Q: First of all, could you tell me a little about yourself?
A: I’m a Field Organizer with the ACLU of Michigan and work in our Legislative Department. I’m a graduate of MSU’s James Madison College. I’ve been with the ACLU for six years now. I’m based in Detroit and Lansing.
Q: How did you go about becoming Field Organizer of ACLU of Michigan?
A: I always had an interest in civil liberties and constitutional law so the ACLU was always an attractive organization to me. I began working for the ACLU as an intern while still in college and stayed with it until this day.
Q: Could you tell me a little about what the American Civil Liberties Union does in general and then maybe specifically what your chapter has done?
A: We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan nationwide organization that has a state affiliate in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Our primary goal is to advance and protect civil rights and civil liberties in the state of Michigan. We do this by employing a variety of tactics, including, but not limited to: lobbying, strategic lawsuits, public education, grassroots engagement.
For information on what our state affiliate has recently done I would suggest you look at our recent press releases posted on the homepage of our website: www.aclumich.org and our 2014 legal docket at http://aclumich.org/courts/legal-dockets
Q: How do you receive funds? Is it mostly from local contributors or members or is it from the national organization?
A: The ACLU has a 501c3 wing and a 501c4 wing. Our c3 wing is the non-profit, tax-deductible wing. We have donors who contribute to this. Our c4 wing allows us to engage in political advocacy and this is directly funded from membership dues. If you are a card carrying member of the ACLU, you have paid due that have directly gone towards our c4 work. We also receive funding through grants from foundations and other funders. These grants can be both c3 and c4.
Q: What are some issues that ACLU is currently concentrating on?
A: Reproductive Rights and the War on Women have kept us very busy over the past several years. The past several years have been very difficult for us as we’re constantly playing defense as more and more anti-choice bills are passed through the legislature. The state of Michigan has really been ground zero for the war on women. We’ve seen the worst of the worst policies introduced and passed here before anywhere else in the county. As an example, you might be familiar with the bill passed last summer in Texas that Wendy Davis famously filibustered. That was a bill that was first introduced and passed in Michigan the summer of 2012.
When I first began working for the ACLU 6 years ago, anti-choice bills were always introduced but never passed.
One of our biggest priorities right now is getting Michigan’s civil rights law amended to enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. What many people do not realize right now is that it is perfectly legal to fire someone in Michigan for being gay, or even perceiving them as gay. The ex-employee has no legal recourse in a situation such as this. Amending our civil rights law would change that.
Q: How would you consider local or even the state of Michigan’s social policies compared to other cities/states?
A: I think this is difficult for me to answer as I’ve only worked in Michigan politics. What oftentimes surprises people, maybe because in Federal politics Michigan seems like a more liberal state, is that on the state legislative level it is very conservative. We are not a progressive state in regards to social issues.
Q: Do you try to influence every social policy process or do you try and pick and choose the ones you are going to make an influence on?
A: I like to think that our issues choose us. Our goal is to advance and protect constitutional rights. If there is a violation of those rights happening in the state we try to have some involvement in correcting the injustice.
Q: Half the state is very religious. Do you run up against the religious argument against all LGBT issues?
A: Religious beliefs are usually the reason cited by our opposition on this issue. I think it’s also in large part due to ignorance/a lack of empathy/a lack of connection to the issue by the opposition. You’ve probably observed that oftentimes, opposition or individuals who are not comfortable with the LGBT community experience a shift in opinion when someone close to them comes out. I think current opposition stems from religious doctrine, as that’s always what is cited by opposition. I think it’s also in large part due to ignorance /a lack of empathy/a lack of connection to the issue by the opposition. You’ve probably observed that oftentimes, opposition or individuals who are not comfortable with the LGBT community experience a shift in opinion when someone close to them comes out. I think, in part, it’s the ability of more and more people to empathize with the issue through their loved ones that has helped grow the movement.
Q: Could you please explain ACLU’s views on the NSA surveillance and the excessive secrecy that hides how the government pursues its national security mission?
The ACLU has covered this issue extensively. I suggest you look through ACLU National’s website for our policy on this.
Q: What are some tactics used to influence policy?
A: We use traditional lobbying techniques and also utilize coalition partners whenever possible. The ACLU is a non-partisan organization so we work very closely with both parties. We certainly have to adjust tactics when political climates shift. When political climates shift it sometimes means we have to go on the defense on some of our issues more. A good example of that is are reproductive rights issues. The past several years have been very difficult for us as we’re constantly playing defense as more and more anti-choice bills are passed through the legislature. When I first began working for the ACLU 6 years ago, anti-choice bills were always introduced but rarely passed.
Q: Could you give me an example of one of the programs or events the American Civil Liberties Union has hosted?
A: We regularly host public education events around the state. We have 7 Branches that are run by volunteers. Their work is primarily focused on public education and they host a variety of events for us.
One of the best events that we recently hosted took place in Grand Rapids this month. Our Western Branch hosted Dr. Carl Hart, a national expert on drug policy. The event attracted over 400 attendants who listened to Dr. Hart discuss the war on drugs.
Q: Which policy you’ve produced are you most proud of? Do any stand out as great achievements?
A: I mentioned earlier that in the summer of 2012 an anti-choice bill, similar to the one in Texas, was introduced. We worked very hard to defeat the bill and successfully garnered a tremendous amount of grassroots support in opposition to the bill. The grassroots support we raised was more than many of us have ever seen in recent years and it successfully slowed down the passage of the bill and allowed us to get the initial bill amended so that when it did pass, it was not as damaging.
We tracked the issue heavily on our blog (http://aclumich.org/blog). You can scroll back to June 2012-Dec 2012 for updated and background information on the bill if you need to.
Q: What typical opponents do you face when trying to influence legislation?
A: We have a breadth of issues so we have many opponents and they are constantly changing. I think it’s important to point out though that in many instances, an organization that is our opponent on one issue might be a strong ally on another issue. We at the ACLU work very hard to have amicable relationships with all organizations and players around the state for this reason.
Q: As you have become more involved with influencing policy how have your opinions changed on how the state legislature functions as a whole?
A: One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is the value of being nonpartisan.
The ACLU is nonpartisan and we do not have a Political Action Committee. Sometimes this can pose a challenge but in the end I think it keeps us honest and we have found ways to work around it. We have been able to get some of our proactive policies passed with a Republican legislature that we were never able to get passed with a Democratic legislature and vis-a-versa.
One, huge challenge in Michigan we have term limits, which means no one legislator is in office long. This means we’re constantly trying to educate new legislators, which makes it difficult to build relationships and get large priority reform legislation passed. I think term limits in the Michigan Legislature has been a failed experiment.