My second week at the ACLU of Illinois was a whirlwind of activity and learning. As the administrative staff was out on vacation, I had to step up and take responsibility for all of their duties. While this was an incredibly intimidating challenge for the very beginning of my internship, upon reflection at the end of the week, I believe it went better than I expected. There’s nothing like pressure to make one learn procedures and tasks quickly and efficiently!
While many aspects of my week were pleasing, I was repeatedly confronted with a difficult truth not only about myself, but about non-profit organizations in general: we can’t help all people all the time. A little personal history: I grew up within a family of avid and involved activists. My father was clergy, and also volunteered and participated on the boards of many organizations: Planned Parenthood, The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Organization of the North East, and the Human Rights Coalition, to name a small portion. My mother, an attorney, did lots of pro bono work with various non-profits as well. I spent many evenings of my childhood sitting in various conference rooms and church basements, listening to the meetings of these organizations and the illustration of each group’s goals, struggles, and achievements. I grew up attending protests, participating in marches, and volunteering my time.
Many aspects of my life have been influenced by the presence of these organizations and activism surrounding the issues that they stand for, and my desire to enact positive change in the world through my future career goals in law and beyond, stem from these influences. My desire to help people while learning is one of the reasons that I was drawn to working at the ACLU this summer. While I have definitely participated in helping people in my short time here so far, one of the hardest lessons to learn and accept is that I (and we at the organization) just can’t help everyone.
In no area is this more experienced than our intake department, through which individuals request legal assistance from us. Everyday I receive and process many legal requests for our aid via phone, email, mail, fax, and even occasionally in person. Due to the never-ending injustices that people throughout the country face, the stream of intake requests is similarly endless. People of every age and background utilize their rights and project their voices, fighting often for their own advancement, but just as often, for the advancement of others.
The majority of cases we receive and the stories that have been conveyed to me have merit, both legally and from a social justice perspective. However, the ACLU is an organization “dedicated to protecting the liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the state Constitution, and state/federal human rights laws. The ACLU accomplishes its goals through litigating, lobbying and educating the public on a broad array of civil liberties issues” (http://www.aclu-il.org/about/). The cases it takes on are specific in terms of civil liberties issues, and broad in terms of the national impact of each case that they choose to take on. The ACLU is certainly not unique in its specific focus; many legal aid organizations and non-profit organizations have specific focuses surrounding specific causes. The difficulty is, many individuals who have heard of our services have not also heard of our limitations (http://www.aclu-il.org/about/requesting-legal-assistance/). There are many cases that we therefore have to turn away. While we often include helpful resources pertaining to their issues and references to more personalized aid from other organizations, institutions, and individuals, as someone new to the workings of such a large-scale organization, the cases we can’t take and the people we can’t help (as much as we may want to), weigh on me.
Yet perhaps this weighing on me isn’t completely negative – possibly it is the key to remaining compassionate while still upholding the procedures of the organization. Indeed, perhaps truly the hardest lesson to learn this summer will be how to balance the possession of compassion for all people and their struggles, while equally remembering that no single person (or organization) can take on the weight of the world.
-Tess Doubet King