Working With the People: Community engagement defines SPLC’s new Alabama state office director
When a series of devastating tornadoes hit Alabama last month, Tafeni English-Relf had been director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new state office for just five weeks. With space not yet chosen for the new operation, she was still shuttling between her former digs at SPLC headquarters and her home.
But English-Relf is not the type who waits for office furniture to arrive before getting to work. Less than 12 hours after the twisters hit central Alabama, she was in Selma, the flashpoint of the civil rights movement. Wending her way through live wires, past collapsed buildings, overturned cars and metal roofing wrapped around telephone poles by violent winds, she said her heart was heavy and her thoughts were racing with the urgency of need in a city she loves.
Three days later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, English-Relf was back in Selma with a plan. She brought two other SPLC senior leaders, 400 bottles of water and a list of action items for the SPLC: to allocate thousands of dollars to aid efforts, provide free legal services and set up mobile mental health clinics for displaced residents. She would also organize donations and take them weekly to Selma and other areas of the state where the tornadoes caused horrific loss of life and property.
“Immediately, I thought about the (Hurricane) Katrina catastrophe and how long a recovery that has been. I thought, we won’t wait for help,” English-Relf said. “We are going to be stepping up in Selma early and quick. We are going to be there to provide to the community and residents. Aside from addressing the needs for toiletries and food and water, the necessities that they need right now, we are also really going to be working to add to their resilience. Because the people are very hopeful that this will be an opportunity to get it right for Selma, and for Alabama.”
In this video: Margaret Huang, SPLC president and CEO, discusses the Alabama state office at the announcement of its new director, Tafeni English-Relf, on Feb. 7, 2023, in Talladega, Alabama. (Credit: Hillary Andrews/SPLC)
A collaborative model
Getting it right for Alabama. That may be the best possible distillation of English-Relf’s goals for the SPLC’s Alabama state office.
The SPLC is not a relief organization. The federal and state governments and the American Red Cross, along with other large-scale disaster response organizations, will be the major players in managing the immediate needs of the regions devastated by the storms.
The SPLC’s Alabama state office is designed to bring a different sort of relief to places like Selma. Employing a collaborative model that the storied 52-year-old racial justice organization has been developing over the past several years, the office under English-Relf’s leadership will partner with established local advocacy and community organizations to get it right for Alabama over the long term.
The office is the second of several planned by the SPLC to be grounded in that collaborative model. The first SPLC state office opened in Mississippi in May 2022 and has become a launching pad for training grassroots advocates, partnering with community organizations and confronting a variety of struggles facing the state, including the water crisis in Jackson that is steeped in systemic racism.
Among other challenges in Mississippi are the hurdles facing formerly incarcerated people in regaining their rights and their place in communities as well as the systemic oppression against Black and Brown populations through unequal access to educational opportunities, the ballot, work, food, child care, housing and medical treatment.
The challenges in Alabama are bound to overlap those of Mississippi, English-Relf said. But they are also bound to diverge.
To find out how, the SPLC in the coming months will commission a survey of tens of thousands of residents in every Alabama county. Focus groups will meet to discuss pressing issues, and staff members will knock on doors and solicit input and advice from a broad range of community organizations of all kinds and sizes.
English-Relf will talk to community leaders about the best place to locate the office. One thing is for sure, she said: It will be neither in Montgomery nor Birmingham, but rather somewhere in rural Alabama, where the needs are most pressing.
Within a year, English-Relf plans to hire grassroots organizers and bring on interns from historically Black colleges and universities. All the while, she and her staff will be in constant contact with local advocates who know their own neighborhoods and the challenges they face.
That sort of commitment, said SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang, will help not only to meet the needs of communities, but to influence the work of the SPLC at the state and national levels.
“The idea behind each of our state offices is that the SPLC is not an entity unto itself,” Huang said. “It is a part of the community that we seek to serve. It is strengthened by connections to people in the community. And so, in the aftermath of this tornado, our mission is not just to help in the immediate relief effort but to think about – long term – what Selma, what Autauga County, what other parts of Alabama need to become flourishing, vibrant communities where people see opportunities for growth, for families, for education, for businesses. To make that happen, we have to be part of the community.”
Who better to shepherd that mission than a woman born and bred in a small town in the northeastern part of the state, whose personal story is one of resilience, courage and triumph, and so much grit that in 2020 she started her own weekly podcast with the acronym B GRITS? The name stands for English-Relf’s target audience, and for her own experience: Black Girls Raised in the South.
“Here’s the thing,” said English-Relf, speaking on a video call mashed into one of her typically crushing workdays. “We can read tons of research about what the issues are, from an academic standpoint, right? But no one knows community more than the ones who are living in the communities that we’re researching and talking about. It is those voices, those who are impacted by the issues in the community, who will tell us not what the issues are – we know what the issues are – but how we can help them take the lead on solving problems.”
English-Relf, 48, knows something about solving problems. She has been working odd jobs since she was a young teenager. Her mother and father labored at a mill, and her mother also worked in between as a housekeeper in the grand lakeside houses of white families in Lincoln, the small town where English-Relf grew up.
At the church right across the street from the childhood home where her big family worshipped (English-Relf has 12 aunts and uncles on her mother’s side alone, as well as three siblings) she absorbed lessons about charity and the pursuit of justice.
At her high school, a favorite teacher – an accomplished Black woman – would take Black girls aside “and remind us of who we were,” English-Relf said. “‘Don’t let people talk down to you,’ she would say. ‘Don’t.’ Her message to us was, ‘We paved the way so that you wouldn’t have to experience this discrimination or this racism.’”
