SPLC hires first state director in Alabama, probes shift in strategy

Nonprofit long focused on court battles now exploring organizing

By: - February 8, 2023 2:09 pm
A sign marking the Southern Poverty Law Center outside the organization's headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama on February 8, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama on February 8, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Southern Poverty Law Center has hired Tafeni English-Relf as the organization’s first-ever Alabama director, part of a new model for the nonprofit aimed at moving the SPLC’s traditional focus on legal strategies to community organizing.

SPLC leaders said Tuesday in Talladega that English-Relf would focus on local matters, especially in the rural parts of the state.

“It is our great fortune to have Tafeni’s extraordinary leadership at the helm of the SPLC’s first Alabama state office,” said Margaret Huang, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center in a statement. “From advocate to organizer to community service provider, she has led in many roles throughout her career.”

English-Relf is a native of Alabama and has collaborated with SPLC on several initiatives over the last two decades.

“One of the things that I knew was a need when I was working with them in those capacities was to educate the local community and increase their awareness around how certain issues impact them and their ability to thrive,” she said in an interview.

SPLC hired Waikinya Clanton as their Mississippi director last May. The two states will test a new model for SPLC wants to implement, one involving greater outreach to members of the community.

In the past, the organization has concentrated its civil and workers’ rights efforts through the legal system. That was the model followed by civil rights attorneys long before the SPLC’s formation in 1971. But Huang said in a statement that the courts were becoming hostile terrain.

“The intention here is to recognize that we are not seeing the opportunities to defend civil rights in the judiciary anymore,” Huang said. “Instead, what we are seeing is the opportunity to engage with communities, and to build political influence on behalf of communities that don’t have a lot of influence at the moment, so that they can advocate for their needs and priorities to local city government or with state government.”

Huang pointed to decisions like 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which end federal protections for abortion access. A near-total ban on abortion in Alabama went into effect hours after the court decision came down.

The directors will manage a team of organizers who will be deployed throughout the state. They will also oversee training and organizing efforts for people who can then advocate for their issues with legislators.

Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang (left) and SPLC Alabama State Director Tafeni English-Relf are seen in this photograph. (Southern Poverty Law Center

“We actually have some really big goals,” Huang said. “We are seeking to eradicate poverty. That is not a five-year goal, that is a lifetime goal. There is no question that the persistence of generational poverty is one of the biggest obstacles for Alabama, and for other states in the deep South, for advancing and becoming a place of opportunity.”

The other is voting rights and the challenges to voting rights that the organization sees now.

English-Relf’s priorities include work against mass incarceration and protecting democracy and voting rights. She also wants to combat white nationalist groups, a priority of SPLC since its founding.

English-Relf plans to organize a coalition whose goal in the next few years is to build a coalition among different groups to raise the minimum wage and improve access to affordable housing. She also said she wants to ensure that funding allocated to schools reaches the students.

“I never like to look at it as, ‘what is the new civil rights,’” English-Relf said. “I like to look at it from this angle, ‘What do we do that was left undone from the modern civil rights movement?’”


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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.