Crossroads News

Forging Pathways Forward with Joanna Mendelson

Associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism discusses how to combat white supremacy.
“We demand that our leadership, at every level … speak out immediately, vociferously and directly to call out hate,” emphasized Joanna Mendelson, associate director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), during the Equity & Justice Institute’s virtual event broadcast on Oct. 19, 2020. 

This important dialogue on the dangerous proliferation of white supremacist extremist groups in the U.S., and particularly in California, was part of this year’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Equity & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series focused on women revolutionaries. Mendelson has over twenty years of experience at ADL. In her current role, she works to combat white supremacists, anti-government militia groups, terrorism and all forms of hate in the real world and online.

“When you asked me to come here a year ago, I thought it was timely,” Mendelson told the Institute’s Founding Director Derric J. Johnson. “And, sadly, you were a little bit too [prescient] because our topic today is oh-so-relevant.”

Over the next hour, Mendelson discussed the origins of ADL, founded in 1913 in response to anti-Semitism and bigotry, along with the organization’s various tools—offering educational programs, collaborating with technology companies, proposing and lobbying for legislation and working with law enforcement—to fight extremist threats today. Focusing on discrete actions, ADL uses data to drive policy that prevent and dismantle hate crimes and organizations.

“Conspiracies are really the backbone to all sorts of extremist thought,” explained Mendelson, noting how conspiracies are used to create division between communities. She added, “White supremacists thrive in chaos.” 

Mendelson then fielded questions from 10th graders Meazi Light-Orr and Jonah Reinis, 11th graders Talia Natterson and Amarize Finley and 12th grader Gaby Horwitch. In response, Mendelson talked about how hate groups recruit through various online platforms; the solutions to help prevent the spread of extremism, from creating content that challenges hateful rhetoric to reaching out to individuals who feel excluded; the responsibilities of private companies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others in preventing hate speech; and the need for a domestic terrorism prevention law in America.

“We must rise together and share our voices. We must elevate all of the different communities that feel persecuted, that feel subjected, that have been targets of hate,” Mendelson concluded, advocating for the importance of allies. “We must be very careful at elevating all groups, and not demonizing all groups, as we create and forge pathways ahead.”