An aunt, Sadie Britt, became a role model for English-Relf. Always impeccably dressed and coiffed, Britt taught at the same elementary school English-Relf attended and kept a watchful eye on her. When Britt retired from teaching after 30 years, she ran for Lincoln City Council and won. She was instrumental in revamping the city’s public library. In 2015, she became the first Black woman and only the fourth woman to serve as president of the Alabama League of Municipalities.
“What I learned from her was that you don’t have to wait for people to give you space if you know where you want to be,” English-Relf said. “Work toward it. Put your name in the hat. Work with people. If they say something that upsets you, just take a breath. Just get stuff done.”
‘A lifelong learner’
After high school, English-Relf enrolled at Troy University in Troy, Alabama. There, she formed close bonds with other young women, who became her sorority sisters and lifelong friends. English-Relf came to rely on those friendships when, as a second-year student, she experienced a life-altering tragedy. Her younger brother, still in high school, was killed by a wayward bullet.
“Something like that really shakes you to your core, but she was able to persist,” said Maranda Griffin, who roomed with English-Relf their first year at college and has been her friend ever since.
Today, Griffin is an associate dean at Walden University, an online institution.
“She became a model to her mother, to her family members, with her commitment, with her determination that even when you are struck by tragedy, that you get to decide whether you are going to persist and show up and be strong.”
The challenges didn’t end there. Motivated during college by the desire for financial stability, English-Relf earned a degree in marketing. But she hated the world of retail. As a young single mother, she enrolled at Troy again, this time for a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. Several nights a week, living in Montgomery and commuting to Troy for classes, she would pack a big diaper bag and take her infant daughter over to Griffin’s house for the evening, Griffin recalled, then make the hourlong drive to the university.
“She’s a lifelong learner, and she comes from a family of very strong women,” Griffin said. “She would come to my house with the baby, and she would come and get her after 9 p.m. She was working the whole time. She was persevering through that.”
At age 22, working at a temporary employment agency, English-Relf followed a friend’s advice and applied for a job in a research library at the SPLC. It was supposed to be a temporary gig, organizing the card catalogue, sorting books by subject matter and combing through files, she said. But English-Relf was tapped to stay on. Over the next 10 years, she was promoted again and again. She has worked as a research analyst for the organization’s Intelligence Project, which tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups and other far-right extremists. She has also worked as the community coordinator for the Teaching Tolerance project, which is now known as Learning for Justice. What’s more, she served as the first director of Learning for Justice’s Mix It Up at Lunch Day program, where students are asked to sit with someone new in the school cafeteria to help foster welcoming school environments for all students.
In 2007, English-Relf left the SPLC to work at the Central Alabama Fair Housing Center (CAFHC), coordinating outreach into communities where Black and Brown people often found themselves unjustly denied opportunities to rent or buy properties. Faith Cooper, director of the center for much of the 11 years English-Relf held positions there, described English-Relf’s work as “remarkable.”
When she first started working for CAFHC, English-Relf was tasked with directing would-be renters or homebuyers to chronicle potential discriminatory practices. Cooper recalled one instance when English-Relf investigated a complaint against a landlord accused of sexually harassing female renters. Without hesitation, she said, English-Relf jumped in to locate and interview women who had rented from the landlord. Later, English-Relf liaised with community groups, and worked with municipal officials to bolster fair housing laws. Eventually she became director of the center.
During the same period, English-Relf founded her own nonprofit, Eve’s Circle, dedicated to helping teenage girls navigate societal challenges and pressures.
‘Vision of a better future’
In 2019, English-Relf was snapped back up by the SPLC, returning as director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC), the interpretive center for the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors the martyrs of the movement and illuminates the ongoing struggle for racial justice. A series of innovative exhibits, events, lectures and panel discussions English-Relf brought to the center has helped raise its profile and hone its mission.
In heading the CRMC, English-Relf expanded its reach far beyond what was on its walls, Huang said.
“She spoke about the importance of having interactive, cultural pieces that enabled both the audience and witnesses to participate and to feel like the experience of the art was personal as well as collective,” Huang recalled of remarks English-Relf delivered at the opening of the Blank Slate Monument, a statue that was placed outside the CRMC, conceived as a figurative protest to the United States’ Confederate monuments. “She said her job was to ask, how do you pull people into the spaces and give them a chance to express themselves and their vision of a better future?”
As articulated by English-Relf, that vision embodies her goals for the new Alabama state office. It also mirrors the vision of the SPLC – not just to engage with local organizations, but to use that engagement to make progress on the SPLC’s concrete goals of eradicating poverty, of pushing back against hate, of decarcerating Black and Brown people, and of strengthening democracy.
“It’s about credibility,” Huang said. “When we come to Washington and we talk about what’s needed in Alabama, it’s not just us sitting in our big, fancy headquarters in Montgomery. We’re actually bringing voices and priorities of communities we serve. And then when we go and talk with our partners. It’s not just us, the SPLC. It’s, how can we leverage additional support and engagement from federal government actors, from state actors, even increasingly from international actors, so that people on the ground feel seen and heard by those who are making decisions?”
Photo at top: Tafeni English-Relf appears in Talladega, Alabama, at an event announcing her as the director of the SPLC's Alabama state office. “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,” she said. (Credit: Hillary Andrews/SPLC)