When Sherrilyn Ifill took the helm of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 2013, she had grand ambitions for the preeminent civil rights organization. Among them, she wanted “to create an infrastructure that would allow us to be more responsive in real time to issues of race and injustice.”
Ifill was convinced that a key to expanding the LDF’s scope was to draw more media attention to its work, a departure from the organization’s approach over the years. “I always thought that, historically, our many victories in the courtroom really helped people understand not only what inequality looked like, but what the Constitution suggests we’re entitled to and why we have the right to make demands for full citizenship and dignity,” she says.
“The impact of our work has been consequential for decades, but it was important to me that people see our work—not just Brown v. Board of Education, which most people know about, but so many other cases and activities that we’ve been involved in that people don’t even attribute to LDF because we have been, perhaps, overly modest. And I wanted to change that,” she said.
Ifill did all that and more as she steered the LDF through an especially tumultuous period, starting with a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that gutted the Voting Rights Act and punctuated by the Trump presidency, a scourge of police violence, and, more recently, the upheaval of the pandemic. As Ifill leaves her post this month, she can take credit for not only elevating the work of the LDF and notching high-profile cases against the Trump administration, but also for raising the organization’s budget from $12 million to $60 million, as well as increasing its endowment fund by almost $100 million. During her nine-year tenure, the LDF has also more than tripled its headcount, with plans to open a Southern regional office by the end of the year. “Most of our cases are in the South—probably 80-90%—and always have been,” she says. “I felt we needed a physical presence, as well.”
When she steps down on March 14, Ifill will be succeeded as president and director-counsel of the LDF by her deputy, Janai Nelson. In a recent conversation with Fast Company, Ifill talked about what she is most proud of from her time leading the LDF and what she’ll be up to next.
Fast Company: You were already embracing a more offensive approach early in your tenure during the Obama administration. But the role of the LDF only became more important and pronounced during the Trump years. How would you say that period shaped the LDF and your leadership?
SI: [During the Obama administration] some people ascribed to the idea that we had arrived, and this was the symbol that our work around racial justice was largely done. What I tried to lift for people was the work that we were doing, mostly in the South, so they could understand that there was something else going on in America that was, in fact, quite dangerous.
I came in with the idea that I wanted us to be on offense and have this kind of rapid response capacity, which we had begun to put in place when Eric Garner was killed, and then Mike Brown. I also felt strongly about the need for us to strengthen the role of organizers on our staff. When Ferguson began to erupt, the first person we sent from our staff was an organizer, not a lawyer, and having that staff capacity was important, because we needed an organizer to go and engage with the community and try to understand what was happening. It was very apparent that something more was going on in Ferguson, that what we were seeing in this uprising was not a response to one killing.
That was long before Trump. But those were some of the most difficult days. It took a toll on our staff. We’re human beings; most of us are people of color. We all care deeply about the communities of people that we represent across the board, and we had to watch every video of police killings from multiple angles. It was a lot of intense and emotionally draining work for the staff, and I felt the need to take a lot of it on myself.
Six months after I took the helm of LDF, the Supreme Court issued its Shelby County v. Holder decision, which really punched a hole in the most important part of the Voting Rights Act. As a young lawyer at LDF, I’d been a voting rights lawyer; I knew how devastating this was. So, we were on alarm from June of 2013, and the voter suppression that we now see every day cranked up then. The Southern states that were freed from pre-clearance requirements began imposing voter ID laws and other restrictive voting measures. We started playing whack a mole—and again, this is long before Trump. I emphasize this because it’s important for people to understand that Trump did not usher in the dynamic of intense racial discrimination and inequality that we grapple with today.
[When Trump was elected] I knew what it would mean, and it was grim. But, I also understood this was a moment for leadership, not just for LDF, but for our civil rights ecosystem. So I filmed a video—at the urging of Janai Nelson, my deputy, who will now be the leader at LDF—and we put it on Twitter, and it got a lot of traction. We were very clear about Trump’s allegiance with white supremacists from the campaign, so we recognized the danger. I remember ending the video with: “. . . and we’re not going anywhere.” I [needed] to show that we [were] going to fight through this. And we did: I was clear that when he announced Jeff Sessions would be his attorney general, obviously we [were] not going to have a Justice Department focused on civil rights. We [were] going to become that, and those were the words I used—that we would act as a private DOJ.
I’ve never believed that there were going to be quick fixes to white supremacy. This is life’s work.”
I think LDF had sued the federal government maybe twice in our history before Trump was elected. By the time we were two or three years in, we had sued Trump and seven cabinet members because it had to be done wherever we’d see the racial discrimination. Normally we sued states, but in this case, it was the federal government.
