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Passing the Torch: SPLC welcomes new chief of staff and culture

What to do when your irreplaceable right-hand partner, sounding board, wise and honest counsel with deep institutional knowledge tells you she plans to retire after nearly 20 years with the Southern Poverty Law Center? And at a time of change and expansion as the 52-year-old organization implements a new strategic framework to respond to growing far-right extremism and deep racial inequities in the South?

That was SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang’s predicament last summer when Lecia Brooks, who joined the SPLC in 2004 and held the position of chief of staff and culture since 2020, gave Huang the news.

“When Lecia initially told me she was going to retire, I didn’t think I could replace the extraordinary skill set she has,” Huang recalled. “Lecia is well known, respected and trusted throughout the organization by everyone from the legal assistants, to the security guards, to the members of the executive team.”

To fill the position, Huang sought a leader who has experience managing culture change and developing strong leadership teams. This leader will also spearhead the organization’s implementation of the new strategic framework, facilitating cross-department collaboration in the work to advance the human rights of all people in the South. And Huang sought someone who – like Brooks – could be her honest adviser and partner, someone she “could bounce ideas off of and also tell me when I’m making a mistake.”

That search led to Jamaal “J.K.” Nelson, a leadership and organizational development expert with a background that includes movement-building, civil rights and statewide congressional campaigns. He is also an ordained Baptist minister.

“I was very impressed with him during our first chat,” Huang said. “He has an intense way of listening. It’s a fascinating, compelling life skill. He also asks provocative questions that stem from a genuine interest in understanding and knowing the people he’s working with.”

Nelson joined the SPLC before Christmas. He describes his new position as a “convergence of opportunity and yearning” and “an amazing, life-changing calling.”

“With the rise of hate and extremism over the past seven or eight years, I really wanted to be part of the movement against the dehumanization of people who are different,” Nelson said. “There was an aching in my heart to fight this.

“There are few organizations in the South that are better positioned to fight extremism and advance an agenda of the right to full humanity of each person.”

Getting in sync

Nelson’s responsibilities reflect Huang’s vision of his role as the SPLC integrates a new strategic framework across the organization. That framework will focus the SPLC’s work on key issues including fighting hate and extremism, promoting democracy and civil rights, and pursuing legal, immigrant and economic justice on behalf of Black and Brown communities. Nelson will ensure that all SPLC work is aligned with these goals. He will also support the organization’s efforts to apply the principles of racial equity throughout all areas of work.

Understanding that the organization must address the situation of Black people in the South due to their community’s unique, historic institutional disadvantages, Nelson seeks to prevent the organization from having what Huang calls “a sole-track vision” of its work.

“We have to think about different identities and how they are impacted by an action we might take,” Huang said. “We have to ask ourselves what is the most equitable means to help all communities.”

Nelson compares the complexities of his new role to jazz.

“Margaret’s vision sets the tone, the melody. She has this clear vision. You know it’s Coltrane, but you need the entire team to take the brilliance and amplify it. My job is to make sure everyone is in sync with that beautifully harmonic vision, to make sure we have alignment on where we are going and how we get there.”

In practice, this means, for example, that for the first time in its history, the SPLC will hold its own events during the large Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which from March 3-5 will commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A sponsor of the Jubilee, the SPLC will host panels, workshops and a John Lewis wreath-laying event at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery on the Friday and Saturday prior to the March 5 reenactment of the crossing of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Huang will again lead SPLC staff members across the bridge, as she did last year for the first time.

In planning the SPLC’s Jubilee events, Nelson said, “We are thinking, how do we look back at the people of the civil rights movement of the past, such as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Fannie Lou Hamer, and how do we look forward to the future of Selma and Montgomery and the infinite opportunity for our movement.

“I say we have to rethink how we tell the story. Margaret’s vision is to showcase our partnerships, not just marquee names but the grassroots organizations on the ground. The SPLC can amplify the incredible work happening in the community.”

Lecia Brooks’ lasting impact

Lecias Brooks
Lecia Brooks, pictured during the SPLC’s 50 Forward event in Atlanta last year, has retired after nearly 20 years with the organization. “Lecia is the one person besides me who knew everything I do and could jump on anything I could,” says Margaret Huang, the SPLC’s president and CEO. (Credit: Mhandy Gerard/SPLC)

Brooks’ stamp on the SPLC is deeply ingrained in the SPLC’s accomplishments over the past two decades. She retires at a time of stability that she helped cement after the departures of an SPLC co-founder and president in 2019, and through interim leadership and the installation of Huang as permanent president and CEO in April 2020 early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Huang requested that Brooks stay on as chief of staff – adding the word “culture” to the title to reflect Huang’s emphasis on forging a safe and inclusive workplace culture – she agreed to stay another year. (Brooks retired from full-time service on Dec. 16, 2022, but is assisting with the chief of staff transition.)

Over the past three years, Brooks has been integral to the creation and implementation of the major initiatives Nelson inherits.

From Brooks’ first role as director of the SPLC’s Mix It Up program in 2004; to founding director of the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center between 2005 and 2019; launching the organization’s commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) principles and affinity groups; overseeing the adoption of the monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) initiative; the opening of the Mississippi office; the creation of the new strategic framework; and the successful completion of the organization’s first collective bargaining agreement in 2022, Brooks helped to transform the SPLC.

“I have had so many opportunities here,” she reflected recently. “Like speaking at the U.N. in December in Geneva. … I was appointed to open the Civil Rights Memorial Center only a few months after I arrived. I’ll be ever grateful to Richard [Cohen, former SPLC president] for that tremendous honor. There has been such monumental change in the organization since I came – growing from about 125 employees to over 400 now.

“And to work for a woman [Huang] was a game changer. And a woman of color! Over the years I had ideas I wanted to implement, but it was a woman who said, ‘Go for it! How can I support you? How can we work together to make this happen?’”

As Brooks looked back over the long arc of her time at the SPLC, she recalled one particular experience that she will never forget: attending the Alabama state execution of Thomas Whisenhant, the last SPLC death row client, in May 2010. The organization had spent 23 years representing Whisenhant, arguing that because he was insane, the state should not execute him.

“It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done,” Brooks said. “I didn’t want Richard to go alone. We sat with him the afternoon before he was killed, and then we watched his execution.”

“It’s time to retire,” Brooks said. “… I want to make room for new leadership. J.K. has a very calm disposition. He is warm and welcoming. He is someone empathic to the needs of the staff and will champion the CEO so she can focus on our strategic goals.”

In their mutual admiration, Huang described the rare relationship between the two.

“Lecia is the one person besides me who knew everything I do and could jump on anything I could. She kept the trains running. I’m truly excited to begin the next phase of the SPLC’s work with Jamaal’s leadership and guidance.”

Picture at top: Jamaal Nelson, a leadership and organizational development expert with a background that includes movement-building, civil rights and statewide congressional campaigns, is the SPLC's new chief of staff and culture. (Contributed by Jamaal Nelson)