Lighting the Path: Meet LaShawn Warren, Our New EVP of Government Affairs
During the last reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, George W. Bush was president and Republicans controlled the U.S. House of Representatives. With these political dynamics at play, many doubted our ability to move legislation through one chamber — let alone to the president’s desk. Some openly pronounced that it would never happen. But that pronouncement did not factor in the fire, determination, and fierce commitment of a few civil rights attorneys working in coalition.
At the time, I was thrilled to head up a national campaign to renew the VRA at the American Civil Liberties Union. My colleagues and I understood the correlation between voting rights and opportunities for a better life for people of color — which only intensified our resolve. Reflecting on that time, my proudest moment after the VRA’s passage was not the White House signing ceremony, but the “thank you” I received from elders of Black and Brown communities throughout the South. Woven in our efforts, they saw our shared destiny and that of future generations.
We achieved that historic victory not as individuals, but by working across party and in coalition — and importantly, by working with common purpose: to ensure our democracy works for everyone. I see that victory reflected in the story of The Leadership Conference, which has worked in coalition to successfully coordinate the lobbying efforts on every major federal civil rights law since 1957.
As I prepare to lead The Leadership Conference’s Government Affairs team as the first African American woman to hold the position, I will lean on my lived experience, along with the experiences of so many who have suffered undue hardship, to inform my advocacy.
Growing up in a racially segregated city in the deep South, I had a front row seat to race and gender discrimination. As the granddaughter of sharecroppers, the niece of a Black farmer who was a party to Pigford v. Glickman, a class action racial discrimination lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture, the daughter of parents whose housing options were severely limited because of discriminatory redlining practices, and a student subject to a school desegregation busing plan, I don’t have to imagine what it means to have opportunities stolen because of racism and social inequities. I have lived it. My experience and faith fuel my belief that justice can and will prevail.
Looking to the future, if we are to create a society that places people above profit and honors the dignity and humanity of every person, three values must light our path: truth, courage, and persistence.
Embossed on my law school class t-shirt is a Bible verse: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” It serves as an enduring reminder that our talent, knowledge, time, and gifts are not for us alone, but should be used to uplift the beloved community — to make the world a better place. With this work comes a responsibility to speak truth even when it makes those across the table uncomfortable. People’s lives depend on our willingness to speak truth to power. It is our moral imperative.
During the height of the coronavirus surge, I received a call from one of my best friends who is a surgeon in a small town in Pennsylvania. She reminded me of her preexisting conditions that would complicate her survival if she contracted the virus. Despite the great risk to her life, she, like my sister and so many other first responders, put others first. Instead of running away from the crisis, they ran to it. As civil rights advocates, we too must run toward the crisis and exercise similar courage in these moments.
Today, we stand on the shoulders of civil rights giants who modeled that courageous leadership. From A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Arnold Aronson, and Dorothy Height to Wade Henderson, Laura Murphy, and Elaine Jones, they consistently challenged racialized narratives that desensitize those in power to the plight of marginalized communities. They modeled the bravery and conviction we must exhibit now.
Finally, we must be persistent in our pursuit of justice — in our quest to make the invisible visible. We are in the midst of a period of great social upheaval and economic change. As we have seen in recent weeks, the federal government is helping big businesses with an infusion of funding, while leaving behind communities that are suffering. This story of injustice — of wrong versus right — is as old as America itself. And yet, against all odds, the foot soldiers who marched before us chose to believe in a better nation. They persisted, and so must we. This moment calls for new approaches and moral responses. It is our opportunity to make right these deeply entrenched wrongs.
As I assume this role, the pandemic is disrupting nearly every aspect of American life — our health, employment, housing, food security, schools, houses of worship, businesses, voting, the justice system, immigration. The list goes on, but the full scale of the devastation has yet to be told. When the dust settles and we reflect back on this moment, we will ask ourselves whether we did all we could to build a more just, compassionate, and unified nation.
Some may doubt our ability to rebuild an America closer to our ideals. But the civil rights community knows what it means to take on the impossible. To stare down injustice. And to maintain hope in a grieving world. And with that same fire, determination, and fierce commitment that has fueled our fights before — together, in coalition, we will win.