Mike Lee at the Greater Philadelphia Chapter annual meeting in 2017 (photo credit: Ben Bowens)

Greetings! I am excited and humbled to begin my service this week as the next executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. I am ready to get to work to protect and advance the civil liberties of everyone in the commonwealth.

I am a life-long Pennsylvanian, born and raised in Philadelphia. I grew up in the Northwest section of Philadelphia and graduated from Central High School 259 (Class of 2000). Following high school, I attended Morehouse College for a year before transferring and graduating from The George Washington University with a major in communications. 

My first day of classes at GWU was 9/11/2001. By March, I was attending my first large protests of the pending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My burning desire for social change was not fully activated until August of 2005 when news coverage of people impacted by Hurricane Katrina and a lack of government response made me more than mad; it made me focused. 

The following August, I was beginning my first year of law school as a member of the inaugural class of Drexel University’s Tom Kline School of Law. Throughout my law school path, I helped found the Drexel chapter of the ACLU-PA, organized alternative spring breaks for pro bono service to New Orleans, and raised my consciousness by seeking out people and organizations. These experiences gave me the confidence and perspective to start a pro bono project shortly after obtaining my law license, which later became Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE).

I served as PLSE’s executive director for seven years, growing the organization from an idea to an established nonprofit. While at PLSE, I used the delivery of a legal service, expungements, to connect and build community for people impacted by the discrimination of a criminal record. I had the privilege of traveling to many parts of Pennsylvania training bar associations and community groups on PLSE’s legal service model. 

In addition to leading PLSE, I provided pro bono criminal defense representation to people arrested during protests, often in partnership with the ACLU-PA. I volunteered on a legal defense team for arrests made during the Occupy Philly movement. My friend, Larry Krasner, was also on this team.

In early 2017, Larry asked me to serve as his campaign chair for his candidacy for district attorney of Philadelphia County and then asked me to serve in his administration, which I did for the last six years. While at the district attorney’s office, I served as the director of government affairs, supervisor of adult diversion, and the last two years as the chief of staff. 

I bring unique first-hand experiences of criminal justice reform from an internal, intragovernmental, and community perspective. At times, I feel like we are making great strides towards a fairer, more equitable society. However, I also feel the intensifying counter responses to reform and progress.

I am excited to share these experiences with you and hear yours as I begin my journey as the next executive director of the ACLU-PA. My primary goal will always be to ensure a safe and healthy work environment. Social change work is challenging and exhausting. I believe my main responsibility is to monitor and maintain organizational health and wellness, with the support of the board. 

Over the next year, I’m looking forward to learning more about ACLU culture by seeking out people and organizations. I am particularly thrilled to travel to the many beautiful counties of Pennsylvania to not only meet many of you but also gain appreciation for where you live and the impact ACLU-PA has on your surroundings. 

Additionally, I am ready to do my part to continue defending democracy and challenging discrimination. Attacks against voting rights are often focused on people based on their identity, particularly Black and brown voters. I believe the ACLU-PA, through its integrated advocacy model that combines legal, advocacy and policy, and communications work, is exceptionally positioned to not only protect democracy and constitutional rights but also advocate for change by challenging discrimination wherever it appears.

Pennsylvania is a beautiful and diverse commonwealth that reflects the opportunities and challenges of the United States. Pennsylvania has a rich history of advancement, as one of the first states to fund historically Black colleges, build interstate highways, lead the charge against colonial oppression, and acknowledge the horrific errors of slavery. In the present, we want Pennsylvania to continue that spirit of progress. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has a role to play in that; the organization’s commitment to social change through strategic planning matched with the talented staff results in a one-of-a-kind organization. 

I am humbled to be of service.

Enjoy today,

Mike Lee