Leading with the “E”: Amber Hikes and the ACLU’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Strategy

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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This episode, originally recorded as a DEI Community Call, features an interview with Amber Hikes, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

This discussion covers everything from healing the harm caused by racist bias within organizations, to integrating justice into diversity, equity & inclusion work, to the exclusionary nature of our modern legal system.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Amber’s role in the ACLU (7:30)
  • A controversial stand that the ACLU took to defend free speech (16:00)
  • The aspirational nature of the ACLU’s work (20:00)
  • How ACLU’s ERG’s are connected to their external work (24:00)
  • The struggle that caregivers have faced during the pandemic (26:00)
  • The responsibility of allies to their coworkers (34:00)
  • The need to disrupt our historical understanding of gender (42:00)
  • The importance of self-care for allies and advocates (46:00)
  • Why honesty and vulnerability are essential (50:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN:  All right. Amber, so welcome and say hi to the group, and share whatever you’d like to share about your role, and how you’re feeling today.

AMBER HIKES: Sure. Sure. I like that. I have instituted check-ins at the ACLU, which is just what it sounds like. I’m always pushing for us starting off our meetings, our big group spaces with talking about how we’re actually doing. I think it’s important to humanize our work in that way. I work with a lot of litigators, you imagine when I tell them to talk about their feelings, how they respond to that, but I appreciate you introducing it to this space, Jennifer.

I am doing very well. I always feel grateful and fortunate to be in a of DEI practitioners, so I’m very much in gratitude for kind of starting off my day, although it’s halfway to noon for me, with you all. So, very glad to be here. I am the chief equity and inclusion officer at the American Civil Liberties Union. I’m the first person to occupy that role, and for D&I practitioners know everything that goes along with building the plane while we’re flying it. I’m sure we’ll get into that.

But in my role, I provide the vision and the leadership and the direction for the ACLU’s nationwide strategy to support equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging across all aspects of the organization’s internal work and efforts. So, I know it’s a big job, but I’ll say that I read once that if you can’t explain what you do to a kindergartner, then you probably need to recalibrate, and so I try to check myself sometimes and say, “Can I talk about my work today with a six year old?” And so, over and over again what it comes down to is that I just work to make sure people feel like they belong at work, like we see them, we value them and we care about them.

And of course, the people in this call know that there’s a whole lot of strategy and sophistication behind how we do that, but at the of the day, that’s what I do. And if you’d like me to, Jennifer, I can talk about what I did before I came to the ACLU, or we can just talk about what that looks like now.

JENNIFER BROWN: That actually was my next question because your previous role was really important, significant. You had some amazing milestones in that role, and it wasn’t… I don’t know if it was a D&I per se in the same way your role is now, so maybe you can tell us some more about that.

AMBER HIKES: That’s so often the nature too of this work is that we look back and say, “Well, I’ve been doing equity work in different fashions and different facets for so long.” So, to that end, I spent the first decade of my career in education equity work actually for underrepresented first generation low-income students in West Philadelphia here in Philly, Pennsylvania, and then also in Compton and Long Beach in California, but before I joined the ACLU, which is when Jen was talking about, I was the executive director of the office of LGBTQ Affairs for the City of Philadelphia.

And so in that role, I was able to create policy for Philadelphia that was replicated in cities around the country. I was able to work in partnership with communities in every city office to build kind of safer policing, more equitable housing and education, create spaces for LGBTQ Philadelphians to know that they belong in our city, and also put black and brown stripes on the rainbow flag, which you people may know about as a sign of intersectionality and being in solidarity with black and brown LGBTQ folks, who obviously experience many intersections of marginalization.

JENNIFER BROWN: And so modest that you just kind of threw that in there.

AMBER HIKES: It’s a really important symbol, but we all know there’s so much kind of subsistent work and I think about all the things that I did at the City of Philadelphia, which was: Changed prison policy, and policing policy, but the thing that people really hold onto is the flag, so.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s true. I mean, it’s so powerful. Tell us quickly, it’s a little of a detour, but it’s so interesting. What was the reaction in the LGBTQ community to that?

AMBER HIKES: Yeah see, that’s a whole nother call.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is. That’s actually our old podcast, so if anybody wants to go back and listen to my podcast with Amber, we got deep into that because it was… Wow. Not surprising, but disturbing.

AMBER HIKES: Yes. Exactly right, but the quickest way I can describe it is that this was a Philadelphia initiative. For 30 years, at least in Philadelphia, we’ve been talking explicitly about the experience of racism within the LGBTQ community, so these intersections of marginalization and oppressions, and so in 2017, I added black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag as a sign of solidarity with LGBTQ Philadelphians, specifically black and brown Philadelphians who are experiencing the intersection of those marginalization, and it was one act in a host of acts that we were doing to really address this persistent issue, and so we raised… And I thought, frankly, in terms of like the community conversations that we had had, and all the policy initiatives and legislation that we had rolled out to address this issue, this was one of the more benign efforts, frankly, but as the story goes, that was not quite the experience for everyone else.

