The team I am working with, the National Political Advocacy Department (NPAD), was created in 2015 to strengthen the work of the ACLU at the federal, state and local levels of government. Specifically, our focus is on consolidating the political influence our members and state affiliates have through organizing grassroots lobbying and issue campaigns. The first week of my internship was during an atypical time at our office, as we were preparing for our first membership conference in 10 years. Since my team was responsible for organizing many of the workshops and activities taking place, I was charged with creating one-pagers specific to each state affiliate’s issue campaigns so attendees could be informed on how they can engage with the ACLU beyond the conference and in their home state. By the time the conference started, I had produced one-pagers for 48 affiliates, which I was both relieved and proud to have completed. Although I was exhausted by the end of the three-day conference, it was inspiring to converse with the attendees, many of them being young activists who had traveled by bus across the country (for 22 hours!) to learn how to become better organizers and to raise awareness for issues they were passionate about. While the ACLU’s principles remain unchanged since its conception, the means by which its core values are upheld has evolved greatly.
The ACLU was created in 1920 as a result of the first Red Scare, when nationwide hysteria spread out of fear that a Bolshevik revolution in America was looming. To alleviate these anxieties, the U.S. General Intelligence Division went after union organizers, anarchists, and European immigrants and became known as the Palmer Raids. These raids swept up thousands of people without warrants, detaining and brutalizing them. As a result of these civil liberties infringements, a small group of activists formed to create a new legal corps dedicated to defending a “labor’s right to organize, picket, and strike”. After the first Red Scare, the ACLU expanded its mission to defend people historically denied the protections granted under the Bill of Rights. Some of their more recognized accomplishments include fighting the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, desegregating schools through Brown v. Board of Education, defending reproductive rights in Roe v. Wade, and the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, among many others.
Although the ACLU is often questioned on its defense of controversial people or groups, its commitment to their principles of defending basic civil liberties supersedes whether or not they agree with whom they represent. According to their website, “Historically, the people whose opinions are the most controversial or extreme are the people whose rights are often most threatened. Once the government has the power to violate on person’s rights, it can use that power against everyone. We work to stop the erosion of civil liberties before it’s too late.” While the ACLU has been known to defend civil liberties in courtrooms, they are now expanding to get more involved in citizen-driven, grassroots campaigns. Last year, the ACLU introduced People Power, a mobilization effort encouraging constituents to be organizers and to make ACLU campaigns their own.
On my way home from the convention center on Monday, I was approached by two women who were also leaving the conference and looking for directions to the Metro station. Since I was heading to the same station, I invited them to walk with me. One of the women looked familiar to me, but I could not place her exactly. It was only until she introduced herself as Mary Beth that I drew the connection; she was Mary Beth Tinker from the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District Supreme Court case. Previously, I had met her at the 2013 NSPA (National Scholastic Press Association) Convention in Boston. On the train ride home, she asked me what I thought of the city so far, to which I responded how exciting it was to live in a place with a diverse population and how “everyone is a transplant”. This prompted a discussion in which Mary Beth pointed out how gentrification and the influx of young professionals have affected the life-long residents of D.C.’s neighborhoods. I am glad she brought up this point to me, and it made me reevaluate how I view D.C. and its shift in population demographics. When I ran into her again on Tuesday at the convention, I expressed my interest in getting more engaged with the local community, and she invited me to canvass with her on a future weekend.
Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, quoted Robert Louis Stevenson at a National Convocation on Free Speech, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive and the true reward is labor.” This resonates with me as I start my journey this summer interning in D.C. Ultimately, this summer will not be defined by completing my internship, but rather by the experiences, tribulations, and relationships made along the way. Although the tasks assigned to me during the first week of my internship required me to be the first intern to arrive at the office and the last to leave, the close attention to detail and organization that was expected of me allowed me the opportunity to authenticate a relationship with my team that an orthodox first week would not have.