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The Power of Being Responsive to the Needs of the Moment with Sherrilyn Ifill

As nonprofits, we need to be responsive to the people’s needs at the moment while tackling the bigger structural issues as well. This is a powerful message that this episode’s guest can never overemphasize. Nicole Campbell brings in Sherrilyn Ifill, the seventh and current President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. In this conversation, Sherrilyn talks about the work they are doing at LDF and how it is transforming the lives of countless discriminated and disadvantaged members of the black community. She also shares her advice for nonprofits and philanthropies to build better. Listen in and learn about the immense power of being responsive and other lessons and information born out of decades in service of the people.

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About Sherrilyn Ifill

NPDU 1 | Legal Defense Fund

Sherrilyn Ifill is the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. LDF was founded in 1940 by legendary civil rights lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. Ifill served as an Assistant Counsel for LDF from 1988-1993, litigating voting rights cases. She left LDF to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where in addition to teaching in the classroom, she litigated civil rights cases alongside her students for 20 years. Ifill returned to LDF to lead the organization in 2013 and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality.

Under her leadership, LDF has intensified its litigation challenging voter suppression, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and housing discrimination, and has taken a leadership role in resisting federal efforts to roll back civil rights gains in areas such as affirmative action, employment discrimination and school discipline policies. The organization is at the forefront of civil rights organizations challenging unconstitutional policing practices in cities around the country.

A critically acclaimed author, her scholarly articles and her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” reflect Ifill’s lifelong engagement in and analysis of issues of race and American public life. Ifill graduated from Vassar College in 1984 with a B.A. in English and earned her J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1987. She has received honorary doctorates from New York University, Bard College, Fordham Law School and CUNY Law School. In 2019, Ifill was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She serves on the board of the Learning Policy Institute and on the Advisory board for the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a past chair of U.S. board of the Open Society Foundations, one of the largest philanthropic supporters of civil rights and liberties in the country.

Read podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell:     You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nic Campbell:     This is such a phenomenal way to start a podcast, having Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, be your first guest. Now, this a win any way you look at it. But what was especially incredible about this conversation is that the way Sherrilyn spoke about the transformation work of the Legal Defense Fund, the moment we’re in as a society, and her thoughts about how we should be responding in this moment, all spoke to the ethos of this podcast.

Nic Campbell:     Sherrilyn is the seventh President and Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s premiere civil rights legal organization. LDF was founded in 1940 by legendary civil rights lawyer and later supreme court justice, Thurgood Marshall. Sherrilyn served as an Assistant Counsel for LDF, litigating voting rights cases.

Nic Campbell:     She left LDF to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where in addition to teaching in the classroom, she litigated civil rights cases alongside her students for 20 years. Sherrilyn returned to LDF to lead the organization in 2013 and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality. LDF is at the forefront of civil rights organizations challenging unconstitutional policing practices in cities around the country. She’s also a critically acclaimed author and serves on many nonprofit boards.

Nic Campbell:     This interview was recorded back in May 2020, when we were buried in the social justice and racial justice movement along with the pandemic. Which, I would argue, we’re still in now. Sherrilyn does such a masterful job of talking about the work of LDF and the work that’s needed now more than ever, particularly in the United States. Sherrilyn is very clear that LDF is unapologetically and intentionally focused on race; recognizing that race has many other intersections. She also shares her advice for nonprofits and philanthropies to build better. I really want you to listen and absorb all of the information that Sherrilyn shares about the state of the sector, society, and the immense power of being responsive. I think that this is an episode that should be required listening. And with that, here is Sherrilyn Ifill.

Nic Campbell:     Hi Sherrilyn, it is so great to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader Series. I am really excited about our conversation today.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I am thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for reaching out and I’m looking forward to our talk.