So, we raised it in June for Pride Month, and I remember raising it on a Thursday at city hall with drag queens and glitter and all the kind of pomp and circumstance the queer community is accustomed to, and then by Friday, I had death threats. I had death threats that were coming in from, frankly, all over the country and they were often LGBTQ people themselves, and they often identified themselves as white folks, and more often white gay men, who were saying, “How dare you! How dare you desecrate our flag this way! How dare you take this conversation and make it about race. The rainbow flag has never been about race.” Yeah, I was harassed pretty relentlessly, but we know the moral arc of justice and here we are now three years later, and the flag is absolutely everywhere all over the world. So, I’m very grateful for that, but we know how difficult this work can be and how challenging it can be to push it forward.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Ahead of our time and brave as you are, thank you for taking the hits on that and being that head pin in the bowling pins, right? I mean, there’s the most kind of… You’re the icebreaker, and that hull has to be really strong to break through that ice, so that others of us can come through behind you. Thank you for doing that. It’s so meaningful to so many of us. So Amber, you and I were going to do our call on November 5th. Funny. Funny that we even thought that would happen.

AMBER HIKES: I don’t know what we were thinking, Jen. I really don’t.

JENNIFER BROWN: It was optimistic. So, tell me about… Gosh. Everything that unfolded. Take us back and maybe even, I don’t know, maybe even before that, like pandemic. The years that led to you taking this role at ACLU what had happened. I know in our country, we’ve been roiled by incidents, ACLU has been on the front lines, and so when you walked into this role, let’s start there. You were the first ever. What existed? What did you set up? And what kind of dilemmas did you encounter given the nature of the ACLU’s work? So, anything you’d like to share on that front, I think we’d be eager to hear.

AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. Thrilled to talk about that, and thrilled to be among kind of friends and family to talk about it as well because I will pull back the curtain and talk a little bit about what precipitated my arrival at the ACLU. I know when we often look at these DEI positions, unfortunately too often the case is that DI professionals are being brought in as a response to some kind of crisis, or an event that happened. It’s very rarely unfortunately, kind of a proactive action. It’s often so reactive, and that wasn’t necessarily the case with the ACLU. We’ve been doing this work both internally and externally for quite a long while, but I will say that there was a bit of a flash point for the organization before I got here. If I was able to kind of pinpoint something or a series of events that really brought the need for internal EDIB, that’s equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging is how we talk about our work. EDIB work to the center of our focus.

If there’s one kind of event that really did bring that, it was Charlottesville, and that’s how we talked about at the ACLU, but specifically I’m talking about the ACLU of Virginia’s choice to defend the speech of white supremacism in Charlottesville, and I won’t go too deep into the weeds on that particular issue, but I will say folks know the American Civil Liberties Union for the last [inaudible 00:15:14] years have been kind of torchbearers around justice and liberty and equality, but free speech has really been something that the people know the ACLU for, and there has been… Since 2016, but certainly even before that, but most especially since 2016, a real reckoning internally with the ACLU around that historical position of free speech and defending the First Amendment, and the rest of our equity work. I would say most specifically our racial justice work, or our work for immigrants rights, and in other marginalized communities, LGBTQ rights.

And so we are constantly kind of grappling with the intersections of those issues, and it really came to a head with the decision of the ACLU of Virginia in Charlottesville, and just to, again, pull back the curtain a little bit for folks to know, we operate in a affiliate or federated structure. So I serve at the ACLU national, that has offices in New York and San Francisco and DC, but we also have 54 affiliates that are throughout the country, and those affiliates are their own 501(c)(3)s, right? And so while there is coordination with those different organizations, they can frankly do whatever they would like, pull up their own priorities and kind of move forward in those.

And so while the ACLU of Virginia felt like it was very important to take this particular position, you can imagine there was some disagreement around the country about this decision. And frankly, if I’m being honest with you, it created quite a firestorm within the organization, and it continues to be a conversation, but it was clear that there needed to be at least someone internally to help the ACLU community grapple with these issues and also continue to build equitable and inclusive and belonging structures within the organization.

So, if there was a flash point, that was one of them. I came in and there were several others that I can talk about that really helped push this work forward, but when I came in, we had a council, an EDI Council. We also had three ERGs, three employee resource groups, we had a black women’s ERG, we had an immigrants’ ERG, and a feminist ERG. Those are the three that we have, and now I am about a year and three months into this role at the ACLU, we have 14 ERGs. We’ll talk about that as well.

We still do have our Equity Diversity Inclusion council, we have a leadership pipeline, we are undergoing organization-wide anti-oppression training for everyone, and we just yesterday actually rolled out… Actually on Tuesday rolled out our restorative inclusion practice, which is an internal kind of conflict resolution practice for navigating and mediating EDI conflicts as they come up within the workplace and working to heal harm and repair harm when it happens. So that’s like a very kind of quick synopsis of some of the work that we’ve been up to, and how we got to this place so far, but I’ll stop talking because I feel like I’m talking quite a bit in the chat.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I know. I told you. I told you. We’ve got like 230 people on here. Oh, my gosh. Jedi, we’re laughing in the chat, Amber, because we talk a lot about what’s in a name, what the letters, and it’s really significant. I’m curious about the J for justice, or Jedi, which I like. Have you considered adding J to the name of the initiative and the effort and tell us more about your efforts with setting up.

AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. I mean, you can imagine with the ACLU, justice makes a lot of sense. We have a disability justice project, the racial justice project, it makes a lot of sense. So it is something that we’ve been talking about. It’s probably a change that I anticipate coming within 2021. It fits with our work, our external work, and so it actually should fit with our internal commitments. I speak often about the necessity of being aspirational in our work, right? I’ll be very quick, belonging is incredibly aspirational, especially when you’re talking about kind of the work that we’re doing at the ACLU, and working within a legal context, which I would argue is almost kind of inherently exclusionary in certain ways when you talk about the legal field in particular. So, belonging in that contract is particularly aspirational. Justice, is similar along the same lines. So, I feel pretty strongly about justice. I think that’s the direction that we need to be going in and I really applaud folks who have already taken that step.

JENNIFER BROWN: And what can you tell us about the sort of natural exclusionary nature of the work? SHow would you crystallize what we’re combating and what sort of at odds with this message and the nature of what you all do?

AMBER HIKES: Yeah, and I’m aware that we’re coming from different sectors and fields on this call, and so I will talk about my experience of doing EDIB work in government and social justice sector, kind of a nonprofit, as well as the education space, I can speak about that, but I’ll be clear that I have never done EDIB within a corporate space and so [inaudible 00:20:23] where you can jump in when it comes to that, but when I talk about the inherently exclusionary nature of the law, I am talking about a profession and a field, and in texts that are inherently rooted in inherently oppressive and exclusionary sources. And I speak very candidly about this within the ACLU. We are working with instructions that are based in and steeped in white supremacy culture, and I want to say that folks that know my work, they know that I’m a straight shooter, I’m very direct about this, and so I want to put that out there when we are talking about these structures, we’re talking about working within white supremacy culture.

And so what does it mean? What does it mean on a macro scale to be fighting for justice, fighting for liberation of immigrants, of women, of people of color, people with disabilities, of LGBTQIA folks within the structure of the Constitution, for God’s sakes, right? So our work at the ACLU is inherently aspirational to take an inherently exclusionary document and try to broaden and expand its protections for folks who were intentionally excluded is aspirational, and so what I see from that is we go to the micro lens of it, and turn that mirror inward and say, “So, this is what we’re doing out there. What other structures are we replicating? Oppressive structures are we unintentionally replicating within this system, within this organization?”

And so, this is the work that we do with EDI all the time, but it’s a constant internal interrogation that happens, a constant interrogation about your own biases, about your own assumptions, and so I always push our litigators and our policy analysts and our advocates and our organizers to remember the systems that we are working within and the work that we all have to do, but I will say I hope that answers your question, Jennifer. The legal profession in and of itself is inherently exclusionary, right? Inherently exclusionary. So reaching for belonging, reaching even for inclusion within that context is aspirational. It is a major, major lift. And so I think that’s a little different for the American Civil Liberties Union than it perhaps would be for smaller social justice nonprofits that are not already working within those parameters.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah, and there’s a question about… Two questions actually, Amber. One about the impact of your ERGs on all of… You’ve been talking about. So what kind of voice do they have? How are they adding value? And I would love to hear how intersectional they are, like which ones you have, but also I know you and you would never allow anything to exist that’s not truly doing the intersectionality work. So, I would love to hear about that. And then there’s another question separate from Drew: How are trans people of color supported in litigator-run organizations? So how can we do a better job specifically with that community? So that’s a part two, but we would love to hear the ERG aspect first.

AMBER HIKES: Yes, and I should have known, Jen, you were going to put me on the spot with my 14 ERGs, so let’s see.

JENNIFER BROWN: You don’t need to list them all. Maybe list the ones that are left that are less the usual suspects.

AMBER HIKES: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. I will say this: I won’t list them all. I will say since I saw something in the chat about folks being excited about an immigrants’ ERG, I’m also thrilled about that. I will talk about some of the ones that are a little different from the ones that we always hear. Although, I will give a shout out to ACLQ, which is our LGBTQ ERG because we love ACLU puns, and they have the second best ERG name. The first best ERG name is ACLJew, which is very, very good. ACLJew is the best one, but we have AMEMSA ERG, we have an AAPI ERG. We have a formally incarcerated ERGG, which is incredible because the needs of our colleagues who are formerly incarcerated, and again, working within that legal context… Whew! So many dynamics. We need to be really thinking about how we’re supporting our formerly incarcerated folks as they’re coming back to the workplace and making sure that we have equitable solutions to their needs within the workplace.

So, those are some of the ones that I definitely wanted to elevate here. One of the things I did want to mention about how our ERGs are connected to our external work, we call our program work, and how they’re intersectional to your point, Jen, is this summer is actually a perfect kind of way to bring these intersections together. I’ll talk first from the COVID context and then talk about the uprising this summer. So when we went into a remote context, and the ACLU was still fully remote, we expected to be fully remote for at least another six to eight months, but we went in halfway through March like so many of you did and while we went into a complete tailspin, like many of you did as well with repositioning our work, shifting how we did things, we had a bit of a leg up on how we could take care of our employees during this time and that was solely and completely because of the galvanizing powerful force that our employee resource groups were.

