I was extremely anxious before beginning my internship at the Utah affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Although I had been learning a lot about the court system and legislative argumentation in legal studies courses at Brandeis, my undergraduate level of education made me feel insecure in a work environment with graduate students and legal professionals. However, my nerves faded away the moment I met the welcoming staff and interns. Everyone greeted me with a warm smile and open arms to the conference room where I joined the rest of the interns to work on our respective projects. I soon sat down with my supervisor Leah Farrell to discuss her expectations for the rest of the summer. Unlike internships that force their interns to fetch coffee and stay in the background, the ACLU of Utah urges its interns to find a social justice project that sparks their passion and to pursue as far as they can.
In general, the ACLU of Utah follows the three-part strategy of public education, litigation, and lobbying at the state and national level to protect the constitutional rights and freedoms of everyone living or visiting Utah. Racial justice, immigrant rights, the criminal justice system, protection of the First Amendment, reproductive freedoms, and equality is a short list of all of the topics this organization covers.
Recently, the ACLU of Utah celebrated its 60th anniversary and I was lucky enough to be a part of the festivities. Throughout the evening, student activists received scholarships for their advocacy work. The photo above is of the delicious birthday cake!
Already in my first week, I am researching attempts to both remove and protect gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Utah public high schools. Historically, the ACLU of Utah fought to establish the acceptance of GSA in the state’s public schools. By partnering with motivated students, the ACLU strives to diminish the taboo behind sexuality discussions and enforce the Equal Access Act, a federal law that compels funded secondary schools to give equal access to all extracurricular student clubs. GSAs operate just like any other school-based club or activity, from mock trial to Future Business Leaders of America, except that GSAs pursue the unique mission to create a safe space for students to discuss their own sexuality. By learning more about the legal and political restrictions that make it difficult to establish these clubs, I only become more passionate about this issue. Throughout the process, I have been learning how Utah laws govern the creation of student clubs and how differing interpretations of district policies can either inhibit or encourage a space for a GSA. Moreover, I have improved upon my research and organizational skills while trying to understand this complex problem.
As I look forward to the rest of my time at the ACLU of Utah, I hope to gain further insights into how this small and scrappy organization uses the tools of litigation and social action to hold powerful institutions accountable for their actions. I’m excited to forge connections with the professionals around me who have dedicated their careers to civil rights advocacy.
Image of ACLU of Utah logo in celebration of its 60th anniversary.