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Kalish: ACLU Soul Searching

Last month, the ACLU held its Biennial Leadership Conference in Denver. Leadership from all the affiliates converged with leadership from National for a weekend packed with talks, meetings, and meals to connect with and learn from one another. I look forward to these conferences. The plenary speakers are excellent the awards recipients, inspiring. Break-out topics range from heady, aspirational goals to mundane tasks of affiliate management. One year, an improvisational theater company led exercises to reveal and address the impacts of unconscious bias in organizational systems.

This year, we talked about voting rights and digital privacy. We learned about National’s Smart Justice campaign, whose goal is to reduce the nation’s incarcerated population by fifty percent by advocating for reforms from prosecution, to sentencing, to bail, to parole and reentry.

I left, as I always do, exhausted, but inspired - with a renewed sense of perspective about the challenges we face here in Vermont, but also a renewed sense of purpose for Vermont to fulfill its potential as a state committed to the ideals of liberty and civil rights.

However, the gathering in Denver inspired me in a new way, as well.

As many know, the ACLU has been soul searching since the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, where the ACLU of Virginia represented white nationalists in a permit dispute for a rally that turned violent and ended tragically.

In the terrible aftermath some resigned their board posts and National sought to refine its position about when it would represent such hate groups in the future.

There were difficult conversations. Many expressed feelings of hurt, betrayal and anger – and a belief that the ACLU’s reflexive representation of speech fails to acknowledge the lived reality of racial oppression in this country.

These were painful, raw discussions, and they infused every part of the conference. Oddly, though, I found them healing.

What I saw was a huge gathering of people who were willing to listen, to argue, and to speak honestly on questions that touch on our deepest values and identities. And every person trusted that we meant each other well.

Nothing is fully resolved – nor will it be any time soon. But I walked away feeling like I had just witnessed something both profoundly healthy... and entirely too rare.

Julie Kalish is a Vermont attorney and Lecturer at Dartmouth College in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. She is a board member for Vermont ACLU. She lives in Norwich.
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