Nic Campbell:     Okay, to get us started, can you tell us about the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, your role there, and LDF’s immediate priority?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Sure, so the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was formed by Thurgood Marshall in 1940. This year [2020] is our 80th anniversary and we had planned a big gala, by the way, at Lincoln Center that had to be pulled down because of the pandemic. But we were originally part of the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund was created to do the kind of litigation work that, you know, we’ve become known for – for 80 years. It’s an extraordinary organization if you think about it being founded in 1940 and what it meant to create an organization of black lawyers in 1940; for the purpose of addressing civil rights and for black people.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Of course, the organization is multiracial and has been almost since its beginning, but at its core, it’s an African American legacy institution. That institution being comprised of lawyers with the intention of using the legal system as a way of dismantling and undermining Jim Crow- “breaking the back of Jim Crow”, Thurgood Marshall would say – it was an extraordinary undertaking.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      This is an organization that has, over 80 years, hired the best and the brightest; the most brilliant law students from the finest law schools in the country who have committed themselves to doing this work. As a result, it has become the incubator of so much talent. Many of the people leading the nation’s civil rights organizations today are LDF alumni. On my second go-round, I was an LDF attorney from 1988 to 1993; I was a Voting Rights Attorney. Vanita Gupta who heads the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is a former LDF Attorney. Kristen Clarke, who heads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is a former LDF Attorney. Christina Swarns, who’s the new Head of the Innocence Project, a few years ago was our Litigation Director. People like Alan Jenkins, who was the Founder of The Opportunity Agenda, was an LDF attorney when I was at LDF. And then people who are just influencers out in the world: Maya Wiley was at LDF when I was a young lawyer at LDF, Kirsten Levingston who’s at Wellspring, and Todd Cox.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      It really is the incubator for generations. Deval Patrick, the former Governor of Massachusetts and for a brief period, a former presidential candidate. Eric Holder was an intern when he was a student in law school. It’s extraordinary, the roster of people who have been trained at LDF and that’s really what we do. We train leaders who are deeply grounded in the Law of Civil Rights and in the Constitution, and who have the highest level of skill. So, that’s the organization I’m privileged to lead. LDF separated from the NAACP in 1957. We’ve been entirely separate organizations for a very long time, although people continue to confuse us. I returned to LDF in 2013 to lead the organization.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I had been away for 20 years, teaching law school, starting law clinics, and being a Civil Rights Lawyer in Baltimore – which was an extraordinary and important experience for my return. I was doing a lot of communications work as well. I had a regular column in The Root. I joined the Board of the Open Society Foundations and then Chaired the Board of the U.S. programs of the Open Society Foundation. I was spending a lot of time in the foundation world as well.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I brought all that back to LDF at what I thought was a critical moment. I recognize the need for LDF to refresh itself in many ways and to be responsive to what, I think, had been seismic shifts that happen in this country in the ‘80s and the ‘90s that had never really been attended to by civil rights organizations.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I was quite intentional about intending to lift the narrative on race and civil rights in the country and to be there to shape about race and not just to do the work of civil rights litigation and policy work. It has been successful at a very, very difficult time in this country. I’m very proud of the role that LDF has played and the kind of leadership that people expect from us when there are police killings of unarmed African Americans, when Donald Trump describes people marching in Charlottesville as “good people on both sides”, when Ben Carson really turns his back on the very poor of the Fair Housing Act, when Betsy DeVos turns her back on the core of public education. People expect to hear from us, and we have a voice, we have a platform. That platform, however, is just the thinnest part because underneath it is this extraordinary litigation work that we’re doing in the courts where we’re trying to make seismic structural change.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Our work is focused almost entirely on the South; I would say 90% of our cases are in the South. Although, we’ve got housing discrimination cases that we’ve done in Detroit. We have a case right now that we filed in Cleveland, challenging water tax liens. We do a lot of work in Baltimore, though many people think of that as the South. We were part of the team that sued the NYPD for stop and frisk. We do things around the country, but the core of the work remains in the South rally because, first of all, the majority of black people still live in the South. And we are quite intentional that we are a racial justice organization. The term ‘civil rights’ is quite expansive now. We are quite unapologetically and quite intentionally focused on race. Recognizing that race intersects with many other things so, at the intersection of race and gender, or race and sexual orientation, or race and poverty; all of those things are intrinsically part of the work, but we lead with race because we think it is critical to continue to have that very intentional and clear conversation.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      With the recognition that that focus of our work has over 80 years, cascaded in such a way as to support the advancement of civil rights for all racial minorities, but actually not just racial minorities; for women, for members of the LGBTQ community.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Everything that we do is to create a vision and an understanding of what rights and justice means in a way that recognizes the full humanity and dignity of every person.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Our work is never exclusive, but the people that we represent and the communities in whose voice we speak and whose history and reality we try to bring into those courtrooms every day, are African Americans. We’re at trial right now, as a matter of fact; the first virtual trial…maybe, the first virtual trial in the country but certainly the first major civil rights trial that’s a virtual trial. This is the case in Florida trying to vindicate the rights of formerly incarcerated people to vote. It’s all being done remotely and it’s quite extraordinary. Our lawyers have been preparing and they’re working with lawyers from the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Brennan Center. The voice that we bring is always quite unapologetically on behalf of African American communities whose experience is particular, who suffer from the long history and contemporary reality of anti-black racism that continues to be a part of this country.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You asked also about, kind of, what the areas are where we work. We work in four principal areas: voting and political participation, economic justice – which encompasses our work in housing and employment -, education, and criminal justice. Those are the four pillars. We often are doing work that’s very particular within those areas – so our Policing Reform Campaign is obviously very much part of our criminal justice work but in that criminal justice work, we do a lot of work challenging jury discrimination, challenging the death penalty. We have a number of clients on death row. We filed suit challenging conditions in the prisons in Arkansas on behalf of inmates who were exposed to COVID. But we also do other things that then we feel are relevant to all those areas. We’re really leaned into and trying to think through various ways to attack algorithmic bias, for example.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Algorithmic bias shows up in criminal justice through risk assessments and gang databases. It shows up in employment. It shows up in housing and lending. It shows up in all kinds of ways. There are lots of things that we do that we feel touch each of those areas of work and don’t fit neatly into any one category. They are truly intersectional and draw on all of the different pillars, but those four pillars are the ones that we think are the ones that potentially unlock the door to equality and opportunity for African Americans.

