Post 5: Final Week at the ACLU of Utah

ACLU of Utah legal observers at the March For Our Lives town hall; Courtesy of ACLU of Utah Facebook page

After reading the most recent New York Times article on ACLU litigation, social justice has become more controversial than ever. From working at the ACLU of Utah office over the summer, I have learned that social justice does not always agree with the political agenda of representatives and specialty groups. When I first started, I only understood the logic and reasons behind supporting social justice movements and causes. Now I realize that many people view social justice as a one-party cause. While attending a March for Our Lives town hall—where the ACLU of Utah was represented—I was happily surprised to see members from both sides of the argument participate in civil conversation and yes, dissent, in order to find common ground. Although these moments are tense, I realized that it is possible to create a dialogue with people you never thought imaginable. Social justice is about human advocacy that should permeate throughout political spectrums.

Throughout my internship, I have observed and participated in meetings on topics like criminal justice, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, immigration, disability rights, media strategy, and so much more. I have worked independently on research about gay straight alliances (GSA), judicial bypass statutes, and social media strategy that will be used in upcoming advocacy and litigation work. Most recently, I accompanied the legislative and policy counsel, Marina Lowe, on an appearance to the Utah capitol to sit in on interim judicial and legislative sessions. I even got to see my representatives! Being able to both observe debates between Utah representatives on various topics and contribute to those debates with the ACLU of Utah makes me feel empowered about my role to change policy in my hometown.

But of course not everything came easily. I wish I had known more about the arduous process behind pushing for positive legislation or initiating events and meetings. Everyone in the office works very hard to accomplish goals that protect and enhance the Bill of Rights. Because I feel passionate about the issues that the ACLU of Utah advocates for, learning to be patient setting up meetings with other organizations and taking the time to complete thorough research was a skill that I was eager to enhance. For anyone who wants to pursue an internship at any ACLU location, one piece of advice I’d give is to show passion for an issue that you believe in. Stay up to date on pertinent legislation and inquire about the legal careers of people around you. Even though I have to say goodbye to the ACLU of Utah office over the school year, I fully plan on contributing as a volunteer when I’m home.

Thank you ACLU of Utah team for having me!   

Post 4: World of Work at the ACLU of Utah

My time with the ACLU of Utah has felt like a whirlwind experience. It’s odd to think that I won’t fully see my research come to fruition because I simply won’t be in the office everyday. I have had the opportunity to meet with leaders of other non-profit organizations in the area, participate in marches, and oversee team meetings. It all feels strange to have to go back to a classroom setting after everything I observed and learned over the summer. But nonetheless, I am eager to go back to Brandeis and bring the skills and knowledge I have learned with me.

Looking back, I can split my final takeaways into two categories: 1) workplace and 2) social justice. Both can go hand in hand but are also very different.

As an intern or as I like to the call myself the “bottom of the office totem pole,” it was important for me to adapt to the workplace environment. For the most part, everyone is pretty relaxed and flexible; however, appropriate workplace etiquette is still required. Some of these things include appropriate language when talking to one’s superior or just with the other interns, being patient with yourself and those around you, and being proactive to complete assignments or ask for more to do. Especially in an environment where everyone is older, it’s extremely important to make your voice heard.

Logo for the Odyssey House; Courtesy of their twitter @OdysseyHouseUtah

On the social justice front, I realized that any goal—no matter how small or large—will always take time. Usually, the ACLU of Utah will work with a lot of different organizations in order to get to an end result. For example, this week I was able to join the entire office on a field trip to tour the Odyssey House—a non-profit organization that serves individuals and families with addiction, mental health, and physical health issues. Although there is a lot of work to do to reduce recidivism and addiction care within the criminal justice system, the partnership between the ACLU of Utah and the Odyssey house begins to repair the gap. This visit opened my eyes to the struggles of everyday Utah citizens and the many outlets that exist to make a change in the community.

Moreover, I have also learned that by collaborating and inviting more than one voice to the table, it’s important to be respectful of the varying opinions in the room. There are always two sides to every story—maybe three— so to enact meaningful change means to find a balance of what you want versus the other party. Monthly, the ACLU of Utah hosts a meeting with their legal panel of attorneys to discuss current cases. While observing, I noticed that even when members of the ACLU of Utah community come together, everyone has their own thoughts on how to best handle a situation in the courtroom. But no matter how each attorney felt, they all engaged in civil discourse and used respectful language to persuade the group. To me, this example demonstrates what social justice is all about: it’s about embracing teamwork and asking for help when you need it.

I am excited to go back to school but I am really going to miss the faces I saw everyday in the ACLU of Utah office. Everyone took on a challenge with a “we’re in this together” attitude that I will not forget. For my sophomore year at Brandeis, I aspire to be open to learning new things and shop classes that may be outside of my comfort zone. I realized that I may never be the smartest or most experienced in the classroom, but those qualities are not faults to feel worried about. Instead, I am going to embrace what I can learn from my peers and professors. All in all, I feel bittersweet about what my final weeks at the ACLU of Utah have to offer!

Post 3: How The ACLU of Utah Creates Change

When I first told people of my summer internship at the ACLU of Utah, many envisioned the experience as working at a large corporation inside a massive building. However, the Utah affiliate is actually a small and intimate place where the eleven people who walk in the door every day take on the workload just like any other ACLU office. Of course, don’t let its small size fool you. Everyone works diligently and passionately to advocate for anyone living or visiting Utah. The staff, board of directors, legal panel, members, and volunteers all come together to pursue effective change in a place everyone calls home. 

