One of the great perks of interning with the ACLU is how much time and effort the organization invests in their interns. Apart from being incredibly welcoming, being willing to hand out projects, and giving us staff-level responsibilities, many activities of both community-building and educational content are organized for our benefit.
One of the many events that take place for our edification throughout the summer are the mini lectures given by various staff within the organization, informally known as “brown bag lunch” programming. During these events, all interns and any interested staff gather around a large table, eat lunch, and listen to stories about the staff member’s career, their experience, their inspirations, the difficulties their positions pose, and the paths they took to arrive where they are today. Interns are encouraged to ask questions both during and after the talks are given.
I have had the privilege of attending two brown bag lunches so far. The first addressed holding the position of a legislator for the ACLU, and the second addressed holding the position of senior attorney and litigator for the ACLU. Khadine, the legislator, presented her position at the ACLU as the perfect combination between desk work and active work in the field. She spends a lot of the year in the Chicago office, doing the exciting and very important work of drafting bills to put before the Illinois government, and several months out of the year in Springfield, lobbying for votes on bills that uphold civil liberties, and giving presentations for and against various bills. Her legal and legislative work is incredibly important to furthering the goals of the ACLU, and making tangible, positive change within the state of Illinois. She acknowledged that in these times the title of “lobbyist” can have complicated connotations, yet she distinguished these connotations from the work of lobbyists in many human rights organizations. While there can be a lot of money spent by companies and organizations on the political figures needed to pass bills, the ACLU does not participate in these practices at all. Legislation and lobbying has also come to feel futile in recent years on the national scale, but Khadine was quick to assure us that on the state level, this feels very different. While many bills are nationally stalled, a lot of good work and change is accomplished in Springfield for the state. She has personally been responsible for and/or involved in acquiring the votes for many important bills, including the recent passing of marriage equality in Illinois.
Ben, a senior litigator at the ACLU also presented, mainly concentrating on his work surrounding reform within the foster care system in the state of Illinois. Through litigation, mediation, etc., he and the ACLU have caused many positive changes in the foster care system, including increased accountability of foster parents, more appropriate case loads for social workers to better enable them to serve and keep track of the children in their care, better systems of record-keeping to reduce abuse, neglect, and assault from foster care providers as well as from fellow foster children, and vast improvements in incentives and placement (often in the homes of close family members) to provide children with stability and longevity in their foster homes to help enable them to form healthy interpersonal connections and bonds. This is an open case that he has been working on for several decades, sometimes acquiring positive reform, sometimes witnessing regression.
I gained a great deal from both presentations. From Khadine, I was introduced to a field that combines two of my career interests: law and politics. It is not a field I had ever considered for my future professional career, but after her presentation, it is a field I am giving serious consideration to. From Ben, I was introduced to the concept of the long legal struggle. It is important to recognize that not all issues are simple, and not all issues are able to be solved through a quick or even a single legal victory. Oftentimes the systems that need the most change and are the most heart-breaking, are also the systems that will require the longest battles. Yet even after decades of fighting this fight, Ben has retained his idealism, his faith in system-reform, and his desire to help as many children as possible. That is a lesson worth learning, and a spirit to keep with me as I move forward in my career and my life.
-Tess Doubet King