And the one that I want to elevate on this call first is our caregiver ERG. Just an extraordinary group of folks. And I want to elevate this because that was a newer ERG that was created under my tenure, and I remember sitting in that very first meeting with maybe 14 caregivers, and it was such a powerful… I know we’ve all been in ERG meetings where you’re crying because of the vulnerability people are talking about it in terms of their experiences in the workplace and otherwise, but this was a space where I had kind of career ACLUs, been here for 10, 20 years, and they were talking about the pain of secret caregiving, right?

They were talking about a workplace like the ACLU, especially during the last four years, where the work that we are doing is not just life changing, it is truly life saving for so many. It is the work that you came here to do, but how the long hours pull you away from your family and there’s also a culture inside the organization that you come here, you give your all to this work because it is bigger than any one of us, but what does that mean? What is reconciled there? What is tossed behind when you are giving everything to this job? And I saw caregivers weeping and saying, “I have been here for all this time and I have to sneak out the back door quietly when I have to take my kid to a doctor’s appointment. I have to lie about where I am because I feel like there’s a culture in this organization that looks down on any commitment that’s outside of this life saving work.”

And for me, that was… It just eviscerated me that we had folks that truly could not show up as their full selves at work. So we’ve gone from that to our caregivers helping to lead us on the benefits and the policies that they need during this time of remote work. Our caregivers pushing us. Just this last week, for the first time in the ACLU’s 100 year history, we had the whole week of Thanksgiving off and that was truly because just a few days prior they shut down New York public schools once again, and our poor caregivers sent into a tailspin again, and also because of the results of the 2020 election, we are hoping not to have to work nearly as hard as we had for the last four years just trying to hold up democracy.

And we were able to say, “Let us take care of ourselves. Let us put our caregivers first and make sure that people have the resources they need so that they can fill those cups back up and go do the work that they did,” but I will say the caregivers were at the table for every single conversation we had with HR, that we had with our Ops team, anything that we had to do to change the way that we were working internally to best serve them. So they were incredibly, incredibly helpful and transformative in terms of those policies, and then there’s the black ERGs and the way that they showed up for us during the racial uprising. Just been absolutely tremendous the incredibly powerful conversations that we were able to have in those spaces for black colleagues to come together and talk about what it meant to be witnessing this kind of pain and trauma and generational historic intergenerational vicarious trauma of black people being murdered in the streets, and what were the implications for us in our work internally while we were watching this trauma externally.

And so, our ERGs have just been absolutely incredible. I have so much more to say about what it looks like when we had our supreme court victories in June around LGBTQ rights and our DACA decision, and how our immigrants’ ERG showed up for that, and even how we came together in the passing of Justice Ginsburg, of course, ACLU alum. So there’s a lot to say, but our ERGs have all led so much of that work. So I’m going to stop talking too much, but I really appreciate you all with all the kindness in the chat.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. You’re getting so much love. I have full body chills with stuff… I mean, can you go back and talk about the June ruling, and I would love to hear more about that. How was that metabolized in your organization? You must have taken a quantum leap too this summer as an organization, right? That was the wind beneath your wings to create what you knew needed to be created, but maybe, I think we’re all looking at this moment and saying, “Wow. We were able to supercharge our strategies. We could really reach and actually feel like there was an openness and a willingness and an appetite for these bigger ideas to really take hold, and now we’ve achieved I think a new level entirely.” So, tell us about that period.

AMBER HIKES: Without a doubt. So, June is such an important and interesting month for us, particularly the ACLU because while the entire country of course was at the beginning of this uprising and this kind of massive push for racial justice and racial equity, we were also at the ACLU in that, and of course, remember free speech. So we’re on the front lines during the protest, making sure people know their rights, getting people out of jail, putting our lawyers on the ground, taken care of protesters. So we’re doing that. And also remember, we are also holding our breath for the decisions of these massive, massive Supreme Court cases that our colleagues fought. My LGBTQ folks and allies were on the call, who were waiting with bated breath, biting your nails about the LGBTQ cases that we had before the court, that was our Legal Director, David Cole, who argued that in front of the Supreme Court, and remember that we’re wading through every single week of June knowing that the LGBTQ case is coming down and DACA is coming down.

And to your point earlier, Jen, about the intersections, what does it mean if we get workplace protections for LGBTQIA folks, and we lose protections for our immigrant colleagues? Or what does it mean if we get to hold DACA, but we have the Supreme Court say that queer folks and trans folks can still be fired for who they are and who they love? What does that mean? And how do you hold an all staff celebration, or an all staff mourning for both of those, right? And so on the back end, our EDI team and our HR team and our operations team are… We have as you can imagine in the same that we did frankly, for the election, we have five different plants for all staff convenings of thousands of people, and it literally just hangs on a 10:00 AM decision on a Thursday that comes down as you’re waiting on MSNBC or CNN, and then it’s go.

