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Partners for Justice: New head of SPLC’s Mississippi office works to strengthen alliances with grassroots organizations

Waikinya Clanton was born decades after the civil rights movement swept across her home state of Mississippi. But that didn’t mean much in the town of Canton, where she grew up. She was a high school kid heading home early from school when she came across a scene straight out of her grandparents’ nightmares – the Ku Klux Klan marching on the town square.

“This was not 1950-anything. This was not the 1960s. This was in the 2000s when the Klan, with white sheets and hoods, walked down the streets of Canton,” she said. “It was almost like a fear tactic, like it was just to remind us that they were there. Even in this new millennium, history was still repeating itself.”

Clanton has been motivated by the memory of that day ever since.

“It was something that I never wanted to witness again in my life,” Clanton said. “And I think unbeknownst to me, it kind of helped push me to this fight that I’m in now.”

Clanton left Mississippi years ago to push for equal access on a larger stage. She rose to become an experienced Washington political operative, holding leadership roles with the Democratic National Committee and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. But all that, she says, was a prelude to the most important stage of all – her return this year to her home state, as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi state office director.

The collaborative approach Clanton has brought to Mississippi since her arrival in July is providing a roadmap for the SPLC throughout the Deep South as, under new leadership, the organization has reimagined its mission and vision 50 years after its founding.

A new model

“The Mississippi office is the pilot in what we hope will be a model for state offices going forward,” said SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks. “We want to work more explicitly and intentionally in partnership with the people within our Southern states in the service of our mission to dismantle white supremacy. To work in true partnership, we need to be deeply and fervently connected with the power of the people to create change.”

While working in Washington, Clanton became familiar with the SPLC’s reputation for marshaling skilled legal teams to fight for justice in the courts.

As a daughter of Mississippi, where racial injustice is still woven into the fabric of daily life more than a half century after the civil rights movement, Clanton is convinced that leaving the national political scene to head the SPLC’s Mississippi office will help the organization enhance its impact.

Clanton returns to Mississippi at a pivotal moment, when resurging white nationalism is challenging the fundamental underpinnings of democracy. Her new post puts her squarely in line with the mission of the SPLC today: to build on its landmark legal victories against discrimination, inequality and white supremacist groups by working more closely than ever in partnership with local communities.

“People feel abandoned in places like Mississippi, so the SPLC sees this as a unique opportunity to make sure that we are showing up not only as allies of the people in these communities but also as accomplices in a lot of the work that needs to be done,” Clanton said. “That means investing in organizing the grassroots, and by boosting communities to do the long-term work.”

To jumpstart the Mississippi effort, the SPLC this summer commissioned a survey of tens of thousands of residents in all of the state’s 82 counties. Nine focus groups met repeatedly to discuss pressing issues, while staff members knocked on more than 13,000 doors and collected responses from more than 4,000 people.

The responses clarified the variety of struggles facing the state – from the challenges of formerly incarcerated people in regaining their rights and their place in communities to the systemic oppression against Black and Brown populations through unequal access to educational opportunities, the ballot, work, food, child care, housing and medical treatment.

“It’s about changing the culture of a place,” Clanton said. “It’s about really getting in and figuring out how we fight systemic racism and actually making sure that we’re making the type of change so that people can see growth in their daily lives.”

The daughter of a minister, Clanton, 35, understands the lasting legacy of racism. There were just two white students in her graduating class at her public high school. Most of the white children, she said, went to the private school on the other side of town.

In the days leading up to that Ku Klux Klan march, Clanton said her mother told her not to go.

“People said, just ignore it, don’t give it any air,” Clanton said. “But there was this little person, me, who thought it was important to see. I remember just watching it, my eyes following the rally with my eyes, in complete disbelief.”

A life of advocacy

Seeking to make significant social change toward justice and equity, Clanton attended Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she became an activist and built a life of political advocacy while earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with an emphasis on pre-law. She was a key Capitol Hill aide to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Along the way, she earned an MBA from the University of Phoenix.

Later, she became national executive director of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, where from 2013 to 2017 she led efforts that fueled electoral victories for Black women. From 2017 to July of this year, she was the senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee chair. What’s more, she worked as a plus-size model for Eloquii and participated in several billboard campaigns for Sephora. She also served as an equity adviser on race, gender, policy and public engagement for Nextdoor and Sephora.

But her goal was always to come back home. In Mississippi, she said, she can drive long-term structural change.

To start, Clanton plans to beef up the Mississippi office’s 14-person staff by placing organizers around the state. Each will be tasked with working closely with local groups.

Along with the new staff, Clanton is co-leading the SPLC’s Advocacy Institute, a training ground for new organizers across the state, focused on community education and transformative change, with the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group. A curriculum being designed for the institute will include lessons on how to advocate for change through protest, lobbying and organizing.

‘Ground zero for change’

The Mississippi SPLC operation is also working to develop new partnerships with established advocacy organizations across the state. Among them is the Southern regional office of the Children’s Defense Fund, based in Jackson, where director Oleta Fitzgerald is eager to get to work with the SPLC.

“The racial animus that is out there has emboldened Southern states and Southern politicians in a way that is breathtaking,” Fitzgerald said. “There are a myriad of pressing issues that we face and that we can’t respond to in the way that we normally have. We don’t have the benefit of time. So we’ve got to figure out how to work together.”

Clanton has no intention of wasting a minute. She says her goal is to make the SPLC’s Mississippi office “ground zero for change and innovation.”

“Growing up here, you see a lot. You see a lot that can either cripple you or empower you,” Clanton said. “I took a lot of the things that I witnessed, and I was motivated by them. I was motivated to change them. I saw leaving as a way to expand my skills, and to bring them back home.”

Photo: Waikinya Clanton is the director of the SPLC’s Mississippi office. (Courtesy of Waikinya Clanton)