hollis neighborhood, she said she remembered a boulder local folks called "The Rock," painted red, black and green. "One day the rock was painted over — somebody splashed some pink paint on 'The Rock' — the community was up in arms. We painted it right back. I think about how you passed by 'The Rock' every day and that actually meant something. 'The Rock' stayed with you."

She took that spirit to the Columbia University School of Law, where she studied to become a civil rights lawyer. There was a detour to corporate America "for a minute," where she said she experienced race discrimination on the job.

As for the next generation, Browne Dianis said her own teen-aged daughter "has this really incredible nose for fairness and justice that she sometimes uses on me," which is just fine.

"Doing this work is living in my purpose," Browne Dianis said. "For us at Advancement Project, what that means is that we knew from early on we were not just going to be lawyers going to the courts. Our model is all around. How do we assist grass-roots movements in building power to hold systems accountable to get rid of structural racism, but also how do we change hearts and minds around those issues?"

To do that requires every tool and tactic, she said, because when you look at the civil rights movement, there were protests, direct action, legal challenges, and also a conversation that was happening through the use of communications and media.

A big question Browne Dianis asks as she helps set goals for the Advancement Project is, "How do you create a different kind of conversation about who we want to be as a nation?"

Roll Call and NBCBLK columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3