As an intern, I’ve had the opportunity to work on many different aspects of the ACLU of Utah’s mission to create necessary change in Utah. I’ve researched different social justice topics such as LGBTQ rights and the reproductive rights of minors, and I’ve worked in the intake department. Each month, the ACLU of Utah receives about one hundred complaints asking for help on a wide range of legal concerns. Dedicated to responding to every complaint, I read or translated complaints, conducted research on the given legal problem, and discussed the issue further with the staff attorneys to craft a response. Depending on the situation, the ACLU of Utah follows a rubric to determine which cases should be taken in-house and which should be diverted to another attorney or legal resource. When I would discuss potential litigation projects with ACLU attorneys, we would always need to determine if the potential lawsuit could create a large enough impact in order to instigate reform.  

Each of these small steps—reading each complaint, conducting research on specific issues, discussing case details with ACLU attorneys—add up to determine the scope of a given case and whether it has the potential to affect policy or change the status quo. Moreover, Marina Lowe, the legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah, works at the Utah Capitol to encourage positive legislation to move forward or to stop harmful legislation from becoming law. Her role is to influence the legal and policy process before the need for “cease and desist” letters and lawsuits arises. The ACLU of Utah strives to inform the public about the bills proposed during the Utah legislative session and their analysis of important U.S. Supreme Court decisions. By coordinating with the media, the ACLU of Utah can broadcast important news or information in order to engage advocates or simply to update the public.

Image of the Utah Capitol, or the “Hill”; Courtesy of ACLU of Utah
Marina Lowe testifying in front of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee to stop HB 260– a bill that rolled back Fourth Amendment protections for law enforcement searches of prescription drug records. It failed on the Senate floor! Courtesy: ACLU of Utah, Feb. 15, 2018.

As all of the other legal interns seek to become fully knowledgeable about current ACLU of Utah litigation, Margie Nash, the staff paralegal, organizes weekly “brown bag” lunches. These events allow interns to meet and learn from ACLU of Utah staff members and legal staff from allied organizations. I really enjoy these lunches because it’s a time to host an informal presentation in a stress-free environment. By exposing us to other professions and organizations, the ACLU of Utah expands our options for social justice work in the future. Some of these lunches include speakers from the Disability Law Center, legal director John Mejia, and legislative and policy counsel Marina Lowe. I can’t wait for the next brown bag lunch!

– Anna Greenberg

Post 2: Families Belong Together! My Time at the ACLU of Utah

Even though I still have three more years at Brandeis, I have already begun to learn many critical concepts, theories, and ideas that apply to the real-world. Legal studies, one of my favorite departments so far, introduces the principle of due process as a basic protection that is consistently violated by the court system, police officers, and school administrators when a conflict arises. Due process is a legal requirement that the state must respect all the rights owed to a person. During my freshman year, I analyzed cases under the framework of due process to determine how a judge’s language or court conduct could better protect the fairness and constitutional rights of the person involved. This same strategy can be found here at the ACLU of Utah. 

Under the banner of the Know Your Rights campaign, the ACLU of Utah strives to make the Bill of Rights accessible to everyone. No matter who you are, you should know your rights as a student, as a protester, as a voter, or as a prisoner. Due process is a key component of how the government treats people who express their constitutional rights. From the treatment of incarcerated persons to the restrictive legislation that inhibits a woman’s reproductive choice, the desire for fairness and impartiality influences our everyday thoughts. 

With all of this in mind, I have been investigating reproductive rights for minors, specifically Utah’s judicial bypass statute for parental consent and notification if a minor seeks an abortion. What may seem like a simple and expedited process can in reality expose a frightened minor to unnecessary embarrassment and humiliation at the hands of biased judges and incompetent guardians. Jane’s Due Process, an organization that aids minors in legal representation and spreads awareness on judicial bypass, exposes the difficulties that minors experience when seeking an abortion without parental consent and or notification. Many states will make what is commonly known as the “escape route” as complicated as possible. In Utah, the majority of teenagers have no knowledge of their options or ability to bypass parental involvement. By researching the tools other states employ to connect with youth, I am compiling strategies that the ACLU of Utah can use to launch a future Judicial Bypass Project. 

However, reproductive rights for minors is not the only issue that encounter constitutional roadblocks. The ACLU of Utah organized a rally to protest the Trump administration’s new immigration policy to separate children from their parents if they cross the border illegally. This policy is also being applied to families seeking asylum at the southern border, which triggered an ACLU lawsuit earlier this spring. For asylum seekers, this new policy of family separation violates their rights to due process; they are not being treated the same as others seeking asylum who cross the border at a different location. Other examples of due process violations include unreasonable searches such as entering a home without a warrant, limited access to a competent attorney, and cruel or unusual treatment by the corrections system. 

#FamiliesBelongTogether Rally on June 1, 2018; Photo courtesy of ACLU of Utah

While examining all of these issues and their relation to due process, I realized that when one group’s rights are restricted, everyone is at risk. It’s important to combat all forms of private and public forms of discrimination in order to hold judicial agents accountable in keeping all processes equitable. 

Recently, the ACLU of Utah participated in the annual Salt Lake City Pride Festival and Parade. During the march, a large group of ACLU staff, interns, and volunteers walked together in solidarity for LGBTQ rights. I was able to act as an ambassador for the ACLU of Utah by volunteering at the festival and answering questions and handing out fun ACLU of Utah swag!

Selfie of me and my sisters after marching at the Pride Parade with the ACLU of Utah!
ACLU leading the Pride Parade! Photo courtesy of Utah Pride Festival

Post 1: First Week At The ACLU of Utah

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.