Nic Campbell:     Wow – so, as President of this iconic organization, what is your advice to nonprofits that fundraise as a significant part of their budget? In other words, what do you think should be top of mind for them now, particularly during this time of uncertainty?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Well, we’ve taken the position that we will not stop fundraising. We recognize the realities of the current moment, so I think that’s the first thing. One of the things that’s so critical and important is that you have to be…let me see if I can describe it this way: when you’re a litigator, as we are at LDF, and you’re working on a really important case, very often the core story is something that happened in the past. You were at trial, they struck all the black people from your jury, you were convicted by an all-white jury, and so forth. Something that happened in the past, we could be working on that case years later – it makes its way to the Supreme Court for five years. Or you applied for a job and another person applied for the job and it’s clear that there was racial discrimination at work. Or we have a whole line of cases in which we bring cases on behalf of people for whom criminal background screens are misused to deny employment.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      So, when you’re working on a case, although that case is really important and the relief you’re seeking is relief that will change things for the future – not just for the individuals in the case but will structurally change things for the future – the event itself happened in the past. The reality of discrimination, for example, is that there are things happening today, like right now while you and I are talking that are important. If you’re not careful, you get so involved in your litigation that you’re not responsive to what is breaking the heart of your people in this moment. One of the things that is vitally important is that every organization involved in work in this space has to be nimble enough to be responsive to what is breaking the heart of your people today. What is cutting off the opportunity for them today.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      When Eric Garner was choked on that street in Staten Island, even though we have many other cases that we were dealing with, you have to be responsive to that. And as these videos began to come out, the consciousness of the country was raised about police violence against unarmed African Americans. Even though this is work that had been, kind of, part of our docket for a long time – we actually litigated the Seminole case in that area, Tennessee versus Garner in the ‘80s – even though it was there, we had to create a policing reform campaign.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We had to decide: the time is right now, and our communities have had it. And now we have to decide we’re going to take resources from across the complex to deal with this issue. So, I think that nimbleness is what people need to see from us. We had to do it after Trump was elected. Trump was elected, we were not expecting it – most people were not – but when he was elected, we knew what it would mean. We knew a Trump Justice Department is not going to be the Eric Holder and the Loretta Lynch Justice Department. And the justice department with their tens of thousands of lawyers is still the main law enforcement apparatus of the country and the Attorney General is the main law enforcement officer, including of the nation’s civil rights laws. We knew we were losing a partner in our core work. We can never have all the resources of the Department of Justice, but we decided that we would have to become a private Attorney General. We would have to become a private DOJ.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We started fundraising from that perspective. We were right, they’re not bringing any voting rights cases. They have stopped doing pattern and practice investigations of police departments, so we had to then get into Tulsa and begin to work with that community to help raise consciousness about the need for policing reform there. We had to continue and intensify our work in North Charleston, where Walter Scott was shot in the back. That case may be over, but that community is crying out for real attention to the systemic police discriminatory issues in that. So, we’ve been working with them now for years in the hopes of putting together a case for the future. So, we knew that. COVID happens, same thing; an absolute catastrophe for our community – super catastrophe – raising issues of survival for people.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Even though we’re working on this systemic structural change that presumes there is a tomorrow, our communities are facing the possibility that for some people there is no tomorrow. We had to layer on top of our work, we had to open a new front. Focusing on the four areas that we know – that’s where we leaned in. I just told you about the case we filed in the Arkansas Prison on behalf of inmates who have pre-existing conditions; who suffered from asthma, heart disease, emphysema, who are not socially distanced, who have no masks, who have no PPE.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We really believe that what we are going to see out of the prisons is potentially the greatest catastrophe we are going to see around COVID in terms of illness, infection and death. Disproportionately, these are our people; these are our brothers, our sons, our moms, and our uncles. This is not separate from the black community.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We recognize with our education work, LDF still has about 40 desegregation cases that we monitor from the 1960s and from Southern jurisdictions. We sometimes litigate as well. Issues arise and we use those cases to fight for equity for black children in the South. Almost immediately when the school closures began, we started to inquire about a variety of things. First of all, whether schools were going to continue providing nutritional support to kids. We heard from a lot of jurisdictions, New York and others; they were going to continue to provide that support and that was wonderful. But we weren’t sure about that in Southern jurisdictions. A number of them said they were going to provide support, did it for a week, and then stopped.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      In Louisiana, we had to really lean in. New Orleans was fine, but where we work in the rural South – Saint Bernard Parish, Saint John Parish, Saint Martin Parish, Saint Mary Parish – no, no nutritional support. The schools just cut it off. You have kids who are used to getting one meal or two meals a day, and parents were relying on that for their kids’ nutrition, suddenly from one day to the next are cut off from having any nutritional support. We tried working with the school districts to no avail. At the same time, in those same school districts, many of them had just cut off instruction. Once school closures happen in early March 2020, they just decided the school year was over and there would be no instruction. We were beside ourselves; the thought that our children would have no instruction from March 2020 to September 2020.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That’s like the old sharecropping system when these take black kids out of school to bring in the crops. This was so horrifying to us that we again began pushing those school districts around these issues without much success. Some of them agreed to do distance learning but the distance learning was all online. 18% percent of black households in Louisiana have no computer. There had to be worksheets that are mailed, there had to be worksheets that are dropped off.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      When you say distance learning, you and I know what that means, and we’re doing it right now, but that’s not the reality for nearly 20% of black families in Louisiana. So, we leaned in with all the school districts to no avail. Finally, we put the governor on blast. We did a letter that we released publicly and began to really put the pressure on.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      He agreed to “meet” with us, I’m saying this with air quotes because obviously it was virtual. We had a 1.5-hour-long phone call in the morning. It was critical. We were on the phone with the Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, and the superintendent of schools. It was interesting because obviously they knew about our letter and they had reached out to the parishes who all told them: “Yes, we are…of course we’re providing food.”

