The Promise of Systemic Equality Starts at Home

Last month, we called on the Biden administration to reckon with systemic racism. We're doing that work at our own organization too though.

For more than a century, the ACLU has been on the frontlines advancing civil liberties and civil rights. This has meant not only defending rights for all but taking bold positions in order to help America live up to her own ideals — a reality that is better than where we are, and one that is never finished. For over 100 years, this aspiration of a more perfect union has been our story.

Today, we are focused on a new chapter of that story: one where we’ve turned our attention inward to our own culture and systems to evolve as an organization that is reflecting internally the ambitions we have set externally.

Since 2016, the national headquarters of the ACLU has grown by nearly 80 percent in our staff population alone. In summer 2020, we took a census of our employee population and found that 11.6 percent of staff identify as Black/African American, which puts us above the labor market and census data average—but we can do better.

With our staff growth comes a renewed call to action. As the ACLU continues to expand, we have a responsibility to scale our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to increase pathways to employment, strengthen our culture of belonging, and enhance our professional development commitments to underrepresented staff in particular.

That’s why we’re eager to share a bit of this next chapter in the ACLU’s work. Last month, we launched our Systemic Equality Initiative calling on the Biden administration and the country to reckon with systems of structural racism that Black and Indigenous people in this country have experienced over generations.

Joining with the Robin Hood Foundation and other prominent companies and organizations on the NinetyToZero pledge, which ensures needle-moving actions to advance racial equity by growing Black talent and investing in Black businesses, we are committing ourselves to a transformative vision for equity within our organization. We start with establishing a baseline. By 2025, the National ACLU is committed to the goal of achieving and sustaining 16 percent Black staff representation at every level of our organization.

Like many organizations, the ACLU has been engaged in ongoing work to dismantle systems of power and oppression to create lasting, meaningful change. We recognize that systemic racism pervades every aspect of life, from interactions with law enforcement, to access to housing and capital, to health care and education—as well as the workplace.

Nonprofits, NGOs, and mission-driven organizations everywhere are not removed or exempt from the power dynamics in workplaces across the country. But we believe we have a responsibility to build—with humility and vision—an organization that is more perfect than the sum of its parts. Creating meaningful change starts with changing ourselves. While our journey has not been perfect, we know that naming this work courageously and unapologetically is the first step toward bringing others along with us.

We’re committing ourselves to this work through dedicated recruitment, pipeline and partnership building, and restorative inclusion. We are also holding ourselves accountable through robust data and measurement. Here’s how we’re approaching this work: 

First, we are committing to sustained recruitment and hiring efforts from more diverse talent pools.  This includes launching recruitment partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), talent recruitment programs, and recruitment outreach campaigns focused on sourcing Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) applicants. We are also changing our interviewing process to meaningfully increase the number of underrepresented candidates that receive interviews for open roles through inclusive job descriptions, structured hiring trainings, and quarterly meetings with our department heads to create intentional goals.

Second, we are building new pipelines to engage and develop BIPOC candidates earlier in their careers.This year we expanded our paid national internship program by more than 50 percent to reach more interns across the country. We are building specific internship opportunities for BIPOC communities and underrepresented college students, and building an intentional pipeline with our National Advocacy Institute to engage the next generation of leaders as early as possible.In addition, next year we will be launching a new President’s Fellowship Program across ACLU departments specifically for recent college graduates from underrepresented backgrounds.

Third, we are creating initiatives to promote and retain Black leadership, and foster an equitable culture to support them. To help achieve this, we are doubling down on our efforts to provide paths for growth through progression charts and quarterly reporting of promotion data at the ACLU, and are posting senior leadership roles internally as well as externally. In addition, we are creating internal professional development programs and external resources for underrepresented staff to grow and advance in their roles. This includes intentional mentorship and sponsorship programs, which will foster relationships so that underrepresented staff have champions to elevate their work, create community, and influence and advise on organization-wide topics and practices.To support this goal, we have created proactive trainings on the ways anti-Blackness shows up in the workplace and ways we can dismantle it through bystander intervention, restorative circles, and other accountability measures.

Fourth, we are engaging Black-owned and Black-led contractors. This is an opportunity for the ACLU to leverage its significant organizational “purchasing power” to invest in businesses owned and operated by people from BIPOC and other underrepresented communities. The ACLU’s Vendor EDIB program is a key tool the ACLU can leverage to build Black wealth.

Fifth, we are partnering with Black-owned financial institutions and businesses.This initiative will ensure that we’re utilizing the financial resources of the ACLU and distributing them more equitably and sustainably. We’re investigating how we can use our capital and assets and invest them with Black banks—building up that wealth in Black communities beyond the ACLU.

In all of these efforts, we are committed to robust measurement and accountability to assess our efficacy. Our people analytics team within our HR department will track ACLU hiring, promotion, and attrition data quarterly and report out annually to the entire organization.This data will hold us accountable and ensure that we walk the walk, not just talk the talk, when it comes to these efforts and initiatives. The future of the ACLU, and every success we have, hinges on our ability to develop, foster, and sustain a workplace of racial equity, economic justice, and transformative inclusion.