The Texas Civil Rights Project announced today that their current President Mimi Marziani will be stepping down at the end of this year. For many in Texas, Marziani has been one of the most visible leaders on a variety of issues ranging from voting rights to criminal justice reform to immigration.
Val Benavidez, the Executive Director of Texas Freedom Network, echoed the sentiments of many activists and organizers in Texas about the news. “Mimi is a powerhouse leader who will be missed at our future days of action, but I take comfort in knowing that the team she built at TCRP will be present as our work continues,” she said. “As for Mimi, I know that once an advocate, always an advocate, so she won’t be far away from the cause.”
The TCRP, which was established in 1990, has played a crucial legal role in defending civil rights through their unique “community-lawyering” structure. Forty staff members work throughout five offices in the state. They have been a pivotal bulwark against an increasingly hostile state government. A search committee has been formed as they look to find their next president.
Marziani arrived at the TCRP in early 2016. To say she has seen a lot during her tenure would be the understatement of the century. The Signal caught up with her to discuss her announcement, and where the organization goes from here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mimi, what made you decide that now was the time to leave?
I knew from the very beginning of my tenure at TCRP that I was there to help build up the institution and then pass it to somebody else. When I stepped into this role in early 2016, I was the right person at the right time. TCRP needed someone to reimagine the organization, to increase our impact, and really serve Texas communities that had long been marginalized in the state. At this point, we’re there. TCRP is a mature, successful organization and we are finalizing a strategic plan right now that will carry us through the next three to five years of the organization’s existence.
Could you talk a little about that future? And what the next president of TCRP should expect?
It is clear to me that the next chapter is going to focus on maintaining and further refining the organization. I think what we will want to look for is someone who is a gifted manager and has composure for fine tuning a well-working model. There is no shortage of talented people working in this space. I do believe in sharing leadership and creating space for somebody else to step into this role. This is an incredibly exciting, fascinating, challenging job, and I don’t believe I should be the only person to hold this title! I’m excited to see who comes after me.
And what are your future plans?
I am really committed to TCRP right now. I will spend the rest of my life being a supporter of this organization. As I look to 2023, I’m ready for a new adventure. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’ll figure it out!
Many Texans were introduced to the work of TCRP during the push to stop voter suppression legislation during the quorum break. What was that experience like?
For me, the most important piece of last summer is that it exemplified what we do. We call ourselves community-lawyers, which is not a term that people use that frequently. But what we mean by that is we serve as the go-to lawyers and policy experts for grassroots organizations, local leaders, and impacted community members. And so last summer was a moment where we were able to use our legal and policy expertise to educate grassroots groups, everyday Texans who were just worried about the state of our democracy, communities who are going to be directly impacted by the laws that were being proposed (especially communities of color, young people, people with disabilities). That gave us an opportunity to show why the organization is so valuable in the state.
Did you have any other takeaways?
Our democracy is in a fragile place right now. I’ve been concerned about the state of our democracy for several years. And especially now after the 2020 election, the Big Lie, and the attempt to prevent a peaceful transfer of power at the presidential level, to come back at the state level and see a process of doubling down and making it even more difficult to vote, particularly for certain communities, that’s really scary. I mean, those are the things that happen when states start to fall away from democracies. And while this is a critical time, I took a lot of hope from what happened last summer.
For the first time we saw tens of thousands of people showing up at the Texas Capitol, testifying, signing petitions. We worked almost daily with partners like MOVE, Texas Freedom Network, Texas Organizing Project, the ACLU, and so many others to help organize a massive network to push back against [SB 1]. And while ultimately a version of the bill was passed, it was not as bad as what was originally introduced. It’s still bad, but wasn’t as bad as what was originally proposed. I think [last summer] showed the power of Texas communities. It demonstrated the willingness of people to stand up in the punishing heat of the summer and to drive hundreds of miles to stand up for this vision of Texas that is vibrant and multiracial and multicultural and includes all of us. A place where we then demand that our government works for us and not for narrow special interests.
What are some of your big concerns when it comes to voting now in Texas?
Even before this most recent SB 1 bill that passed last year, Texas by many metrics was one of the most difficult places to vote in the country. And it is one of the most gerrymandered, meaning that people also have lost choice because of the way they’ve been redistricted. And those two things together, I think we are seeing the ways those are perverting our democracy in Texas. But there are a lot of examples of ways that people who are supposed to be working for all of us and running the state of Texas, are not actually focused on the issues that most Texans are concerned about. Instead of fixing the grid, instead of making sure that we feel safe in our schools and grocery stores, instead of making sure that people have the healthcare they need to be happy and healthy, we’ve seen Texas politicians over and over focus on other things and actually try to use fear tactics and the differences they perceive between Texans to divide us, rather than actually fixing our problems with common sense measures.
