GW ACLU chapter to advocate for human rights, recruit members during first year

Media Credit: Photo Illustration by Krishna Rajpara | Assistant Photo Editor

Student leaders said ACLU-GW is seeking to establish a list of consistent members and create a chapter constitution during the fall.

The American Civil Liberties Union is starting a chapter at GW this fall to protect national civil liberties through student-led advocacy on campus.

Student leaders said they formed the GW-based chapter of the ACLU – a civil rights advocacy organization of legal professionals and volunteers who defend citizens’ civil liberties – in May to recruit members and develop a chapter constitution this semester before registering as a student organization in the spring. Members said the chapter will tackle civil rights issues that affect students, like the threat against reproductive rights after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which inspired their interest to join ACLU-GW and increase advocacy on campus.

Senior Gabriella Lehrman, ACLU-GW’s founder and co-president, said the group is planning to organize social events, like a ticketed movie night, to fund their organization. She said the group anticipates a fall semester of planning and a spring semester of programming, including reproductive rights protests around D.C. and speaker events with local experts and policymakers addressing topics within “ACLU’s focus area,” like voting rights, reproductive rights and criminal law reform.

“I’m just hoping that we can have a group of people with similar interests who just feel really comfortable to be able to get involved in D.C. and on campus and just feel like whatever they want to happen can happen, that there’s a space for them,” Lehrman said. “Since I’m a senior, freshman year I didn’t have a ton of people to go to protests with.”

Lehrman said the chapter will distill the national ACLU priorities, including criminal justice reform and reproductive rights protections, into a GW charter that creates a space for students to push for civil liberties. She said members plan to hold ACLU’s Know Your Rights training, which addressed common civil rights violations through instructional pamphlets and videos showing real-life scenarios, and criminal law reform training to get members acclimated with the chapter’s values and goals.

“I think the perfect part about the ACLU is that we are able to focus on national-level issues, D.C.-level issues and also campus-related issues,” Lehrman said. 

Lehrman said the D.C. chapter of the ACLU has worked to build more student-led chapters in the city through outreach to students and monthly meetings to discuss funding and training for civil rights-related action. 

“They definitely have a plan of what they want this to look like,” Lehrman said. “And obviously they are kind of the professional on the trainings.”

Lehrman said before she and her co-president graduate, they are looking for freshmen and sophomores to maintain the organization in future years and assume leadership roles, like programming chair and secretary. She said she is open to collaborating with Georgetown University’s ACLU chapter and plans on reaching out once ACLU-GW is an established organization.

Lehrman said the versatility of the topics covered within the chapter, like privacy and technology and voting rights, provides students with a diversity of advocacy opportunities. She said members hope to address “on-campus issues” later in the school year.

“I’m hoping that maybe if people don’t feel like there’s other clubs addressing a really specific issue that they’re interested in, that we are kind of known to be a very inclusive org that deals with so many issues that kind of everyone is affected by and everyone feels involved with,” she said. 

Shira Silberman, a junior and the co-founder of ACLU-GW, said the new chapter will act as a “branch” of ACLU and aim to recruit new members, especially freshmen, through social media accounts. 

Silberman said she hopes the chapter can unite members around issues they care about. She said most of the chapter’s members are women so far, so abortion and reproductive rights are some of the most major focuses for future programming.

“We’re hoping to build a strong foundation, especially now in the time when there’s a lot of attacks, especially on women’s rights and minority rights,” Silberman said. 

Ava Hadland, a sophomore studying international affairs, said she joined the chapter because it creates a community of like-minded students working to solve a multitude of pressing issues they face, like women’s rights.

“I kind of liked that there were so many different pathways, personal liberties-wise, not super politically focused but rather in terms of freedoms,” Hadland said. 

Hadland said she hopes the organization will help students reframe issues beyond partisan debates and instead focus on acknowledging certain topics as matters of “human rights or human liberties.”

She said the quick reversal of Roe v. Wade, despite the decades of reproduction rights legal protection, forced her to become more aware of prospective decisions that the Supreme Court made.

“It’s not only important to argue for what we believe in, in general, but creating an argument that is highlighting these issues and how they’re affecting everyone,” Hadland said.

Nichele Casse, a sophomore studying political science, said she joined ACLU-GW to defend civil liberties for the student body and learn more about her dream job, which is to be an attorney for the ACLU.

Casse said she is excited to explore topics like LGBTQ+ rights and criminal justice reform with ACLU-GW. She said the 2016 presidential election and the overturn of Roe v. Wade were events that “reinvigorated” her efforts to become politically involved. She said she is hoping that the organization will offer new opportunities like court watching – the act of observing court cases for educational purposes – which she said would not have been as “accessible” if it weren’t for ACLU-GW. 

“If there’s one thing about a student here at this school, it’s always the fact that they’ve probably got a protest sign ready,” she said.

Nikki Ghaemi contributed reporting. 

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