Arm­ing the ACLU

How An­thony Romero is lead­ing the non­profit through the most con­tentious pe­riod in its nearly 100-year his­tory

Fast Company - - Contents - By Kath­leen Davis Pho­to­graph by Ce­line Grouard

An­thony Romero is steer­ing the non­profit through con­tro­versy by em­brac­ing tur­bu­lence.

An­thony Romero was the first one in his of­fice on Wed­nes­day, Novem­ber 9, 2016. The ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU) sat at his desk, which over­looks the Statue of Lib­erty from lower Man­hat­tan, and wrote a com­bat­ive let­ter to then–pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump. In it, he vowed that “the full fire­power” of his or­ga­ni­za­tion would be de­ployed against any at­tempts by the new ad­min­is­tra­tion to en­croach on the Con­sti­tu­tion. In the months since, the ACLU has blocked the two so-called travel bans tar­get­ing pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries and launched new tools to help or­ga­nize pro­test­ers and lobby law­mak­ers. It’s taken in $83 mil­lion in do­na­tions and in­creased mem­ber­ship four­fold to 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple. In Romero’s 16 years as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, the ACLU has of­ten been on the front lines of cul­tural con­tro­versy, help­ing lead land­mark fights against “don’t

don’t tell” in 2010 and for mar­riage equal­ity in 2015. “We will get tested, and we will some­times lose, but we will al­ways be in the fight for the right rea­sons,” Romero told his staff on Novem­ber 9. Here’s how he keeps the pug­na­cious 97-year-old non­profit—which has chal­lenged Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike— at the fore­front of na­tional af­fairs.

Lead with em­pa­thy

Romero be­came ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the ACLU one week be­fore the Septem­ber 11, 2001, at­tacks. While he an­tic­i­pated that the strikes might lead to in­creased na­tion­al­ism and an ero­sion of civil lib­er­ties, Romero de­cided his first move should ad­dress the coun­try’s mood. In a press re­lease, he sounded a pa­tri­otic note, pledg­ing that the ACLU would “work with our na­tional lead­ers in their fight to bring those re­spon­si­ble for this tragedy to jus­tice.” Though some ACLU staffers dis­agreed with this sen­ti­ment, Romero was lay­ing the foun­da­tion for the non­profit’s fu­ture ef­forts. “Our client, the Amer­i­can peo­ple, was griev­ing and stunned and afraid,” he re­calls. “[I said to the staff,] ‘We have to make sure the pub­lic is ready to hear us.’ ” Once the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan to de­tain and de­port im­mi­grants, though, the ACLU jumped to re­spond.

“We will get tested, and we will some­times lose, but we will al­ways be in the fight for the right rea­sons.”

Pre­pare for the rad­i­cally unexpected

More than six months be­fore much of the Amer­i­can pub­lic was blind­sided by Trump’s elec­tion, Romero di­rected his staff to com­pile a de­tailed re­port on what a Trump pres­i­dency might mean for civil lib­er­ties. “Ev­ery­one was talk­ing about Clin­ton, Clin­ton, Clin­ton. We had to have a Trump plan, be­cause if he were to be elected, the chal­lenges would be too great to [ad­dress] on the fly,” says Romero. The 27-page doc­u­ment, pub­lished in July 2016, took all of the can­di­date’s rhetoric on is­sues like im­mi­gra­tion and abor­tion lit­er­ally and se­ri­ously, and of­fered a clear de­fense against pos­si­ble pol­icy po­si­tions. The memo, which laid out the ar­gu­ments that later per­suaded judges to tem­po­rarask, ily block the first im­mi­gra­tion ban, has served as a prac­ti­cal play­book.

At­tack from all an­gles

Though the ACLU’S most vis­i­ble cam­paigns have na­tional im­pli­ca­tions, many of its le­gal bat­tles are waged on the state level. Romero has poured re­sources into its 53 af­fil­i­ate of­fices—es­pe­cially in states like Texas and Ohio, where prece­dentset­ting cases are of­ten lit­i­gated—a strat­egy that helps the ACLU chal­lenge is­sues through a va­ri­ety of si­mul­ta­ne­ous law­suits. “We can have one per­fect case with the best clients, filed in the right ju­ris­dic­tion,” says Romero. “[But] I think the right strat­egy is to file as many of these law­suits as we can.” When the re­vised im­mi­gra­tion ban was an­nounced in March, the ACLU didn’t have to scram­ble to file new cases or find clients be­cause it al­ready had 15 le­gal ac­tions in process in sev­eral states. The Mary­land case that tem­po­rar­ily halted the ban just nine days later was one the ACLU had set into mo­tion in Jan­uary.

Use mo­men­tum wisely

To ac­ti­vate the ACLU’S grow­ing mem­ber­ship, Romero tapped Faiz Shakir, a for­mer ad­viser to Se­na­tor Harry Reid, to serve as na­tional po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor. In March, Shakir launched Peo­ple Power, a site that sug­gests re­sources for po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment and of­fers ad­vice on or­ga­niz­ing ral­lies. It de­buted with a live-streamed town hall that gave the 200,000 view­ers an overview of their rights as pro­test­ers and ideas for ac­tion. That kind of en­gage­ment doesn’t just keep the ACLU in head­lines—it could also help win cases. “Judges live in com­mu­ni­ties, and so a lot of what [they] are re­spond­ing to is see­ing peo­ple in the streets, see­ing the protests and the press re­ports,” Romero says. “Judges make in­de­pen­dent de­ci­sions based on the law, but they look around at what’s go­ing on around them and that changes their hearts and minds.”

On the of­fen­sive

Romero ac­knowl­edged his em­ploy­ees’ dis­ap­point­ment af­ter Trump’s elec­tion—but he didn’t let them linger on it.

Guid­ing the re­sis­tance

Be­cause it an­tic­i­pated what a Trump pres­i­dency might en­tail, the ACLU was po­si­tioned to act quickly—and mo­bi­lize its sup­port­ers—to com­bat Trump’s so-called travel bans.

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