Reggie Shuford reflects on 26 years at the ACLU

(Credit: Ben Bowens)

After 11 years as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, preceded by 15 years as a staff attorney and senior staff attorney at the national ACLU in New York City, I informed my board and staff colleagues in November of my decision to step down. Over the past few years, I have felt the call to return to my home state of North Carolina to join the fight for racial, economic and social justice. In mid-February, I will become the executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, the state’s preeminent, progressive non-profit organization advocating for economic justice. My final day at ACLU-PA will be January 6.

The call to return home was strong and the decision to leave not easy. I have been privileged to do civil liberties and civil rights work at the ACLU for the past 26 years, with a particular focus on racial justice, inspired by my experience growing up in Wilmington, NC, the third of five children of a single mother, who supplemented government assistance with meager earnings as a domestic. 

Wilmington is home to the only successful coup on American soil, the Massacre of 1898, which left at least 60 Black residents dead and many more permanently banished at the hands of white supremacists. A resounding success, it became the blueprint for similar white supremacy campaigns across the South. Once a thriving, majority-Black metropolis, governed by a multi-racial coalition, the town has been slow to recover, with persistent social and residential segregation, and inequitable economic opportunities. Its Black population now hovers at just over 17%. Racial strife - exemplified by deeply entrenched opposition to integration and the case of the Wilmington Ten  - permeated the air, inspiring my lifelong passion for racial justice. 

But it is the sting of intergenerational poverty and the chaos, unpredictability, instability and vulnerability it bred that I recall most acutely from my childhood. My work at the NC Justice Center will allow me to advocate for the economically marginalized - disproportionately Black people and other people of color - and to join the fight to eliminate poverty, by ensuring that every household in the state has access to the resources, services and fair treatment it needs to achieve economic security. 

My 26 years at the ACLU have been life changing, and they have prepared me well for the next phase of my journey. When I left NC for New York City in 1995 to start work at the national ACLU, my ideas of what lay ahead were inchoate at best. Suffice it to say, my expectations were wildly exceeded. At the national ACLU, where I focused on racial justice, I helped to pioneer legal challenges to racial profiling and popularized the term “driving while black.” I worked to protect affirmative action and to challenge the criminalization of Black and brown students. I became the organization’s first ever Attorneys of Color Recruitment and Retention Officer, focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion, long before those concepts became commonplace.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have accomplished a lot together over the last 11 years. Among other things, we defeated a pernicious voter ID law that would have disenfranchised many of the commonwealth’s most marginalized residents. We achieved marriage equality in Pennsylvania a year before it became the law of the land. We won an important student free speech case at the Supreme Court of the United States. We continue the fight for a more equitable and less racist criminal legal system and have seen a 20% decrease in the state’s prison population. We beat back efforts to further narrow access to abortion. Early in my tenure, I served on the legislative study commission on the death penalty, which Governor Wolf cited when he implemented a moratorium on executions. 

We also restructured our organization to establish the Advocacy and Policy Department, which increased our work in coalitions and with directly impacted communities. We created a trans rights program and developed a first-of-its-kind language access policy. And we not only survived the Trump years - with all the assaults on civil liberties he promised while on the campaign trail - but came out a bigger, better and stronger organization. 

As important as all of the policy accomplishments have been in impacting the lives of Pennsylvanians, I am equally proud of the internal work we have been doing at ACLU-PA to make it a more equitable organization. In 2018, we undertook a salary study with an expert consultant, in order to bring our compensation practices in line with industry standards and to provide greater equity in our pay scale. In 2020, we implemented a sabbatical policy for all staff, who, after working at the ACLU-PA for 10 years, can take off 12 weeks with full pay and no work obligations. Since the start of the pandemic, we have closed the office two weeks per year, in August and over the winter holidays. We have expanded our summer half-day Fridays to year-round. We have a generous benefits package that includes significant time off with full pay for new parents, ample vacation, personal and sick time, health, life and dental insurance, and a 401k plan that matches employee contributions. We continue to incorporate ABIDE (an acronym I coined for “Authentic Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity”) throughout every aspect of the organization to make it a place where everyone can do their best work and have meaningful, balanced lives outside of work.

That is not to say there have not been challenges. We were caught off guard by the size, nature and speed of the growth that came during the Trump years, in which we diversified and more than doubled staff and tripled the budget and membership. Growth of that magnitude, when done well, typically requires careful planning and management. We did not have that luxury. 

We also struggled, like every institution, during 2020, when we confronted the multiple pandemics of the coronavirus, civil unrest related to police murdering George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, and the presidential election of 2020 that took our democracy to the brink. We did all of this while embarking upon a really challenging strategic planning process, requiring difficult but essential conversations, particularly about race. The implications of so much reckoning - racial, political, institutional and otherwise - are still being felt today. 

Looking ahead, I am confident that the next executive director of the ACLU-PA is well positioned to succeed. The organization is financially sound, and a strategic planning framework is in place, with clarity around the subject matter issues and organizational prerogatives deemed priorities. Likewise, the ACLU-PA remains committed to ensuring its internal practices align with the values it preaches. 

Above all else, it is the people who work at the ACLU-PA that are the primary reason the next ED will succeed. It’s the people. They are the best. They are in large part why I succeeded, and they are why the person who follows me will be successful, too.

I am grateful to my ACLU colleagues; I express that gratitude all of the time. I am grateful to colleagues past and present - those here in Pennsylvania and those across the country, all of whom gave me a home these past 26 years and who are the most brilliant, committed and compassionate people I have ever met. 

I also hold appreciation for the Philadelphia public interest legal and social justice communities. The solidarity and collaborative spirit are unlike any other place I’ve lived. When I moved to Philadelphia 11 years ago, I hardly knew anyone. But, from the very beginning, I felt welcomed and embraced. I was given the space and grace to grow as an organizational and a community leader and to have impact in Philadelphia and across the commonwealth. Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, more than lived up to its moniker. I have felt it deeply, and I return it ten-fold.

A final note of gratitude: Thanks to all who have supported our work, financially and otherwise, over all these years. Your generosity has allowed us to take on critical issues that have a genuine impact on the lives of Pennsylvanians and all Americans. Thank you.