Sherrilyn Ifill:      But we knew we had our clients. We had talked with our parents that week, and so we were able to tell them: “it ain’t happening”. Even where some places are providing food, parents can’t get to it, there’s no public transportation. The whole point is that when your kids had school, the school bus picked them up, took them to school, and that’s where they ate. How are they supposed to get the food?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We documented the percentage of black families that don’t have cars and they’re not able to get to the food. We documented the whole distance learning piece. You could hear in the phone call that the governor and the superintendent were alarmed, and it was clear that they were learning as we were speaking. That afternoon, the governor – in his announcement that the schools will be closed for the rest of the school year – issued a proclamation requiring that there be distance learning, high tech and low tech, and that every school district was expected to fulfill the obligation to provide nutritional support for children. We started to monitor that after the governor’s announcement to make sure that that was happening.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We just did it in Leeds City, Alabama where the school district was under a desegregation order, not serving food. They just announced on April 2nd, 2020, no more food will be served until further notice. We went into court…by into court, I mean, we filed papers in court. The judge held a virtual hearing on the phone, I guess 10 days ago, and last week, Friday night, said: “This violates a desegregation order that requires equity. You must begin food service again.” And it just began again on Tuesday. We use the docket that we had to address what we knew were immediate critical COVID needs for our children, which was nutritional support and education.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We have been the leading voice on the issue of ending water shutoffs and utility shutoffs during the pandemic as part of our housing discrimination work. We have been working over the years on the issue of water affordability because we did a report in which we documented the way water tax liens are leading disproportionately to loss of black homeownership.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Black people unable to afford their water bill don’t pay the water bill. The tax lien is either sold to a private party or just taken over by the city. If you don’t pay it there, your home is put up for foreclosure. We began to document the number of black people losing their homes to that process. We did a lot of work in Baltimore in ending water tax lien foreclosures and a lot of work in Detroit. Even Flint was prepared to foreclose on 7,000 families three summers ago…where there’s not even potable water because of water tax liens. They finally overturned that law. We just filed suit in Cleveland, challenging their water tax liens.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We were clear about the issue of water when the pandemic hit. We were deeply concerned. We first asked for no evictions. We knew that the federal government had said there would be no foreclosures, but many black people are renters. We still don’t have a moratorium on evictions. We’ve been working state-by-state, city-by-city, trying to put that pressure on. But we also knew that water shutoffs and electricity shutoffs would be detrimental, particularly in a pandemic in which we are asking everybody to wash their hands all the time. And in which there are school closures, so school children are at home. We’re sending children home in the condition in which there is no running water and there’s no electricity. So, we have been pushing the national conference on mayors, the National Governors Association going state-by-state. We’re actually starting and launching a shaming campaign online, going state-by-state, shaming those jurisdictions that have allowed water shutoffs to continue.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re asking jurisdictions to re-engage water where possible. Washington, DC is doing that, and Massachusetts is doing that. Turn the water back on if you really want people to be able to deal with this pandemic. Most of all, don’t create a public safety issue for children who you’re requiring to stay home, but you’re also not suspending evictions.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You’re telling everybody to stay home but you’re also allowing people to be put out of their home or you’re telling people to stay home and you’re allowing them to be home without running water and without electricity. We’re still grappling with that issue and continuing to lean into that issue.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      And then, of course, voting. I gotta say, I feel forever changed by Wisconsin. It represents the failure of every level of government for African American people. I wrote a piece about it in Slate, I’m happy to send it to you, called Never Forget Wisconsin. The piece really talks about the images of people standing in line with the mask on and how it’s a snapshot of American failure. I also call it a snapshot of the deep nobility of black people who showed their determination to be full citizens to participate in the political process.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      On the theory of Never Forget Wisconsin, we sued in Arkansas, we just filed suit in South Carolina demanding the extension of absentee ballot opportunities. We’re filing another suit this week, but I can’t tell you where it is, but in another Southern state, and then in another Southern state the following week. We are looking to November 2020 and we are very clear that we want to make sure that there are multiple opportunities for voting for our people.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re not saying only mail-in voting because there are black people who want to vote in person. In order for black people to vote in person, we cannot have to make a choice between our health and our citizenship. So, that requires a full menu of things. First of all, we need poll workers. A lot of the reason there were so few polling places in Milwaukee on that election day is because so many poll workers called out, understandably. Those poll workers, including in our community, are elderly. We don’t want to risk their health either. That means that we need to be training additional poll workers this summer, younger poll workers. Poll workers have to be trained in how to manage themselves in this pandemic. We have to be providing to poll workers, all of the PPE they need.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      The polling places themselves have to be able to assure people that they are wiped down and fully clean. We have to be able to provide PPE at the polling place for voters who come without it, who don’t have a mask or who don’t have gloves. All of that is essential. We have to expand early voting so that we undermine long lines by having a longer voting period and more opportunities to vote.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re also really encouraging our community to be more prepared to vote, to not go into the voting booth, and for the first time, be reading the ballot. You’ve got to download that thing Sunday night; you’ve got to know what all the bond questions are because that’s what makes you take long standing in the voting place.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You don’t want to be standing there for fifteen minutes during a pandemic. You want to get in, vote, and get out. But then, also, distance voting means extending the period for absentee ballot requests and extending the period for absentee ballot returns. That was the issue in Wisconsin; the Supreme Court wouldn’t allow the extended time to return the absentee ballot. It means increasing online registration so that people can register online. It means ensuring that people really know that they have to take time to do that process – to order an absentee ballot, have it come to their house, to send it back in, and have it be counted. We’re really serious about leaning into our communities in August 2020 and September 2020 about preparing to vote. You’re not going to be able to just wake up on November 2, 2020 and decide: “Hey, I really feel I want to vote tomorrow.” It’s not that kind of scene anymore, because if you’re going to vote in person, you’ve got to have your PPE and you need to be ready.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      If you’re going to vote distance, you have to have ordered your absentee ballot and you have to have send it in, and so forth. All of our voting work is really focused around making sure that that full menu is available so that we can ensure that every eligible African American voter can participate in the political process and vote. Lastly, of course, is the census and ensuring that people participate in the census online.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Everything that we’re doing about stay at home…we just did a joint statement with the leaders of every black church denomination that was released last Friday. When Governor Kim’s order came out reopening the state, basically telling our people to stay home. And it was civil rights leaders and black church denomination leaders saying: “This ain’t the time. You need to stay at home, prioritize your health and prioritize your family.” But we ended the statement by saying, “While you’re at home, register to vote, and make sure that you fill out the census.”

