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Destined to Lead: SPLC announces new Alabama state office director

For Tafeni English-Relf, the gathering in Talladega, Alabama, today was a trip back home to the red clay hills and quiet streets of her youth in the nearby town of Lincoln.

It was also the first step on a path forward as she was announced as the first director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new Alabama state office.

“I grew up in Talladega County, but that’s not the only reason we are doing the announcement here,” English-Relf said. “The focus of the Alabama office will still include the concerns of urban residents, but there will be a lot of attention given to smaller communities and the problems they face on a day-to-day basis.”

In the video: Tafeni English-Relf explains how the SPLC’s new Alabama state office will seek to “create lasting change.”

The new office is part of an expansion of the SPLC’s efforts to fight injustice and inequality across the South. It is the second state office, following the opening of one in Mississippi in May 2022. The goal is to build relationships and opportunities with grassroots and community organizations to help form a more powerful advocacy network to confront longstanding racial and economic inequities.

The establishment of the state offices marks a departure from the SPLC’s traditional role as an advocate in the courts and moves the organization toward partnerships with grassroots organizations to advocate in the political realm, for example, for equal access to educational opportunities, the ballot, work, food, child care, housing and medical treatment.

“It is the same overall strategy we have followed, which is really to have an entity add to the capacity of the SPLC and the things we are doing,” English-Relf said. “The interesting thing is that we will be intentional in focusing on state and local issues. We’ll be identifying issues specific to local communities that align with the SPLC’s larger agenda.”

SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang said the organization’s long-term goal is to establish state offices in each of the five states where it currently operates: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“We’ll probably launch Georgia next, then Louisiana in 2024,” Huang said. “Florida, because of its size, may take a little longer. We may have to set up three state offices there.”

English-Relf said the new state offices will help the SPLC integrate its efforts with the people who live in the small towns and communities across the South. One of her first jobs will be finding the right location for the physical state office, a task that is already underway.

“The issue is that we [SPLC] may not be talking about certain problems, but the people in the communities are,” English-Relf said. “If we don’t go to the communities, then we can’t bring that back to the SPLC. We’ll be working with local and state groups, like Alabama Forward. The point of the state office is to elevate these issues. Nothing happens in the rural communities that we aren’t talking about or aware of. We want to give a voice to people facing these issues.”

English-Relf takes on her new role after serving as the director of the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, where she will continue her duties as director. She first came to the SPLC in 1997 as a research analyst for the Intelligence Project, which monitors far-right extremists. She later worked in the organization’s Teaching Tolerance program (now Learning for Justice) before leaving for another civil rights organization and returning in 2019.

“It is our great fortune to have Tafeni’s extraordinary leadership at the helm of the SPLC’s first Alabama state office,” Huang said. “From advocate to organizer to community service provider, she has led in many roles throughout her career. What ties them all together is Tafeni’s passion for working in partnership with communities to support and develop her home state of Alabama.

“Tafeni has a profoundly personal connection to the Deep South, and she knows firsthand the spirit of generosity, resilience and movement-building that inspires the region. We’re thrilled to welcome her into this role.”

In her introduction of English-Relf, outgoing SPLC Chief of Staff and Culture Lecia Brooks, who retired in December but is assisting with the chief of staff transition, said English-Relf was “thrust into a position she was destined to hold. I am so thankful you waited for SPLC to catch up to you.”

Like Brooks, English-Relf’s mother, Melissa Britt, is excited but not surprised at her daughter’s groundbreaking new role.

“She has had a calling since she was a child,” Britt said. “Since she was 6 years old, she has had an angel watching over her path.”

Picture at top: Tafeni English-Relf, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Alabama state office, said the office will focus on “identifying issues specific to local communities that align with the SPLC’s larger agenda.” (Credit: Sydney Foster)