FC: The LDF has grown significantly under your watch, in terms of both budget and headcount. In fact, you told the Washington Post recently that if you ran a private company, you’d be on the cover of Forbes. Can you talk about how you’ve expanded the organization and positioned it for this new era?
SI: I said that in the Post because it’s true. And again, I don’t believe in false modesty. I think that nonprofit organizations, and particularly civil rights organizations, deserve their due. What we were able to accomplish was amazing: When I started out, we were 55 employees. If we fill every position that we now have open, at the end of this fiscal year we’ll be 230. I [also] worked to try to increase staff salaries. People could see that we were doing incredible work. People could see me on TV, [and] I communicated with our supporters and donors to tell them what we were doing.
I wanted to grow our footprint so that we could have influence on Capitol Hill. I grew the organizing department; I built a real communications department and came back with the plan of creating the Thurgood Marshall Institute, which is our internal research think tank, so that we could do our own research and have a kind of data loop for what we learn out of litigation. So we now have all of these tools—and last year, we launched the Marshall-Motley scholarship program, to develop new young civil rights attorneys focused on the south.
Transition is part of leadership. It’s also a way of showing the world that you’re worth the investment because it’s not just about one person.”
All of this was part of the development that made the organization so strong—[and also] bringing aboard and developing leaders. Transition is part of leadership, and having Janai as my partner for most of the years was critical. It was important to have someone standing shoulder to shoulder with [me] in the work, and to have in my head that this is somebody who’s going to be able to take the ball and take it to the next level whenever I decide to leave. She’s been incredible, and we proved to be an amazing team. It’s [also] a way of showing the world that you have a deep bench, so you’re worth the investment because it’s not just about one person.
FC: At mission-driven organizations, there’s often a culture of prioritizing the work above all else, even if it means workers are chronically burnt out and underpaid. One of your priorities has been to improve compensation and benefits for LDF staffers. Why was that important to you?
SI: When I was at LDF as a young lawyer, that was kind of the way we operated. Most people are so happy to be there that we are willing to accept less. But, it doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve more. I had my first child when I was a young litigator at LDF, and I know what a challenge that was. We had to work day and night, and I barely saw my family, and I remembered what it was like. So when I came back, it was important that we have a good parental leave policy, so that people can spend time with their newborns—for men and for women. I think for our staff, it’s been quite important—for people to know they can have time and come back refreshed. To be a place that values that [and] imagines that you are a whole person is, I think, really important, if you want to have longevity [and] retain people.
We’re not at law firms; we made a choice to do this kind of work. We do this work relentlessly. But it doesn’t mean that we have to hide our light under a bushel. It doesn’t mean that we have to be paid pennies. It doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice our family life. So I was determined to make sure that was true.
To be a place that values that [and] imagines that you are a whole person is, I think, really important, if you want to have longevity [and] retain people.”
FC: Your time at the LDF has been bookended, in a way, with attacks on voting rights, from the SCOTUS decision in 2013 to the Senate now blocking voting rights legislation. How do you see your own legacy amid those ongoing challenges, and why are you choosing to step down now?
SI: I’ve never believed that there were going to be quick fixes to white supremacy, which is deeply embedded into the infrastructure of this country. This is life’s work. So, I actually am really heartened by the fact that what has lain below the surface has been surfaced during my tenure, that millions more people understand and are grappling with the truth about American democracy [and] the danger and corrosive nature of white supremacy—not to the futures and fortunes of just Black and Brown people, but to the the integrity of American democracy itself.
That’s been the job for me: To be the person who could [help surface] that, who could explain it in a way that people could receive and understand, who could encourage my field to do the work in new and creative ways, who could model what it looks like to engage in this work as lifelong work, who could bring that voice into different areas and industries where people can hear it and see themselves as having a role. I’m very proud of that.
My leaving at this point really is about the institution and what I think is best for it to go on, which is that people should not stay too long. I’m not the be all and end all. I was right for the time that I was leading the organization. We’re entering a new moment in this country, and I think Janai is the perfect person to take LDF into that new moment. I love this organization, so it’s incredibly hard to leave. But at the same time, I also believe that this is lifelong work for me. So the question is: What’s the next way that I’m supposed to do it? And that’s what I’m exploring. First, I want to write this book, because I do think I am uniquely positioned to have a vision about where we are and where we need to go, and I want to collect that. So that’s the first project that’s before me, and then it’s to figure out what’s that next way of contributing.