It was a very, very, very wild month, I will tell you. None of us expected to get both of the wins. We are so, so, so grateful, especially knowing what we know now about what’s happened with the court, but this has been an incredibly challenging and charged a year for the ACLU. Those were the high points, I will say, but the uprising and what it meant for our black colleagues in particular. You hear me finally taking a breath for the first time in the last 32 minutes. I don’t know that I can still put into words what these last six months had been as a black person leading this work, as a black queer person leading this work, and literally leading it in the organization for some of our foremost scholars on racial justice and racial equity.

What it meant to sit with folks who were in the courts fighting for racial equity, have dedicated their lives to this, and who behind closed doors in our ERG spaces are weeping because of the lack of a verdict with Breonna Taylor, who are weeping because of George Boyd. I’m talking about folks who have been doing this work for decades and have said they have never felt the despair they have felt with the lack of justice, and… Sorry, for all these vulnerable moments you all, but I haven’t had a lot of space to process it out. I will say-

JENNIFER BROWN: We’ve all got you. There’s a lot of hands around you.

AMBER HIKES: Appreciate that, you all. I will say that the way that our organization showed up for each other, the way that we were able to redistribute and restructure work is so important. I think that’s what I want to say here. I saw a lot of initiatives, really important conversations that were had about racial equity, like anti-oppression trainings that were happening, ERGs leading conversations, but what we did at the ACLU was actually say clearly, “Our black colleagues should not be expected to show up at 100% now, or six months from now. If you are an ally, if you are accomplice to this work, here is your responsibility. White folks who continue to ask what can you do? What can you do? This is what you can do. We need your body. We need you to jump in and do your labor, do what is required of you, we cannot continue to carry this load.”

And being able to speak so candidly and transparently and give allies their marching orders, which I know, Jen, you believe so deeply in, that was transformative for our colleagues, and so our white folks jumped in literally taking work off of black colleagues’ desk to say, “I will carry this right now because that is what needs to be done,” and also holding their own white self-education spaces because I know for black colleagues on the phone, the amount of emotional labor we’ve had to do around white colleagues and their awakenings, and all… It’s just too damn much, if I’m being honest with you all. White people, go over there, have your conversation, do your work, and come back when you all have it figured out. That kind of real, meaningful work made the load a whole lot lighter. I’m being so real this morning, you all.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good. You need this. You need it as much as we need you. You’re so good. The chat is like, “Wrrrr.” You just said everything we talk about so much on this call, the rebalancing of the work and the accountability and the learning for allies. Can you say a little more about the white self-education spaces? It shouldn’t be at all, but it is a controversial topic. It can’t be because I view it as the pre-work that has to happen, so that when we enter the ally and accomplice space and work, we cause the least harm in our lack of knowledge, in our lack of comfort, in our well-meaning but super clueless way, right? We’ve got to create some space to invest and deepen. Build the muscle before it’s time to use that muscle, and but I’m like, “Why is it controversial, and how did you all get there?” Was it just obvious that that would be created, and it just happened?

AMBER HIKES: You know what? This is actually your point of the work that we have been screaming about and pushing about was finally just pushed through the gates, and so you’re absolutely right that it is a more controversial strategy to say that this education work is not the labor of the folks who are most marginalized. And Jen, you’ve heard me say that all the time, right? This is your work. This allyship and accompliceship work, and there are more resources now than ever before, so you go to that labor. You know better now, you can do better, and you can come back once you’ve filled up that kind of toolbox there. So we were already having those conversations, but truly with them… If I’m honest with you, with the kind of rawness that this summer brought out, the pain and the trauma that I was talking about earlier, there was no more space for pretense. There was no space for soft-footing any of this. The issue, the pain was too urgent, right? I am not going to mince words with you white folks.

I mean, it literally was right there: I’m not going to mince words with you white folks. Get out of my inbox asking me you can do. Here’s the list. Go do it now, and what I was very lucky to have accomplices and white allies and non-black accomplices and allies that were flanking me that said, “You know what? Let us put together the curriculum, and we’ll have you if you’re interested do a kind of a look over to make sure that you sign off on these, but let us build a curriculum for these white folks. Let us rotate the responsibility about facilitating these groups. Let us hold these conversations, and then we’ll come back.”

So that is, again, the work of allies and accomplices. I’m just grateful to have folks on my team and outside of my team that said, “This is what we need to do,” and it’s extraordinary, they’re still going, and the one thing that I want to add as well while I talked about the white self-education group, but I want to tell you that I instructed all of my employee resource groups to start doing their own work on anti-blackness, which was beautiful and brilliant.

So, we’re talking about the Latinx ERG talking about anti-blackness within Latinx communities. Woo! I’ll send you all curriculum, and when I say curriculum, it’s a six month curriculum. It is brilliant, and they’re talking about tools for accountability, about how to have these conversations with family members and other colleagues, and talking openly about the privilege of white passing Latinx folks or Afro-Latinx folks. I mean, mind blowing work, and folks that are AMEMSA communities talking about anti-blackness in Muslim, in South Asian communities, anti-blackness in Asian communities. Transformative work that was happening there. So, it wasn’t just white folks that were doing it. There was an intersectional approach to how anti-blackness shows up in our communities and how folks benefit from it still in the workplace and outside.

