How to reignite your passion for social justice, according to the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, doesn’t mince words when describing her organization’s increased relevance since January 20, 2017.
“Our mission in life is to defend everything that is under attack by the current administration in Washington,” she explained to DeNora Getachew, New York executive director of Generation Citizen. “We haven’t always defined ourselves that way,” she added, with a laugh echoed by Lean In NYC’s audience sitting in the Wix Lounge in lower Manhattan on March 29.
Things, however, have changed since President Trump’s inauguration, and the way the ACLU not only defines, but equips itself, has had to change with them. “These guys have given us a ton of business these days,” Lieberman continued. “And we’re at the forefront of the struggle to fight back …”
That fights includes, but is hardly limited to: defending normal civilians’ rights from “immigration restrictions and the deportation machine”; the assault on women’s health care, including abortion rights; police accountability; electronic communications privacy; and transgender students’ safety in public schools. “I do believe that we are in the fight for our democracy,” Lieberman said. “This is the fight for the continued existence of our democracy. Every institution that we hold dear is under attack …”
That’s why the work of the ACLU is still more necessary than ever, and why it still needs as much help as it can get from everyday citizens who still care about the fate of their country.
“When you take on this stuff, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of resources,” Lieberman acknowledged. While she’s been happy to see the rapid increase of ACLU membership since November 8, including a tripling of the NYCLU membership to 100,000 people, the organization is still “so overwhelmed” and underfunded. “We are not rolling in the dough because we still need to hire hundreds more lawyers, and even then we won’t have nearly a tenth of what the other sides have,” she said. Lieberman encouraged the audience to “give — you know, fucking give.”
As much as no one likes to talk about money, she didn’t shy away from stressing the importance of donations to the ACLU, a nonpartisan organization that accepts no government funding. Its survival is wholly reliant on the generosity of its members. “We can’t do it without you and without the money,” she added. “You have to support the small immigrants’ rights groups; you have to support Planned Parenthood; you have to support people like us.”
Thus came the question of the night: what can the average person do to reignite their passion for social justice and aid in the ACLU’s fight?
Lieberman, newly dubbed by Getachew “the new queen of civil liberties,” had a few ideas.
Full disclosure: a lot of them involved an optional familiarity with and fondness for the word “fuck.” Simply put: “You should write your city council, tell them, ‘You know, what the fuck?’ “ she said about changing local politics, with regards to police accountability and brutality in New York.
On the state level, there are even more fucks to give. And a great place to find them is in the holes of your state’s human rights laws. Both the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for American Progress Action Fund offer comprehensive guides showing state-by-state comparisons of civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, specifically in regards to protecting LGBTQ citizens. The ACLU’s website also has an entire section dedicated to knowing your rights in several areas of the federal law.
As an example, Lieberman noted that in New York, the state education department has “guidance that protects trans kids in school,” but the state, often hailed as a “progressive” safe haven, has yet to pass GENDA (Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act).
This, Lieberman believes, reflects a larger underlying issue.
“There’s one problem I bet you don’t know about,” she told the audience. “We really do have a lot of work to do to protect ourselves, to strengthen our safety net … and one huge hole in that net has to do with our state human rights law.”
While the New York City human rights law is pretty “politically robust,” according to Lieberman, the law on the state level — “the only thing that stands between discrimination and some kind of indication of rights for people in communities where there isn’t an independent, local human rights law” — is plagued by one gaping oversight: it doesn’t cover public schools.
Why is that suddenly so important? Public schools across the United States have witnessed a surge in harassment and hate crimes over the past year. “Think about the ideology of hate that is what catapulted this man into office …” Lieberman explained, noting that the vast majority of the American population (immigrants, Muslims, women, just to name a few) has been targeted and marginalized as an unwanted “other” by the Trump administration. “When the hate is spewed from the top, you think the kids aren’t gonna act out? Of course they are,” she continued. “I worry about the kids who are so vulnerable to bullying and harassment and discrimination, even under the best of circumstances …”
No matter the circumstances, everyday citizens have more power than they might think to allay those worries. “If you want a phone call to make,” Lieberman advised the audience. “Call the governor and call any Republican you can find in the State Senate and say, ‘What the fuck? Fix the state human rights law to cover public schools … and I’m gonna keep calling you until you do it.’”
Lieberman and her colleagues are in the business of holding these politicians accountable to their constituents’ phone calls, as well as the U.S. Constitution.
But the ACLU can’t fight the good fight alone — it needs some new recruits.
From there, interested people can either “Join” or “Donate” by pressing either button. Lieberman encourages everyone to do both: “If there was any time to be a card-carrying member, this is it.” There’s also a handy-dandy “Take Action” button to volunteer, and the ACLU is particularly in need of those well-versed in marketing communications and messaging to offer their services. Those interested in volunteering in New York will be in good company, where the list encompasses about 4,000 individuals.
“We have to be the army,” Lieberman said. “… We gotta let a thousand flowers bloom.” And by flowers, she means social justice warriors.
“You don’t know when it’s gonna be your turn to be courageous.” You don’t have to wait, either.