The Ford Foundation’s Tanya Coke ’94 talks about her work fighting racial injustice

Tanya Coke ’94, now director of the Ford Foundation’s gender, racial, and ethnic justice team, recalls that when she grew up as a Jamaican immigrant just outside Columbus, Ohio, she was one of only a few Black students in her school. “I felt the weight of racial difference acutely in my growing up,” she says. Her father, an artist and architect, was very interested in Black liberation movements spreading across the globe in the 1960s and 1970s, she says, and home was a place where racial injustice and how to address it was regularly discussed. From her early work as a criminal defender to her current position as a leading voice in the nonprofit sector, addressing racial injustice remains the driving force of Coke’s career.

Tanya Coke
Tanya Coke ’94

At NYU Law, Coke was a Root-Tilden Scholar and editor-in-chief of the Law Review. After graduation, she clerked for Judge Pierre Leval on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then worked as a trial attorney for the Legal Aid Society for three years. Moving into a more policy-oriented position, Coke became program director for criminal justice at the Open Society Foundations, later serving as a program manager at the US Human Rights Fund and then a senior consultant for Atlantic Philanthropies. In 2016, Coke was teaching public policy and researching issues surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York when Ford Foundation President Darren Walker asked her to head up the organization’s criminal justice portfolio. In 2018, Coke also began overseeing Ford Foundation’s grantmaking to advance gender and reproductive justice and end the harsh treatment of immigrants.

In this Q&A, Coke talks about her career in civil rights, from the courtroom to helming criminal justice initiatives for one of the largest grantmaking organizations in the country.

How did you decide to pursue a career in the law?

My first job out of college was working with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund (LDF). I was a research assistant in LDF’s criminal justice project, which focused on challenging the modern death penalty as a legacy of lynching from the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. I can remember reading transcripts of capital trials that were less than 50 pages long. Trials that took less than a day to start and finish. That, I think, really made me want to be a lawyer in the courtroom, fighting for racial justice and for due process rights so that people could get a fairer shake in our justice system.

Were there any experiences from Law School that you found particularly significant?

The Root-Tilden Program was a wonderful home and grounding for public interest students like me. Every Monday night we had fascinating speakers from different areas of social justice, talking with us about their careers.

I also had so many wonderful mentors at NYU. My first-year Lawyering course with Peggy Cooper Davis and Tony Amsterdam was probably one of the best classes I took in all of law school. I learned important skills like client interviewing and negotiation in that course that have served me well my entire career. I took Derrick Bell’s upper-level seminar and in my third year became a research assistant for him on his Race, Racism and American Law textbook. He became a dear friend and mentor and was just a hugely empathetic guiding light through my whole career until he died in 2011.

How did you decide to transition from litigation to working in the nonprofit sector?

Working for the Legal Aid Society as a public defender in the 1990s was a devastating education on the realities of mass incarceration. I began to see that the bigger problem lay in our sentencing policies and the structural racism in the criminal justice system, and that I was going to have to work on the front of public policy, too, if I really wanted to make change. In 1998, I accepted a position at the Open Society Foundations, which at the time was building a grant-making program to try to address the rise of mass incarceration as the civil rights issue of the new millennium.

Have there been any projects in your career in the nonprofit sector that you’re particularly proud of?

At the Open Society Foundations, my role included helping to devise a grantmaking strategy to address both the death penalty and mass incarceration. I had the privilege of funding important research that broke open a new conversation about the death penalty as irretrievably unjust and inaccurate. We funded a major study by James Liebman, a professor at Columbia Law showing that more than two-thirds of death penalty cases had been overturned in the courts due to serious errors that called into question the accuracy of the conviction or legality of the sentence. That time, in the late 1990s, was also the advent of DNA technology, which was revealing not just a few but a raft of wrongful convictions in the United States. By extension, we knew that some of those wrongfully convicted people were on death row.

That was really a turning point when we began to see states abolishing the death penalty, and others beginning to limit its use. It would be another ten years before we would begin to see major reexamination of mass incarceration in the broader political landscape, but that kind of work continues to be a central area of my focus at the Ford Foundation.

What do you enjoy about your current role?

The great thing about my current job [as director of the gender, racial, and ethnic justice team at the Ford Foundation] is that I now get to think deeply about issues that haven’t been so squarely in the center of my life’s work, like the immigrant rights or maternal mortality and abortion rights.

I also consult with others inside and outside of the Foundation on advancing racial justice more broadly. For example, since the racial uprisings of last summer, I have spent a lot of time advising corporations who want to rethink racial equity within their operations or in the broader society, to help advance the economic and social circumstances of Black and brown people. I now sit on the advisory board of the Warner Music Group’s new $100 million racial equity fund, which was motivated in part by an acknowledgement that the greater part of its profits flow from the creativity of Black folks; among other things, Warner Music owns Atlantic Records, the largest hip-hop label in the world. This sort of reckoning within corporate America is important, and may well be fleeting, so I see my role as helping to make the most of this moment for the benefit of communities that have long been exploited and oppressed in our economy.

This year, through an initiative of our president—the Ford Foundation borrowed $1 billion on the bond market against our endowment to help important nonprofit organizations deal with the fallout from COVID-19 on their budgets and operations. That’s a rare move for philanthropy. I’m tremendously proud of the Ford Foundation for leading that effort, which a number of other foundations have now joined.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Posted August 23, 2021