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That’s a long way of answering your question. What I say to nonprofits is, “You’ve got to be responsive to the needs of your people in the moment. You’ve got to figure out a way to be doing, if you’re an organization like mine that does structural change or whatever are your long-term imperatives, have to be happening at the same time that you are responsive to what your people need today.” Keep fundraising. Make sure that the work you’re doing is responsive to what is happening in the moment. Don’t give up your structural work, but make sure it’s responsive to what’s happening in the moment. Invest in your communications; this is the only lifeline we have to the people we represent, to our donors, to our supporters. This is no time to skimp on your communications.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You’ve got to invest in your communications, you have to have the apparatus to invest in your communications. Reassure your people, take care of your staff. One of the things I’m proudest of is that at LDF, we’ve just been prudent over the years. So, we’re not facing layoffs, we’re not facing any immediate catastrophe. We have lost our major fundraising event, and like everybody else, we’re reeling. But the ability of our people to focus on their work and not have to focus on whether they’re going to get a paycheck is vitally important. Make sure that you’re doing your best to reassure your staff and your people. We have been increasing our all-staff meetings; we do them now every two weeks. We’re trying to increase that communication with the staff. I’m regularly sending emails to the staff. We created a newsletter of our COVID-19 work because our staff wants to know what we are doing in this pandemic.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      They want to feel that they are speaking into the moment. We acknowledge how frightened we all are. This is the first time that we’re doing the work in which not only are we worried for our clients, but we’re worried for ourselves, our families, our friends, our peers, and to acknowledge that reality. We have provided our staff with lots of wellness links and other resources to help, kind of, navigate this period. Keep talking to your funders. Make sure they hear from you and they know what you’re doing. If asked, they should feel that they know what you’re doing. There shouldn’t be a presumption. Ask for advice.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      When the pandemic struck and things started to close and the stock market tanked, I was calling people, not for money. I was calling foundation leaders to say, “Tell me how you’re thinking about this moment. This is a moment of crisis leadership. I want to make sure that I’m the right leader. This is what I’m thinking. These are the steps I’m planning to take. This is what I’m doing with my senior team.” This is a leadership moment also, and foundations and donors are not just about money. They’re about counsel, support, and advice for moments like this when we need other leaders to help us think through how we lead in a time that none of us have ever faced.

