ACLU of Michigan's loss is national ACLU's gain


American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss is heading to the national ACLU headquarters in New York to work with all of the 53 state offices as director of Affiliate Support and Nationwide Initiatives.

– Photo by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

It is difficult to imagine the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan without Executive Director Kary Moss.

Under Moss’s 20 years of leadership, the ACLU of Michigan’s staff has grown from four to nearly 40 and the budget increased from $600,000 to about $6,000,000.

Moreover, Moss has played an enormous role in creating strong partnerships throughout the state, positioning ACLU as a strong player in furthering the rights of all.

“I think one of the things I’m proudest of is all the important relationships we’ve formed,” Moss said. “They’re diverse in so many ways — politically diverse, diverse by ethnicity and religion, diverse in gender and ability. Building bridges has been a very important priority for me.”

Now Moss will take her dynamic package of talent, compassion, and discernment to national ACLU headquarters in New York. She will be working with all of the 53 state offices as Director of Affiliate Support and Nationwide Initiatives, part of the ACLU’s senior leadership team.

“The focus is on building capacity in all the states and doing it in smart ways, deploying resources to the states for high impact efforts,” Moss saids.

“The state offices vary greatly in terms of how old they are, how much staff they have, how many active members there are. So there are vast differences in capacity and opportunity. I’ll be trying to make sure that everybody is powerful and at their best and growing in excellence.”

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 as a response to the Palmer Raids when the U.S. Attorney General rounded up and deported thousands of “communist radicals,” ignoring their constitutional rights to due process.

Since then, the ACLU has “worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” including everything from protesting the internment of Japanese Americans in the World War II era to defending the first amendment rights of free speech for American Nazis to suing for religious freedom in education in the famous 1925 Scopes trial and the lesser-known Kitzmiller v. Dover of 2005.

The organization saw a significant increase in both membership (from 400,000 to 1.84 million) and donations (from an average $3-5 million annually to $120 million in 2017) with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

As Fortune magazine reports, the ACLU is leveraging  that increased interest to build and to hire more lawyers. And, as in Moss’s new position, to strengthen the state offices and their capacity for activism.

Moss points out that although the ACLU has historically been known for “operating through the courts,” the organization has never been limited to that avenue.

“We’ve also lobbied and advocated, at all levels. We’re often the only active civil rights presence in Congress. What’s a little different now is that we’re experimenting with how we can best fulfill the mission, the values expressed in the Constitution.

“For example, in Michigan we worked on Promote the Vote, which would expand access to the ballot [which will be Proposal 3 in November]. We want to help the states develop tools to take advantage of grassroots interest,” she says, noting that the new program People Power was intended as one of those tools.

Moss said she will miss Michigan, and she and her husband are keeping their house here. She does have a daughter in Baltimore, so visiting her will be easier.

“I really treasure the relationships that I’ve worked hard to build for 20 years,” she said. “It’s very bittersweet. It does feel hard to give it up, though I don’t know if I’m giving it up, really. It’s part of what will make me effective, I think.”

A native of Southfield, Moss attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree, before leaving for New York to get her masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and her J.D. from CUNY Law School at Queen’s College. She went on to clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, then actually started out her career  at the national ACLU offices, as a staff attorney for its Women’s Rights Project, founded by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“It feels very poetic, very neat,” she said. “It’s been exactly 20 years here. I started off at the national office and moved back to Michigan and now to be able to go back and work with all the states just seems like an incredible opportunity.”

She has won numerous awards and recognitions, including as a State Bar of Michigan Champion of Justice and a place in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame; and has served as chair of the ACLU’s Executive Director Council.

saidsays that among her accomplishments, which include leading two funding campaigns and opening an office in Grand Rapids, there are three that stand out for her, though she notes that narrowing it down is difficult. She also emphasizes that the successes were not hers alone, but the result of teamwork with wonderful colleagues.

First is the ACLU’s work during the Flint crisis.

“That was really life-changing. We began working on that without having any sense of the magnitude of the problem. It really began with our investigative reporter. What he did was so important to exposing the crisis,” Moss said.

Their reporter, Curt Guyette, who has now received many awards for his journalistic work in Flint, originally was tasked with exploring the repercussions of the state’s emergency manager law, but he was ultimately instrumental in finding out what was really going on — because he listened to the people of Flint.

“Core to democracy is the need for people to trust the system. They need to feel that their voices matter,” Moss said.

Since then the ACLU has gone on to spearhead lawsuits, one resulting in a legally-required timeframe to address the situation, and another which guarantees remedies for future  problems caused by childhood exposure to lead in Flint.

Another area of which Moss is proud is the advocacy for Promote the Vote, since she regards ensuring voting access for all people as fundamental to the success of the nation.

Finally, Moss points to something that is a little less concrete, and involves the notion of resilience.

“We have to build the communities we’re in,” she said. “Lawsuits are a great start, but they never solve social problems in and of themselves. We have to make sure communities are able to hold people in power accountable. We have to work to empower people to make changes themselves, and make them sustainable.

“I’m proud that I was able to bring that idea to my work,” she added.

Moss starts her new national position in November. There will be a national search for her replacement at the ACLU of Michigan.