JENNIFER BROWN: There’s so much in there. Oh, my goodness. Wait a second. So, I just want to back up. You said something that I think is so important. So we do the work, and then we come to the table and the way that people came to the table to flank you, as you said, which I love, they’re choosing their spots. They’re not taking advantage of your time, your energy. They’re utilizing you having done 80% of the work, bringing the stuff that needs approval or extra context, or a complex issue. I think of the work we can do to get things down the field before we lean on you, Amber, and then keeping you in that place of advising and being a stakeholder. It is a really important thing to think about, so I wanted to highlight that because I think that’s the way we need to approach this, and then everyone of course is asking, “I mean for real, can we see the curriculum?”

AMBER HIKES: The curriculum? I’ll check with my new Latinx ERG and make sure, but they have been so thrilled by the conversations they’ve been able to have, so they’re like, “Yes. Everyone take it.” And in fact actually, our black ERGs, we have a black women in a non-binary ERG and a black men in a non-binary ERG, and they’re coming together next week to talk about colorism within the black community, and so we’re having all kinds of conversations. Hopefully that one as well, so.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. Whoa. Wait. Can we pause on that? Can you talk a little bit more about the work you’re doing on gender identity and expression and how it intersects with everything else? I’m sure it’s cutting cutting edge.

AMBER HIKES: Yeah, we’re just jumping all over the place. I see the chat. I will work to get you all the colorism curriculum. I’m sure what my ERG leads will be so thrilled that this is working well, and also the anti-blackness within Latinx curriculum, and I’ll see if I can pull it from my AMEMSA colleagues too. And I want to say something very quickly. We were talking about doing 80% of the work, kind of getting it to the table and the responsibility of allies and accomplices there, I just want to say that I often belabor the point about our collective responsibility in this work. I’m going to be very clear, the ACLU has about 600… We have 600 folks in the national office, and then about another 1500 in the affiliates, and there’s myself, I have a deputy director, a few interns, a few assistants. We’re not a massive team, right?

And so, I desperately need all of my colleagues to be thinking critically about our collective responsibility to carry this work forward. So I just want to underscore that. You were asking about the work of our trans and non-binary colleagues, and I apologize to whoever asked earlier about trans people of color and the way that we’re supporting them and helping them in their leadership in the organization. I want to say that we also have a non-binary working group at the ACLU, so this isn’t… This is an affinity group. It’s not necessarily an employee resource group, but our non-binary working group has been extraordinary with helping us really kind of decolonize our understandings of gender, expand our minds beyond the binary, and they also had a six month curriculum. I keep talking about curriculums, but a bunch of litigators, policy types. It’s helpful to have the test.

But they had a very intersectional approach to let’s decolonize understanding of gender and the gender binary through all of these different contexts. So, we talked about gender within the carceral state, so gender and incarceration in the police state. We talked about gender within disability communities, which is so incredible, race and gender. I mean, just absolutely phenomenal conversations that we were having. Gender, and mental health, and folks who are on the autism spectrum, right? Just absolutely brilliant conversations about the ways that are colonized understanding of gender has historically harmed marginalized communities and continues to harm communities and what each of us can do where we are because it takes us out of the didactic and into the much more personal what we can do where we are to kind of disrupt our consistent understandings of gender.

And so, that’s been incredibly helpful. We’ve also expanded our benefits for trans and non-binary colleagues within this time, so they’ve just been an incredible resource as well. And I will say just in terms of trans leadership and how we support trans people color on staff, all of our projects that are about trans justice are obviously led by trans folks, are led by black trans women most notably, and we’re so fortunate to have trans attorneys. People know about Chase Strangio. We also have Taylor Brown, who is a brand new trans black staff attorney that we have. So we are very much making sure that the people who are most impacted by the work, who are closest to the pain are also closest to the power and to the solutions.

JENNIFER BROWN: Those who are closest to the pain are closest to the power, you hear that, everybody? Oh, that’s so good. Amber, sound bites galore.

AMBER HIKES: That’s how you all [inaudible 00:44:48] me. I’m ripping off [crosstalk 00:44:50].

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, it’s so good. We are so smart together also. It’s beautiful. And there’s a question for your own self-care. Everybody knows what a treasure you are. I know this work fills you up. I can feel it. It sort of animates all of us, and therefore, I think the self-care sometimes isn’t the strongest suit and something that sneaks up on us. So, how have you kept yourself going in this time? So intense, so amazing in so many ways, but vis-à-vis you have in many ways, I think lived for this moment, and yet it’s so much even for some of us who I think have the resilience that you obviously have. Any advice you have, or…

I’m sure this has come up with amongst your energy communities especially, but also you brought up the heartbreaking piece of your staff at ACLU struggling with their own personal needs for self-care, and yet finding ourselves in this moment when I’m finally… The world is ready for what what I want. The world I want to see, the world that I envision, and how tragic to not feel that balance or the support on the back end because we either… Our organization hasn’t equipped us with that kind of support. The worst thing that I fear from 2020 is squandering any of the beauty and the opportunity that we’ve been given, and the doors that have been opened, and yet it comes down to us that we’re already I think in this fight. So it’s exciting, but it’s real scary because it kind of feels like it’s on the edge energetically.