Nic Campbell:     I really like your response for a variety of reasons. I think, at the core, it goes back to exactly what you said which is: be responsive to the thing that is breaking the heart of your people today and be consistent in doing the work. Another reason that I really like it is that you’re providing advice that you yourself are following, examples and context behind, “This is how it’s playing out for us and here’s how we’re doing it.”

Nic Campbell:     The last piece that I really like about it is that it’s practical. When you’re talking about just picking up the phone and asking for advice, strategic counsel, and being able to partner. That is really sound advice for nonprofits, particularly those that are fundraising. If I were to say to you then, Sherrilyn, let’s look at the other side of the conversation and look at the funders; what’s the advice that you would have for funders, beyond give more money? What advice would you provide for them to support nonprofit sustainability, both during and after this crisis?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Some foundations are already doing things like providing webinars and support on various aspects of how we manage this moment, providing free social media training, or communications training to organizations that really may not be sophisticated in that area. A couple of foundations have individually done this. I love the pledge that many of the foundations took but I just think we should be freed up from reporting. It’s extremely onerous. Particularly if you’re not a first-time recipient and the foundation knows you. The time that we spend doing reports is time that we could be spending finding additional gifts. We’re all financially pressed and looking to raise more money. That means that we need to find new foundations, or we need to find new areas of work.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We are people, we cannot show our staff our own fears. We have to be reassuring. We actually need safe spaces where we can convene and talk about some of these issues. Providing a window into the things about what you know; what the financial outlook looks like, and experts who can address us as leaders, or even address our staff about COVID or other aspects of this crisis. Really providing support beyond the financial support, just recognizing that this is a moment that none of us have ever experienced before, and the expectation that leaders will walk into this with some magic ability to navigate all the aspects of it.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      It seems to me, just falls. I would say that, especially for your core donors, to just be offering that support is really important. Foundations are taking their endowments. They’re taking a hit too. I understand that. Deciding that you’re going to sustain with the organizations is absolutely critical because all of us recognize we’re not going to make it more than we made in the past. We’ve got to be able to sustain. I advise people to open up a whole other front of work to address this crisis, to be efficient, and marry it with your existing work – which is what we’re trying to do.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re not working less; I’m definitely working more. Everyone is working more. The courts have not closed. The Supreme Court is still deciding cases, we still have our virtual trial. We still have a brief due in the Harvard Affirmative Action case. We are still filing cases. We’re still doing all that stuff. We still got to get food for these kids. So, not one bit of the work has stopped and yet a whole other layer of work has been placed on top of it. We have to be able to hold our staff. We have to be able to just maintain.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I would really encourage foundations to bet on their grantees this year. You have to do it. I do think this is a potentially catastrophic moment, not only in terms of just survival but in terms of our democracy. Because what has accompanied the pandemic are all of the threats that always accompany catastrophes like this which is the power grab, the suffering of those who are most marginalized, and the attempt to hold on to power by those who led us during this crisis. Those are all things that always happen.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We are in a moment of tremendous democratic peril. To my mind, I call civil rights work, democracy work; that’s what we do. This is not the time to imagine for one second that we can skimp on the need to lean into not only protecting this democracy but being aggressive and affirmative in our work.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Many of the things that are happening now, we will need to think through how to maintain. People understand that people have to be released from prison. Okay, well we’ve been talking about that for years.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      How do we, post-pandemic, sustain that narrative? We’ve been talking about the need to extend voting opportunities. Many people do get why there has to be extensive mail-in ballots and more early voting. How do we carry that forward? That becomes the new normal. There’s a lot of conversation about the new normal in the context of social distancing, flying, and taking cruises but we need to make the expansion of some of these areas, in terms of civil rights, the new normal also. That’s going to take organizing, advocacy, litigation, and empowering our communities to be able to speak and demand that they want that new normal.

