Judith Browne Dianis of The Advancement Project: Moving The Cause of Racial Justice Forward For The 21st Century
Attorney Judith Browne Dianis has been one of our nation’s most vital pioneering voices for racial justice for over two decades. Her exceptional record as an experienced civil rights litigator and racial justice advocate in the areas of voting, education, housing, and immigrants’ rights; have significantly impacted the national dialogue within the field of civil rights for all races.
On December 12, 2012, Browne Dianis testified at a historical Senate hearing, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights; regarding the effort towards “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” As she reflected on the historical significance of the hearings, Dianis shared:
“for years, we have been toiling in the vineyards on this issue; making changes at the local level, and now, it is finally reaching the federal level.
We must give credit to the Obama Administration for moving this issue. It was a moment for me to see Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder participating in a joint press conference in order to announce the formation of a joint task force between The U.S. Department of Education and The U.S. Department of Justice in order to tackle dismantling the pipeline.”
Along with other prominent voices and veteran laborers in the struggle, such as; Congressman Bobby Scott, Congressman Danny Davis, Judge Steven Teske, Attorney General Mike DeWine, and others; Browne Dianis shared powerful and insightful perspectives regarding dismantling the pipeline at its very roots by confronting, what she characterizes as “exclusionary disciplinary” practices such as zero tolerance as well as harsh and highly punitive suspension and expulsion policies implemented by school divisions across the nation.
As Co-Director of Advancement Project, Browne Dianis states that, “the Advancement Project is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization, founded in 1999 by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers.
With offices in California and a national office in Washington, DC. The Advancement Project expands on the traditional litigation model of lawyering because it is no longer effective to move current civil rights issues forward. Instead, we have adopted the practice of “community lawyering”; which
focuses on supporting grassroots organizations, changing institutions, dismantling structural racism, and influencing public opinion, along with the litigation piece.”
She went on to share how she became involved in the suspension and exclusion disparity issue within the public school system, while working with a group of parents and students in the Mississippi Delta. Her experiences also referenced an incident in Decatur, IL., where several African-American male students faced extremely harsh disciplinary actions for what amounted to a minor brawl at a football game. The students were suspended for two years for their actions. The harsh sentence levied by the school district ignited outrage at the local and national levels.
As the author of the highly acclaimed report, “Opportunities Suspended and Derailed: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track,” Browne Dianis provides a comprehensive perspective regarding several contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline, including the criminalization of students by school districts. She shares that students with exceptional needs are disproportionately impacted because “schools do not do what they are suppose to do. They jump to discipline the child and do not look at the IEP. As a result, suspensions are not related to safety violations, but what is convenient for adults.”
She goes on to share that, “we are in this era of test and punish, which creates incentives for teachers to push the students out in order to keep their jobs. There are also some adults that totally over react, do not know the student’s culture, and simply cannot relate to them. There are “George Zimmermans” on the street as well as in the classroom. Implicit bias can play an enormous role in the classroom unless there are clearly defined rules for everyone.”
Throughout her tenure, Browne Dianis observes that there has been progress. She emphasized that the national discourse regarding “zero tolerance” practices has dramatically changed over the years. The paradigm shift of school districts no longer embracing “zero tolerance,” and being open to transparency and dialogue regarding their disciplinary practices signifies the level of progress that has been made. She attributes this to the fact that, “schools understand the detrimental impacts that zero tolerance has on young people, and this has moved school administrators to explore other options.” She also stated that, “some school districts are taking the initiative to change codes of conduct, implement alternatives for non-safety related violations, create more graduated consequence systems, revisit the discussion of the roles of police within schools, and put common sense back into discipline, as well as involving all of the stakeholders, (parents, students, educators, community members,) in that process.”
The Advancement Project has taken a hands-on approach to supporting school districts, grassroots organizations, and others; in an effort to cultivate change that is ignited locally and expands to the federal level. The organization has assisted both, Denver and Baltimore City Schools in rewriting their codes of conduct, as well as helping them to secure grant funding for implementing Restorative Justice methods to decrease suspensions and expulsions. Browne Dianis states that their goal is to empower communities by, “educating the public using the data, while putting a face on the issues.”
Their efforts appear to be highly effective. Based on the most recent data for Baltimore City Schools, the graduation rate for black males has increased by 12.4% from 2006-2010. The overall graduation rate for the district has increased by 10% during the same period. Overall district suspensions have decreased from 16,500 to 9,721 within the last three years. In Denver, Colorado, where they achieved the landmark passing of a model disciplinary policy, out-of-school suspensions are down by 25.7% over a five year period and expulsions are down by 48.8%.
While Browne Dianis could easily rest on her laurels; having served as a Tobias Simon Eminent Scholar, Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, having been named as one of the “Thirty Women To Watch” by Essence Magazine, as well as having been a media commentator on race and civil rights issues for MSNBC and CNN, she has no intention of doing so. On the contrary, in response to what the future holds, she states, “we have a long way to go, but we are trending in the right directions. We are turning toward schools nurturing students, not criminalizing them. The state of Maryland is working with us to tackle this issue. When we start to see states start to tip, young people will have a chance.”