Janice Mathis, Esquire (Attorney at Law)

Janice Mathis, Esquire  (Attorney at Law)

When I stepped off the elevator and rounded the corner at 250 Auburn Avenue, the woman behind the desk was on the phone and motioned for me to have a seat.

After completing her call and extending a warm greeting, she came around the table to sit next to me for our interview. Janice Mathis, Esquire (Attorney at Law), began to talk candidly about her life as an advocate for civil rights and her role with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. I was intrigued by her stories - what a powerhouse!
The Beginning…
 Born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, Mathis grew up in a very close knit family, community and church. She remembers how different things were when she was a young girl. "I didn’t know anyone who was divorced when I was growing up," Mathis says. She spent much of her time in North Carolina mostly because her mom attended North Carolina A&T State University, her family went to church conferences in NC, and she spent many summers at Bennett College academic camps.  Her parents were very conscientious about education and religious training, so there was no question that Mathis would attend college. After high school she attended Duke University where she was the recipient of the Angier Biddle Duke Scholarship. She also spent time in England studying British Politics and History at Oxford University.  Like many young people, Mathis went through a brief rebellious period, but finally settled on law school at the University of Georgia. While in law school, she met the man who she has been married to for the past 21 years and moved to Athens, Georgia. There they raised his two children; she practiced law, and did legal work for the State of Georgia.
Fueling the Fire
Mathis attributes her motivation and drive to a strong family culture. Her dad was a city councilman and political campaigns were a way of life for her. She says, "I can remember watching the Kennedy and Nixon debates when I was six with my mother and passing out Jack Kennedy literature at the shopping center." She recounts the story of how her mother went downtown in Greenville, South Carolina to register to vote after graduating from college. It was so unusual in 1948 for a black woman to graduate from college, much less think about voter registration, that a photograph was taken and printed in the local newspaper. "My mother is standing there, she was a tiny little thing…she was standing there, and my uncle was standing next to her with his arms folded daring anybody to say anything to her." Apparently her mom got her motivation from Mathis’ grandmother who was poor, but proud, and was also adamant about voting and exercising her rights as a citizen. "They would call my grandmother ‘auntie’ and she would say, ‘I’m not related to you; I’m not your mother’s sister; don’t call me auntie; I’m not your aunt.’" That fire was there long before Mathis was born and is still burning brightly in all that she does!
Living With Purpose
In our family it was important for you to be a citizen, recalls Mathis. We were sent to integrated schools not to improve ourselves, but to improve the people we went to school with. We went to show them that black people can learn and that their conceptions about us are ill conceived. At 11 you knew that was your job – to go over there and prove the point, and don’t make no excuses. We are part of that generation where we had to prove ourselves and we didn’t mind doing it. It was an interesting time – some people fought and some people didn’t. She remembers writing a letter when she was eight years old to her cousin who was Reverend Jesse Jackson’s  classmate. Her cousin went to jail because she was standing up for her civil rights, and Mathis wrote to tell her how much that upset their grandmother. Looking back, Mathis now understands that it sometimes took drastic measures to effect change in those days.
Mathis is one of the driving forces behind the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (People United to Save Humanity). She was named as one of Georgia’s 50 most influential women in 2007 and was among the most influential African Americans in Atlanta in 2003. She has taken on many leadership roles with groups such as the Legal Women Voters of Georgia, the Democratic National Committee, and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She is currently Vice President of the Citizenship Education Fund (CEF) which is the charitable research and education affiliate of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Before she joined CEF, she was General Counsel to the Coalition. She says, "Being part of the leadership groups is not just because you are talented, but because you want to do it. Not that many people want to do that kind of stuff and it’s been a blessing in a way." Mathis has also been a strong advocate for many of today’s issues taking positions on topics such as the “stand your ground” law in Georgia. She says that according to statistics this law tends to promote racial profiling and hostility and they are working to change that. Working with the Coalition has given her the opportunity to gain a deeper insight into social issues.
Reaching the Masses
Although she has a lot on her plate, Mathis is a little more strategic about how she spends her time these days because she realizes that she cannot do everything. "I spend a good bit of time at church because that’s important; I spend a lot of time at work; I spend a lot of time on my family; I spend a lot of time with the sorority, and that’s kind of it for right now, because that’s enough," says Mathis. Part of spending a lot of time at work includes getting involved, educating, and fighting for social change.  Some of the areas that the Coalition addresses are:  foreclosure prevention, neighborhood stabilization, gun control, voter ID, voter intimidation, voter suppression, scholarships, driving safety for teens, and youth empowerment. There is also a move to partner with a major corporation to go out and teach financial literacy. Mathis feels that we are still making very poor financial decisions.
Self empowerment is important to Mathis. "One of the reasons I do radio every week is to use a more massive medium to get the word out about important issues. It’s a challenge getting people engaged and competing with the massive popular culture.” She often blogs, tweets and utilizes Facebook to educate and inform, and has written several pieces in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  Writing is something she would like to do more of.  “At seven, I already knew I was supposed to write and teach. I put it on the back burner and I did everything else; but, I don’t care how hard you try to suppress it, it comes back if that’s who you are.  Your gift will come out whether you want it to or not, so I stopped trying to fight it and found a way to combine it all.” And what a combination! ■

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