Nic Campbell:     You’ve provided really practical advice for both nonprofits and funders. We even talked about some of the practices that you’re recommending funders stop. With all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector and what should we do more of?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I think that we are in so much peril that I cannot think of anything that we need to be doing less of. I would have said this before the pandemic also. Even before the pandemic, we’re not enough for the moment. That’s why we’re in much trouble right now. It’s got to be more. What do we need to be doing more of? I think people are listening right now and we should be paying attention to increasing the ability of us to touch and communicate with people, and the people we represent in communities around the country. It’s just vitally important, right now, that people feel that they are part of something. The things that we normally do where we meet, we march, and we congregate, or people knock on doors: those are not things that can happen. People also need to see that people are fighting for them. That communication needs to get to them because this can be a really despairing moment also.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We need to be talking to people so that they can see what their own power is. The ability to move quickly…everything is going so fast that if we could just increase everyone’s ability to do rapid response, it would be awesome. We’re all sitting here, and the Post Office is not funded. Do you know what I mean? That’s a catastrophe that just has to be dealt with. New things arise all the time.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I’m very concerned about black businesses and what’s going to be happening in our community with the stimulus and how badly it has done in being assessable to small black business owners. It’s about mom-and-pop businesses. Barbershops that won’t survive, beauty parlors that won’t survive, and nail salons that won’t survive, that are in our community. What’s the plan?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I’ve talked about this in the context with black churches who are some of the biggest property owners in the African American community. Let’s leave aside the spiritual piece. I’m talking about as property owners. When the emergency is regarded as over, foreclosure crisis is over, and the forbearance is lifted, those folks are going to have money. The black church relies on people to come in every Sunday and put something in the plate. Nobody’s been coming in and every church will tell you that online does not approximate that. We’re about to see, unless something is done, a catastrophic property loss in our community, which will increase gentrification.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Think about some of these churches in the land that they sit on and where they’re located. When I think about something like Mother Emanuel in Downtown Charleston, if you’ve ever been there, where the Charleston nine were killed – it’s downtown, a huge church, right there at the beginning of the big shopping street. It’s not a black community around it anymore. That’s prime property. We need a little bit more creativity around the exercise I do, which is I try to do it in the increments of 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years. When I look back at this time, what am I going to be sorry we didn’t do? One of those pieces, I think, is to imagine what strengths will still exist, and what anchors will still exist in the black community and have we protected them?

Nic Campbell:     I really like talking about being creative and how can organizations show up in that way, because they think about their own planning and their own strategies, but also know that the focus of many nonprofits is often on that programmatic strategy and on the direct asks or the fundraising pieces. I wanted to talk about infrastructure and raise the question with you, which is: is LDF thinking about building infrastructure during this time? If it is, how is it thinking about building that infrastructure?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Do you mean fundraising infrastructure?

