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First Black woman SPLC board chair favors grassroots human rights work

In the house in Greenville, South Carolina, that Karen Baynes-Dunning calls home, a sunny room is scattered with squares and ribbons and swaths of fabric – strands of the vibrant quilts this native of the South crafts for the people she holds dear. 

Quilting might seem too quiet a pursuit for a woman who first became cognizant of racism as a kindergartener, who rallied for racial justice as a Black campus leader at a Southern university where the Confederate flag still flew and who, as a pathbreaking lawyer, judge, social justice activist and advocate for children and families, has dedicated her career to improving the quality of life of disadvantaged children.

But Baynes-Dunning, who this fall became the first Black woman elected chair of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s board of directors, has made a life of joining pieces together.

“She is always quilting, in both a literal and figurative way,” said Neil Stanley Henriques, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who has been a close friend of Baynes-Dunning since their freshman year at Wake Forest University. “She’s always knitting or stitching what seems to be jumbled or disparate or things that don’t fit together and finding a way to make them fit and unite them. So much of what her life’s work is about, quite frankly, is quilting. That’s who she is and that’s what she loves to do.”

In Baynes-Dunning’s new role at the head of the SPLC’s 13-member board, there is much stitching to be done. Since April 2020, when Margaret Huang moved from a leadership position at Amnesty International to take over as SPLC president and CEO, the organization has been reimagining its mission. Building on its half-century of landmark legal victories against discrimination, inequality and white supremacist groups, the SPLC is working more closely than ever in partnership with local communities, dedicating itself to supporting the ground-level work of grassroots organizers and evolving into a more powerful advocate than ever for human rights, civil rights and voting rights for all people.

That pace of change necessitates a leader capable of bringing board members, donors and staff together. It requires a leader steeped in an understanding of fiduciary oversight and legal responsibility. And it mandates a leader certain to make sure that board members are listening to each other and that different perspectives are heard, Huang said.

“No one has been more enthusiastic or more supportive of the SPLC’s move into local communities and our intentional engagement with communities of color in setting the agenda than Karen,” Huang said. “She believes in community organizing and she sees the value of having boots on the ground, eyes and ears, working in communities to address what their priorities are, but also helping to bring communities along so that we’re all moving in the same direction to achieve racial equality and social justice.”

‘No longer sitting in a bunker’

Baynes-Dunning has served in numerous leadership positions in the public and nonprofit sectors over the past 25 years, and she is no stranger to the SPLC. A board member for several years, she took on the role of interim president and CEO in 2019 after top leaders either resigned or were removed by the board in the wake of internal challenges. Serving for one year, she helped put the SPLC back on solid footing. On her last day she recalled her years as a high school track athlete in the 4-by-100-meter relay, figuratively handing off the baton to Huang.

Just a few years later, Baynes-Dunning says the SPLC under Huang has become the living embodiment of its founding ideals. It has new state offices in Mississippi and Alabama that are fostering deep connections to local communities. It is building a new outpost in Atlanta, Georgia, in partnership with local efforts to revitalize the community of which it is part. It has committed $100 million to its Vote Your Voice grant program to seed the efforts of dozens of grassroots organizations throughout the South fighting for voting rights and building community. The efforts, Baynes-Dunning said, are the signs of an organization truly reaching out, engaging and learning for justice.

“We are no longer sitting in a bunker deciding what’s best for communities,” Baynes-Dunning said. “We’re engaged with communities and finding out what communities want for themselves. And then we’re going about helping make it happen. It’s the SPLC that I always wanted it to be. And maybe that I didn’t even dream of. But now I see it can be a reality.”

Baynes-Dunning is herself the product of commitment to community. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised nearby in Silver Spring, Maryland, by parents who left the South seeking opportunity, she is formed nevertheless of the North Carolina countryside where her ancestors lived in slavery and her grandparents worked in servitude.

As a girl, Baynes-Dunning spent summers on her grandparents’ farm, learning to can vegetables, boil preserves and quilt, and being steeped in the proud history of her family.

Back at home in Silver Spring, Baynes-Dunning said she first became aware of racism as a child of 5 or 6. That year, her mother, a teacher, was seeking work.

“We were sitting at the dinner table, and she was talking about her job search, and she said I looked at her, and I said, ‘Well, I mean, you can come and work at my school. You can work in the kitchen!’ And she said it was one of these heart-wrenching, ‘what are we doing to our children’ moments. Because she knew I knew she was a teacher, but the only Black adult that I saw at my elementary school worked in the kitchen. And so, it was this opening discussion about race in America, and it never stopped.”

