Janai Nelson knows that patience pays off

Janai Nelson is at the forefront of building a more just and equitable America. As the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), she oversees the country’s most storied and ambitious legal organization fighting for racial justice. The LDF was founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first Black Supreme Court Justice, and in the years since the organization has spearheaded landmark cases fighting for inclusivity like the landmark Brown v. Board of Education and Veasey v. Abbott, a 2018 case led by Nelson that successfully overturned a restrictive voter ID law in Texas. 

We talked to Nelson about failure, the last great book she read, and a historical figure she thinks is wildly underappreciated. 

What’s your superpower?

Boundless imagination paired with a work plan. So I can think very creatively, but also bring it down to earth and think about practical execution.

Share a time when you did the right thing, not the easy thing?

When I returned to the Legal Defense Fund. I had just gotten tenure and was an administrator at a law school. And I was invited to come back as the number two of the Legal Defense Fund and that was not an easy thing. But it was the right thing. Absolutely the right thing to do.

When did you last fail? What did you learn?

I don’t believe in failure. I certainly don't get things right all the time by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't really believe in failure. I think that people make missteps, they miscalculate, they misjudge, and they learn. And you do better next time.

What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

My text messages. [Laughs] Just to see if there are any fires to put out and to see if there's anything urgent happening in the world that I need to attend to. 

What widely held and commonly accepted truth is a lie?

That the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Yes, unequivocally it does. But it doesn't bend without some very powerfully dedicated people pulling it really, really hard. To the extent that anyone thinks it’s just bending through its natural forces—that would be wrong.

What is your strongest Jeopardy category?

I am not someone who carries a ton of trivia in my head, so I think I would be very bad at Jeopardy. [Laughs.]

What policy change would you like to see passed at the national level?

A suite of changes that would open up our democracy for full and inclusive participation. So making certain that everyone who is eligible to vote can vote, eliminating barriers for people with felony convictions, and ensuring that we have an independent redistricting commission so our electoral lines are not dictated by partisan politics. All of the things that make our democracy accessible to the residents of this country; because unlocking that will then unlock myriad policy changes that are urgent and necessary.

Whose voice do you think everyone should be listening to more in the national conversation?

The voices of impacted persons. It could be people who have been the victims of police violence or have had loved ones who are victims. It could be migrants. It could be people who are unhoused. The human story is incredibly compelling and we don't take time to stop and listen to each other and hear the commonalities that we share. If we were to hear those people who are impacted by some of the some of the poor policy choices in our world, I don't think we would continue to make those poor choices.

What’s a career decision you wish you had made differently?

Easy: I had an opportunity to go to South Africa for a year in the middle of law school and I was silly enough to think that a year was too much time away from my career track, and I said no. I have very few regrets, but that is definitely a big one.

What’s the best piece of advice you were given but ignored?

To take a vacation every year without kids.

If you could quit your job tomorrow and start a company, what problem or need would it solve for?

I would like to provide a space for people—Black people in particular—to not feel the burden of racism in this country, to walk into a space of pure and unalloyed freedom. I would be the proprietor of a venue that purveyed Black diasporan culture of all sorts. It would be a place of literature, of music, of food, of substance, and of fellowship. I would be there and welcoming people and really providing a space of refuge and uplift from the general turmoil of the world.

Who is a historical figure that should be more widely appreciated?

Constance Baker Motley. She is an icon in the legal world as one of the primary strategists of Brown v. Board of Education, which is a landmark case that ended formal legal segregation in this country and put us on the trajectory to become a real democracy. She was the first Black woman federal judge. She argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court and won nine, the tenth was then reversed in her favor. She is an understudied and underappreciated figure in our history.

What invention has had the greatest (positive) impact on life in this country?

The Reconstruction Amendments, particularly the Equal Protection Clause inventing the concept that everyone deserves equal protection under the law is an invention that, at the time, was radically progressive if we compare it to the governing documents and principles of other nations—and it is one that we are still aspiring to meet.

Would you rather climb Mount Everest or travel to the bottom of the Mariana Trench? Why?

Climb Mount Everest for sure. Because I like elevation. I like hiking. And that just feels like I would get even greater clarity of thought by rising higher on this natural majestic mountain.

Who had the largest impact on the trajectory of your career?

My mother because she had the good sense in the fifth grade to take me out of my locally assigned public school and put me in a different public school that served a community that I wasn't part of, but that had a much superior education program. That was literally life altering. I don't think I'd be where I was today if she didn't make that difficult choice.

What’s the last great book you read?

Here I Stand, by Paul Robeson.  It’s extraordinary and it’s not all that long, so I highly recommend it. 

What’s a book whose lessons you return to again and again?

Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, by Richard Kluger. I like to look back at my predecessors, their work, how they saw the world, and what their strategies were to help inform how to approach the challenges that we face today.

How would you invest $5 million dollars if financial returns were not the primary objective?

I would build an affordable housing complex. I'm not sure how far $5 million would get me, it might be a very small one. But I would like to bring people who wish to be housed into a community that is environmentally friendly and self-sustaining, that grows its own produce and other sources of nutrition, and is a real space for people to thrive as a community.

What was the last piece of art you put up on your wall?

Some glass beads that I bought in Kenya.

Name a time when being patient paid off.

All of the work we do at LDF that takes a long time to wind its way through the courts. When we get a win at the end of that road it feels like great satisfaction and it takes a lot of patience to oversee that process. I litigated a case back in 2014 challenging discriminatory voter ID law in Texas and just last week we got a check for our attorneys fees on that case. We had to be very patient.

How do you think about leaving a legacy?

The best way to think about leaving a legacy is not to really think about it. It’s to put your head down and do the work and make an impact every day as you see fit using your talents and your superpowers. And if you truly believe that what you're doing is right and that you are doing right by the cause that you take up? Your legacy will write itself.

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