Nic Campbell:     I mean your organizational infrastructure or the organizational foundation that you have to do that programmatic work, to be programmatically creative. Thinking about how you’re setting up your boards, your operations, and your governance structures. If you’re thinking about that now, how does that thinking shift for infrastructure after the pandemic?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I like to say that we have the unique experience of kind of being a little bit ahead of the curve because we were talking about these very issues and really beginning to make shifts in our board. We had planned to open a Southern office, which, obviously, very few people are opening brick-and-mortar. But it may be a remote office. We understood the need to be physically closer to engage with our communities, to be able to speak more directly to them. We already understood that. We had increased our support for our internal think tank, the Thurgood Marshall Institute, so that we could do more of our own research and really disseminate direct research to our community. We just had done a big communications buildup so that we could increase our communications capacity.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      In some ways, we had kind of, not knowing that the pandemic was coming, but feeling that, for all the reasons that I told you before, we’re in this critical democratic moment. We have been talking about who we are and how we show up in the space. We’ve been thinking about our own branding because that really is important to grab the attention of the people that we represent. And just building collaborations has been really, really critical to our work. But I do think, what I was describing black businesses, that’s kind of why we have our Thurgood Marshall Institute – is because we want to spend some time learning. That’s what the Institute is designed to do. It’s to help us learn. One of the things I think is critical in this moment, is figuring out what we need to learn to be able to come up with solutions that actually work.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That means that we need to be able to convene people to say, “Here’s what we don’t know and here’s what we need to learn in order to make this work.” I’d like to see more of that happening. The truth is this is exhausting. We’re all in this box all day. We also have to be a little bit kind to ourselves in terms of how difficult this is. I actually find that where I’ve shifted to right now, is some solitary time; to study, to read, and to write in the four waking hours that I have that I’m not working. Because I think it’s important to try to diagnose this moment and understand what it is we’re in.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I think too many of us are doing so much that we can’t see it. I’m a big legal historian. This all happens within an ecosystem and trying to understand the ecosystem, I’m interested in what my profession is doing. That’s the kind of creative thing that we’re not talking about, about the civil rights but I’m talking about it. What has happened to the legal profession and the need to activate the profession in a way that resets some of what, I think, has been eroded over the past few months?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That really is critical to us and the infrastructure that we need to be able to do civil rights legal work. I think, being able to have a little drawback time to see the whole instead of just seeing the pieces that we’re working on, or the pieces that are in our face, or the pieces that Trump has served up for the day, is one of the biggest challenges of this moment. The Earth is shifting beneath the ecosystem system of civil rights in this country. We need to be able to see that shift to figure out how to take advantage of it. I do think that it’s vital that we spend some time doing the intellectual work of change.

Nic Campbell:     Sherrilyn, this conversation has been so powerful, and I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about. What book do you think we should read next or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Well, I’ll just tell you, I’m on my own curriculum right now. It’s not one book. After the 2016 election, literally a week after, I was on a panel with the great Civil Rights historian, Taylor Branch, and with Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns. Isabel, who’s become a friend, suggested at that event – it was hosted at the University of Maryland – that we were entering the second nadir. The nadir was the period from 1880 to 1920. It is described as the nadir by the historian Rayford Logan as the worst period for black people after slavery. I resisted her a little bit but I kind of knew she was right. Since the first of the year, I’ve been really asking the question, what did they do in the nadir? Because there’s never a time where we did nothing.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      In fact, much of what happened in the nadir was the foundation upon which powerful shifts in civil rights ended up happening in this country. I’m trying to write about this now. I’ll get you my nadir reading. The first one is this one, Black Reconstruction by WEB Du Bois. That’s the most important. That’s kind of like the Bible. What other books do I find really illuminating also?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      One is Rayford Logan, the one who created the term the nadir; The Betrayal of the Negro from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. And then, Dickson Bruce’s Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915. I’m very interested in how writers wrote in that period because I’m always interested in what artists do during these dark periods. I think, these are always periods of very important high art.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      For me, it’s a bit of studying and a bit of learning. It turns out, at least from my sneak peek of the piece I’m writing, it’s about the institutions that were created in the nadir. The NAACP, the Deltas, all of these institutions that then had the platform to help advance the civil rights movement actually were created in this period, when black people were really just at the very edge and the very bottom. The question for us is, it may not be that that is what we must do, but the question is what must we do? There is a building that has to happen in this period, so that’s what I’m working on.

Nic Campbell:     I’ve definitely added some books now to my reading list. Thanks so much for sharing them and I look forward to reading your piece when it comes out. You’ve just shared some incredible takeaways and gems throughout this conversation that, I think, leaders can implement into their own organizations to help them build bravely. I want to thank you again for your insights and your time today, Sherrilyn.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Thank you. This was great. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Nic Campbell:     Yes, definitely.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:     Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.