Reflecting on My First Year as President and CEO of The Leadership Conference
By Maya Wiley
It’s been one year. One year ago today, the board of The Leadership Conference honored me with the opportunity to lead. One year ago to the day the draft opinion that robbed us of the fundamental right to abortion — the first fundamental right taken away by the Court in the history of our nation. One year ago we were reeling from — as we still are — the rise of murderous hate. More recently we saw a traumatizing video of Tyre Nichols being beaten and the historic criminal indictment of a former president. I could go on. It’s been quite a year.
It may seem strange in the midst of the dangers to our democracy we collectively face, but as I reflect on my first year I want to express my gratitude for this role. I feel deep gratitude for this powerful coalition — the nation’s oldest and largest — at the heart of the civil rights movement and the privilege of the collective wisdom and tenacious work the coalition represents! Even in the midst of what seems like so much darkness, I have been moved and inspired by the determination and strength of our communities and the accomplishments in the midst of the madness.
Our coalition, which includes more than 230 national organizations, has been a brave defender of our core values and civil rights since long before my tenure. This coalition has always shown up for each other. As bookends on the year, I watched us all show up to shout in support of our front line members that abortion is a fundamental right. Legacy civil rights groups responded to the needs and asks of the reproductive health and freedom community. And just last week, we showed up for a spurious and distracting attack on our educators in a ridiculous hearing on COVID school closures. We came together to support the American Federation of Teachers and Randi Weingarten and to demand discussion of resources to public schools rather than fear mongering and distraction.
We cannot ignore the fact that we are living in a challenging and dangerous period in our history. The same forces that conspired to end the federal right to abortion are also attempting to prevent people of color, those living in poverty, and people with disabilities from voting. These forces seek to roll back our civil and human rights and deny us the freedom to shape our communities and futures.
But I’m grateful for this year because our coalition fought for and won important reforms despite the forces and fears stoked to undermine our civil and human rights.
Because extreme Supreme Court justices turned back the clock on our right to make personal health care decisions, our coalition fought for and won, with renewed urgency, workplace protections for pregnant people — and we know the fight is in the states and we will continue to engage our people in building the power of showing up at the polls to fight for our rights.
Because every person in America should have the right to be with the person they love, our coalition fought for and won federal marriage equality protections — and we will continue working to ensure that LGBTQ people in every zip code are equal citizens under law and fully protected from discrimination. This includes gender-affirming care, being able to say “gay,” and for every student to read and learn from great books on LGBTQ identity, race, and history.
Because working people are under attack, particularly but not only public sector workers, we are showing up and calling out efforts to blame workers for problems politicians have created.
Because our country has one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet due to a system designed to criminalize poverty, our coalition fought for and won commonsense reforms to predatory prison phone rates charged to incarcerated people and their loved ones — and we will continue fighting to transform the American criminal-legal system and to implement a new paradigm for public safety that respects the humanity, dignity, and human rights of all people. We will say their names to demand we have no new names to add to that infamous list of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ernie Serrano, Tyre Nichols, and far too many others.
Because our communities depend on federal judges and Supreme Court justices to fairly administer justice for all of us, our coalition fought for and won confirmation of professionally and demographically diverse federal judges who are committed to our rights. In front of the Court this term, we rallied and fought to protect affirmative action in higher education, voting rights, and student debt cancellation, and we mobilized a multi-state and multi-stakeholder campaign to meet each challenge because we know the impact these decisions could have on all of us. As we await the Court’s decisions in these and other cases, we will work with our coalition to ensure that we do not lose the basic rights that the Court will be weighing in on. We know that — no matter what — our coalition and our movement will remain united and will continue fighting for the future our communities deserve.
And because we know voters of color are disenfranchised more than any other community, we are working across states to engage and empower Black, Latino, Asian, Native, and youth voters ahead of next year’s election.
I want to also reflect on how we can lean in more inclusively with our coalition. We know that Black women and trans people of color are deeply endangered by the attack on reproductive justice. But we also know that 48 percent of Latinas live in states banning abortion. We know that 26 percent of adults are people with disabilities and the life and death implications of limiting or ending abortion access is life threatening in a way we have to shout about. As we see the rise in hate and bias, we know antisemitism is rising dangerously and that we have to move to be responsive to the rise in hate against AAPI and other communities.
With all the challenges our very democracy faces, it is the power of all of us fighting side by side that gives us tremendous power. This means that I’m energized to build on our collective power for our shared future.
We will continue to urge Congress and the courts to do the right thing and to reflect the rights of all our people. And looking forward to the next year, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with our full coalition to use all the tools at our government’s disposal to protect people. Because we know how to fight, we’ll continue to urge the administration to finalize Title IX regulations, implement the president’s executive orders on policing and voting access, and continue its efforts to make civil rights a priority in AI policy — which The Leadership Conference has been successfully advocating for.
Because the forces of fear are attacking our voice and our power by driving division, we will be the antidote to those superspreaders. The war on “woke” is a war on democracy that insidiously serves forces of hate. Just two weeks ago, we published a report finding that hate crimes have spiked during each of the last four presidential cycles. Unless we take action, we can expect to see more leading up to and during the 2024 election. The extremist right has been allowed to enter the political mainstream and unfounded conspiracy theories have spread, with some public officials amplifying and sponsoring hate.
We don’t give up. We never have and we won’t now. As a coalition, we are educating the public, moving policy, and building relationships to prevent hate crimes and to create safe communities where everyone has the freedom to exist as they are and the opportunities they need to succeed.
Some politicians think they can pit us against each other to take away our freedoms and get away with it. They’re wrong. We are the majority in this country, and together we will confront and expose hate, fight to create an inclusive and multiracial democracy, and protect one another. We will not let anyone silence us or tell us that we are “too woke.” This is just a dog whistle for being too Black, too LGBTQ+, too pro-union, and too much in favor of voting rights and safe schools for our children. We will use our collective power, enhanced by the strength of our coalition, to fight back against these attacks, and we will do so as a united movement for change.
I am humbled by the support of our incredible staff, by the support from leaders in these vital fights for our coalition, and by everyone who has stood with us over the past year — and I look forward to continuing this important work together. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is committed to an America as good as its ideals, and I am proud to be a part of this vital mission with all of you.
Maya Wiley is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.