AMBER HIKES: It does. There’s so much pressure there, and so Jen, as you were asking that question, I kind of breathed in. I’m like, “Oh, I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. I’ve never had a good answer to it.” So I just want you to remember all the good answers I gave [crosstalk 00:46:40]

JENNIFER BROWN: We’ll give you credit for those.

AMBER HIKES: Because this one’s going to be terrible. And I think it’s important to be accountable to the fact that this is something that I’m still struggling with, I’m still grappling with. I say that with humility as not just a D&I practitioner, but somebody who also is a social worker by trade. So shout out any social workers on the call, people who love social workers, thank you, social workers for everything you do. Social workers save the world. Yeah, so I’m an MSW, and so I should know better than anybody the importance of self-care. And to your point, Jen, especially over the last four years, it has not been a priority for me, it has not been at the top of the work like it needed to be, but it must be. And so there have been little moments where I have been making it more of a priority, and for me, if there’s one thing that has truly been holding me together during this time, it’s been spaces like this, and I’m not going just gassing you all up, I promise. I’m being honest.

The thing that fills my cup up most is being with my people. Being with like-minded people who are committed to the same work and who truly need that opportunity to be in community with one another and to let this burden down. That’s what it’s been. It’s not necessarily about talking through all these strategies and all these methods, but just being in space with somebody that could say, “Yeah, I know. Me too. Me too.” And so what I tell people all the time is just please find your folks. I’ll say for me personally because I think it’s important to speak accountably and by example here, I created a black woman in leadership group at UCLA, in addition to all the other ERGs we have. This is for the 12 kind of black women that are towards the top of the organization. We’re very fortunate, our Chief Financial Officer is a black woman, our Chief Communications Officer is black woman, the head of the racial justice project is, the two heads of the equity work that happens in our affiliates are also black women, our chief policy counsel’s a black woman.

There’s an embarrassment of riches with that kind of leadership at the American Civil Liberties Union. I’ve never been anywhere that had a CFO that was a black woman, and so we have monthly meetings for us to just be in space and say, “Sis, you good? Sis, are you okay?” So that’s really important to find that space when you can. I have another group like that that’s kind of external to the organization that’s been really important to fill my cup up, but it’s also just connecting with other D&I professionals. So please find your people. Find your folks. You have to do that during this time. So that’s been essential. It’s been absolutely essential for me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. I hate girl folks. Yep. Thanks, Jay. Yeah, we’ve got to lean on it… We’ve been doing these calls, Amber, since March, and yeah, they continue to sustain me and teach me and also just remind me of the significance of what we’re trying to move forward, and the relevance and how critical it is. I think we return to the source and plug in with each other to be reminded of that, and then we go back out. I know it feels like that for everybody. This is the spa. This is the place where we restore and kind of put Humpty Dumpty back together again a little bit, and then go out into the battlefield and into the arenas [inaudible 00:49:55] Brown says, and be those brave change agents, but at the same time experiencing some of those microaggressions or just aggressions in general or biased organizations that don’t want to do the work, and I know a lot of people on this call do not work for a place that has that kind of 12 women of color at the top, incredible.

AMBER HIKES: Can I actually say something about that too, Jennifer? Again, I know I’ve been leading it, especially in the second part of this call on the accountability piece. I think it’s so important for us to be honest and vulnerable about what we’re experiencing, to affirm and validate the experiences other people are having. So, I’ll say I spent a lot of time on this call talking about the great work that we’re doing, but it is not easy and it is not all roses. I will tell you to peel back the curtain, and that like, “Sis, are you good?” Group that I was just talking about, we’re often sitting in that space and talking about microaggressions that we experienced that week. Talking about kind of record scratch moments that happened in meetings, the, “Did you hear that?” “Girl, I was across the conference room? No, he did not.”

And so, we have those spaces and it’s so affirming to be in a space with somebody says, “I couldn’t say anything in that meeting, but I was waiting for this meeting to say, ‘You know what? That was out of pocket.'” And so, that’s another way that you fill your cup up. You’re able to say, “Okay, I didn’t imagine that. That was really off. Yeah, that was off,” and it’s good to know that there were other folks in the room that also noticed it, and then also, maybe is there something that we want to do about it? Is there some way that we want to address it? That’s also been really affirming because we certainly have our record scratch moments, we have our moments that are not rooted always in equity and inclusion, I can assure you, so that’s [crosstalk 00:51:41].

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You know what you’re talking about Amber, and I wonder this whole calling out versus calling in thing, it feels like we need to segue a little bit into that. So you know what you’re talking about, is you’re letting the air out of the balloon in a space, in the hey girl space, and by the way, we mean girl in a non-gender specific sense here.


JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. So, the letting out of the air and then the sort of letting that rush of sort of the primal fight or flee, that primal brain reaction, which we’re going to have to say something immediately versus kind of unpack with trusted friends and say, “Okay, so what’s the best way to encourage a learning moment and a calling opportunity and an invitation to change through this?” And I wonder how do you balance that personally? How do you see the importance of balancing calling out with calling in, and particularly in the organizational context, I’m always mindful of… We need every potential aspiring ally we can get. We need them, all of us, right? And there are mistakes we’re going to make. There’s comments we’re going say, and once we’re corrected, we will never say them again hopefully, not always, but given the opportunity to change and get that feedback without the additional shame of a call out situation, I think retains more potential future allies and accomplices. So I just wonder anything in there that you agree with or want to build on, or…

AMBER HIKES: So, so, so much. Let me talk about the call in, call out, I’m going to talk about that in the context of anti-oppression training and bystander intervention because I think there’s a link there. And then also, if you can remind, Jennifer, if I forget, I want to talk about restorative inclusion practices. I think that actually… You know what I’m talking about, and that’s shorthand for us, but I’ll explain to folks what I’m talking about there. So I’m very passionate about kind of call in, call out culture. There’s plenty of talks on the differences here and when where that’s necessary, but I talk very often at the organization about our needs to disrupt oppressive language, oppressive practices as they arise, but to do so with transparency, humility, and grace, right?

Those are the three things I say all the time: Transparency, humility, and grace. If you say that to anybody at the ACLU, they’re like, “Okay, Amber. I hear you. They’re so sick of me.” Transparency, humility, and grace. And all that comes from understanding that we need to be transparent about where we’re coming from, what our gaps are, what our challenges are. We need to be humble about the fact, especially at the ACLU, we’re not a humble people unfortunately, but humble about the fact that we know what we know, we don’t know what we don’t know. So, there’s so much to learn, right? And the grace is grace for ourselves and for each other, especially over these last four years. It’s just an incredibly difficult time, and this past year, for sure. We’re all going through so much. How can we have grace?

That said, there are going to be times when folks are engaging in ways that are deeply harmful to their conflicts, sometimes intentionally, and so when we’re talking about slurs and harassment, that kind of harm, those are spaces where folks can be called in the first time and then when those kinds of harms happen in a public context, I say it is important to call it out, and by calling it out, I’m not talking about attacking someone in a space, but disrupting that harm that happened and being an ally [inaudible 00:55:05] say, “Hi, I want to go back through those record scratch moments. I want to go back to something I think that was horrible that happened here. I want to take a moment to clarify, or I noticed that things got quiet in this room when this was mentioned,” right? So don’t make it necessarily about the person, make it about the thing that was said, the event that happened, the situation and be able to hold space and disrupt that harm as it happens. That kind of boosting and disruption of that I think it can be really healing for folks.

That’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about calling out. For calling in peace, is something I do, we do bystander intervention training at the ACLU, and it’s a way to teach people how to disrupt in the moment, either kind of… And disruptive, you can understand how I’m using that, but disrupt either publicly or disrupt privately and even call folks in to conversation around something they said unknowingly. Unintentionally, that might have harmed others. So the the bystander intervention piece has been really helpful. It’s part of our anti-oppression training, which we’ve done org-wide, but the more comprehensive piece is something that we launched just earlier this week actually, and so you all the first ones to you know anything public about it, but it’s what I call Restorative Inclusion Practice, and this Restorative Inclusion Practice is an organizational practice to address harm when it happens in the organization, and its harm specifically related to EDIB conflict.

So, we’re talking about microaggressions, we’re talking about tokenism, certain instances of bias, and I want to be very clear, this is outside of a traditional HR process. So anything that’s harassment, discrimination, retaliation, those things go through an HR process, we obviously have a legal responsibility to do so, but those other slights and microaggressions and harms that we all know on this call can build up and significantly contribute to attrition of marginalized communities significantly harm our recruitment and retention efforts.

Those are the things that we need to address and mitigate when they happen and what I learned the ACLU is that we struggle mightily with cultural feedback, we struggle with being able to have these difficult conversations with one another about harm that occurred, and so what my office has aspired to do is be a conduit, be an intermediary between two people, groups of folks, whole teams, where there has been harm that happened. And we aspire through several different methods to heal that harm, bring folks together in conversation, be able to create actionable accountable plans to make sure the harm doesn’t happen again, and so that’s something that we launched. I know we’re almost at time, but I will let you all know how it goes, but restorative inclusion is just absolutely mind-blowingly transformative program, and I’m really excited to see how it takes off.

JENNIFER BROWN: So good. Everyone’s like, “I have to re-listen to the replay of this call 10 times.” We can’t write fast enough, Amber. Oh, my goodness. There’s so much. Everyone wants you back, number one. Yeah, that’s something we could make happen for sure, and maybe even… An idea I had is having some of your ERG leads join us perhaps at some point.

AMBER HIKES: Oh, I would love it. You all think I’m fun, they are some firecrackers.


AMBER HIKES: Thank you so much, Jen. It was such a good time.