Any concerns about how voter suppression will impact November? We saw in the primary election thousands of mail-in ballots disputed.
I am very worried that we will still have in place this law that has led to tens of thousands of votes being tossed out during the primary election. And these are by all accounts eligible voters who made bureaucratic errors on their vote-by-mail ballots. We’re also very concerned about the heightened power of partisan poll watchers and reports particularly by very radicalized rightwing groups, that they are going to be bringing poll patchers to the polls to try to scare people. That has a direct line to the type of violence we saw on January 6, and in Texas during the 2020 election when some vigilantes tried to run a Biden Harris campaign bus off the road. The good news is that we do have a plan.
Tell us the plan!
The TCRP spearheads a statewide election protection operation. [This year] we believe it will be well over 150 pro-voter organizations, and with those organizations we do a couple of things. We run a hotline, (866) OUR-VOTE. And it’s available in lots of different languages. Voters can get help individually. We also act as the go-to lawyers when there are problems registering people to vote and when folks are trying to cast a ballot [that will] count. We’ll be working this summer with both advocacy organizations and local elected officials. One thing we’re particularly focused on is making sure that local officials are ready to provide the education, and other support that voters need, so that they will not have their mail-in ballots thrown out. And because of this new law, we’re going to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we believe reaching millions and millions of Texans, running a public education campaign through the Texas Association of Broadcasters and through a surrogate network we have, the Texas Right to Vote. All of those mechanisms will empower voters and pro-voter organizations, and ultimately provide a formidable defense against voter suppression.
Immigration is also an area that TCRP focuses on. Could you talk about TCRP’s role in discovering the zero tolerance policy?
TCRP has really deep roots in South Texas. Our Rio Grande Valley office is one of our largest. In 2018, our South Texas staff were the ones to break the news to the world about family separation under Trump’s zero tolerance policy. One thing that is unique about TCRP is that our team in South Texas are also members of the South Texas community, which is quite rare.
And y’all have at times challenged the Biden administration, what are some of the changes you would like to see from them?
First, I want to say we have had some disappointments with the Biden administration, but the Biden administration has done some things well. I think it’s important that we are clear that they are not targeting asylum seekers with cruelty and vigilance like the way that the Trump administration was. As a movement, we [want] to hold allies to account, but I do think it’s important to recognize that the Biden administration has been so much better on these issues than the Trump administration.
That’s a very valid point. A lot of things are out of their hand.
We’ve seen progress, but it’s just not always been fast enough. There have been a lot of bumps in the road. And some of those are not the Biden administration’s fault. Most recently the biggest bumps have been because of Trump-appointed judges. We continue to litigate our border wall cases. We represent a number of landowners along the Texas-Mexico border. And we were able to resolve those cases favorably under the Biden administration, though it took a little longer than we’d anticipated. Now we had originally sued in court to end Title 42 and the Remain in Mexico policy. The Biden administration has tried to repeal both of those policies, although those repeals have been halted by judges. So again, we recognize that that’s a messy situation.
And TCRP is also working to push back against Operation Lone Star.
This is the program by which Governor Abbott, in many ways unilaterally, has been shifting funding to send national guard troops down to South Texas and along the border. We have a lot of evidence that this is not making anybody safer. We’ve been working with communities in South Texas, and we hear all sorts of stories about the lack of healthcare, emergency services, just basic public safety mechanisms that are not being invested in. Abbott has been taking money from state coffers that was meant for things like mental health services and pushing them into Operation Lone Star. We also know there’s been a massive increase in DPS ticketing and fines in counties that are majority Latino. But in white majority counties there’s been a decrease. There’s a lot of problems with Operation Lone Star. At the end of the day what Governor Abbott is trying to do is score political points by creating more problems and perpetuating racial discrimination in South Texas. He’s trying to play at being at the federal government. We are hopeful that the Biden Administration and the Department of Justice will help us push back against Operation Lone Star. What we specifically hope for is a Title VI investigation.
TCRP has also been a major leader when it comes to criminal justice reform. What are some of the most meaningful successes y’all have had in Texas on that front?
Long before I joined, TCRP has stood up for folks who are incarcerated and for their civil rights. In 2018, with co-counsel at Edwards Law, we won a landmark case that forced the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to offer air conditioning at Wallace Park Unit [in Houston]. Elderly people were dying because of the heat. And that has led to some improvements in conditions. Not enough though, because we have had a multi-year investigation of the abuse of solitary confinement. We published a report in 2018 called Torture by Another Name, and our investigation very well may lead to an official DOJ investigation into this systemic abuse.