Taking on institutional racism

As a girl, Baynes-Dunning said she was never taught in school about Black history or about the way racism permeates American life. She learned through her church, through volunteering with her parents to bring meals to people experiencing hunger and through her friendship with a classmate whose parents had fostered and adopted a series of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. She learned it from her grandparents, who told her about working in the tobacco fields of North Carolina in their youth. And she learned it by reading the books her parents and community leaders gave her. Chief among these was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the searing memoir by poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou of the racism, poverty and rape she endured as a child.

Baynes-Dunning was drawn to Wake Forest when she discovered that Angelou was a professor of American studies there. At the university, she became a protege of the poet and a leader of the then-tiny Black student community. Like most Southern colleges and universities in those years, Wake Forest, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was steeped in glorification of the “Old South.” The biggest fraternity on campus annually raised the Confederate flag and burned an effigy of a Black man. In the library hung a portrait of Thomas Dixon, a Wake Forest alumnus whose book The Clansman became the basis of The Birth of a Nation, the infamous 1915 film that glorified racial terror during a period when the Ku Klux Klan was surging in membership.

Encouraged by Angelou, Baynes-Dunning spent a semester studying in Liberia. It was, she recalls, “life changing.”

When she came back, sporting an Afro and dashikis, Baynes-Dunning started to systematically take on racist policies at the school, people who were students at Wake Forest in those years recalled. When a fraternity raised the Confederate flag, she organized a group of students to unfurl a banner heralding South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. She confronted the university president on why the school had no Black studies program. Backed by Angelou, she got the university to back off a plan to establish an exchange program with the University of Cape Town, which was restricted to white students under apartheid.

Wake Forest didn’t establish an African American studies program until 2021, decades later than other elite colleges and universities. The program’s inaugural director and dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, Corey D.B. Walker, said there is a direct line from what he called the “pioneering, prophetic” efforts of Baynes-Dunning to finally making the program a reality.

Advocating for children

As a law student at the University of California Berkeley, Baynes-Dunning continued her activism, bringing to light, among other injustices, admissions policies that favored white applicants and those who had attended elite undergraduate schools.

Baynes-Dunning’s career since has been singularly focused on advocating for children and families.

In Fulton County, Georgia, she helped create and run the Court Appointed Special Advocates program to help find permanent placement for foster children. She became a juvenile court judge in the county, then a federal monitor overseeing reform in Georgia’s children and family services department. She led a special initiative in Alabama for an alternative to youth detention. She developed training and research at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to educate and influence policymakers about children and family issues. She was a national fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She taught at Emory University and the University of Alabama.

Kim Anderson, an Atlanta-based consultant who led Georgia’s oldest and largest leading nonprofit family service agency, and who works with the SPLC, said she has bonded with Baynes-Dunning not just professionally, but personally. Both intentionally adopted boys from the child welfare system. Both made a deliberate decision to take on work in the social services sector.

“Karen approaches the world always from a point of integrity, looking for what is needed to realize transformation,” Anderson said. “Everything she touches or does you can see the thread of what she stands for morally, what is in her heart, her background, her story. She is a person who is never going to forget their why.”

As her reputation as a deeply committed and successful advocate for families and children and for social justice in general grew, Baynes-Dunning came to the attention of Bryan Fair, a University of Alabama law professor who was on the board of the SPLC. Fair had gotten to know Baynes-Dunning when she was an associate professor at the university. Her leadership on child welfare and justice system issues and her deep experience with nonprofit management, he believed, would make her an asset to the organization.

Fair nominated Baynes-Dunning to the board and she joined in 2017, with Fair becoming board chair the next year, the first Black man to serve in the post. Baynes-Dunning quickly became active on several board committees, including governance and finance, and gained the respect of the entire board for her leadership and dedication, Fair said. Two years later, Baynes-Dunning became the person the SPLC turned to in its moment of crisis. She stepped down from the board, took over as interim president and CEO, and helmed the renewal of confidence and clarity of mission at the organization.

Fair said he is certain Baynes-Dunning will bring the same qualities to her new position as board chair that she did to the SPLC during those challenging days: belief in the dignity of all individuals, a strong tradition of faith and of service, a commitment to reducing inequality and injustice and a determination to promote the uplift of vulnerable people.

“Karen is an extraordinary person, and she has been an extraordinary leader,” Fair said. “With a strong board, with strong management, with effective personnel, with strong leadership in the state offices, the SPLC is set up to soar, to really thrive. I know Karen will work with her colleagues on the board who are similarly dedicated to assess our programs and to see where we are getting the greatest return on the investments that our donors have made. I expect her to be the finest board chair that the center has ever had.”

Photo at top: This fall, Karen Baynes-Dunning became the first Black woman elected chair of the SPLC’s board of directors. (Credit: Sydney A. Foster)