It seems that a lot of the work of TCRP, when it comes to criminal justice reform, is on the systemic level.
We’re really proud of the work that we have done to push back against the ways that people get ensnarled in our criminal legal system just because they are poor. In 2017, we settled a case in El Paso County that put an end to a variation of a debtor’s prison. They were forcing people who could not pay criminal fees and fines to ultimately sit behind bars, and we were able to reform that practice. After that we have been working particularly in Houston to reform cash bail practices. That litigation is ongoing. Another good example of community-lawyering, TCRP [has been] the go-to lawyer for the nineteen community bail funds that exist across the state of Texas. That practice was heavily regulated in the 2021 legislative session. We’ve stepped in and provided legal counsel so that those bail funds can continue to operate.
And TCRP was also working with Crystal Mason?
Yes, we are also lawyers to Crystal Mason. She’s a Black woman from Tarrant County who was sentenced to five years in prison for “illegal” voting after she cast a provisional ballot. We were super excited that we just got a win in the case. It was sent down by the Court of Criminal Appeals back down to the trial court and we are feeling confident about winning this thing for Crystal
Do you have any thoughts on what criminal justice reform going forward will look like in Texas?
An incredibly important conversation during this election cycle and going forward is public safety. We know from all of the community groups that we work with, that Texans want true investment in public safety that protects everybody, regardless of their race or regardless of their income. This is a complicated issue that really does have to come from the community level. I was proud of the work that TCRP did to defeat Prop A last year. That would have taken millions away from the city budget, money that we use for firefighters, EMS, park services, and other community services, and would have plopped it in the police department, even though the police department said it wasn’t necessary. I am excited to see TCRP continue to play a key role in this issue of public safety, serving as a legal and policy arm for community groups as our cities are figuring out the best ways to invest in our communities and make sure that it’s safe for everybody.
Throughout this conversation, you’ve talked about various organizations that y’all have worked with. How do you see those partnerships evolving?
We want to continue to deepen those relationships. To be a good community-lawyer, first and foremost, you have to create and maintain trusting relationships with organizations and community partners. And as an operational matter, we often work directly for community organizations or within broader social justice coalitions. TCRP, alongside the policy wins and the legal wins that we’ve talked about, I am proud of the work that we’ve done to develop future leaders. And there are so many examples of folks who have worked at TCRP, and they are now leaders in law and policy across the state: Lina Hidalgo [Harris County Judge], Beth Stevens [Harris County Clerk’s Office] and Delia Garza [Travis County Attorney]. We really invest in our people, and we take professional development seriously. As we are able to invest in future leaders, and then as future leaders go out and do something in the world, that is just another way that we are able to strengthen these networks with other advocacy organizations, grassroots organizations, and local government.
You spoke earlier about the criteria for the next president, what do you anticipate their biggest challenges to be?
I really believe that Texas is progressing towards some pretty significant social justice and political change. We are on the precipice of that, and Texas is going to be a better state ten years from now. But it also means that we are right in the middle of it, and we are going to get relentless attacks on our freedoms from state leadership. It is very clear to me that the people running this state have basically given up trying to win people over with their ideas and policy positions. Instead, they are trying to keep their power by a combination of scaring people, sowing hate and division, and making it more difficult logistically to exercise their freedom to vote and hold our leaders accountable. I do think that the 2023 legislative session is very likely going to be another challenging session. And I think the 2024 election is going to be a significant test of our democracy.
For someone out there in Texas who is incredibly burned out, what’s your advice to them to stay motivated?
We’re all human and you have to view this work over the course of your professional career. That means different things to different people. I think it does mean that there are moments where you lean in, there’s moments where you lean out. And that’s okay, and probably necessary to think about the long arc of your career and calibrate. I do truly believe we’re seeing an unprecedented attack on our democracy and on civil rights. And at the same time, I think it’s very important to not lose sight of all that we have done and the fact that we have made tremendous progress as a state, and as a society in recent decades. I think finding a way to stay hopeful and have some inspiration, even while you’re clear-eyed about the challenges, is also important.
Any final thoughts about TCRP or what comes next for you?
I’m not being coy! I really don’t know what comes next, which is exciting. This job has been just the honor of my life and I am so proud of the work that our team has done. I’m so proud of the way that people have developed as leaders. No matter what, I am going to be a supporter of TCRP, and a believer in both the community-lawyering model and the promise of Texas, and the hope for a better Texas. All of those things are going to stay with me, no matter what I do.