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CREATIVE THOUGHT AT WORK Watching the watchers

Deborah Jacobs ’90 likes debunking myths and winning people over. Espe- cially when it comes to one of the most misunderstood organizations in the na- tion: the American Civil Liberties Union. As executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey since 1999, she’s used to hearing criticism. She asserts, “We’re one of the few organizations that helps ordi- nary people fight against injustices im- posed by the powerful, and that includes the government and large companies. Real democracy can be a threatening concept, and it’s easier to discredit the ACLU than admit you’re against speak- ing truth to power.”

Jacobs, who previously worked for the ACLU in Washington State and Missouri, spearheads legal, legislative, and grass- roots advocacy to promote and protect civil liberties in New Jersey. She testifies

Public Radio, CNN, and USA Today. An English-lit major who also re- ceived a degree from Skidmore’s MALS program, Jacobs says it’s “an honor and a thrill to work for the ACLU” and to represent “courageous and amazing” clients who are, for her, an enormous source of inspi- ration.

In governance and law




regularly before the state legislature, sub- mits opinion pieces to the state’s major newspapers, and is often tapped for com- ments by the New York Times, National


enforcement, she says, “every state has unique priorities and tactics.” In New Jersey, much of her time is spent on po- lice practices, privacy rights, racial jus- tice, and government transparency: “The state’s long history with corruption makes open governance a natural priori- ty for us, whether we’re seeking minutes from a small municipality’s council meetings or information about a meet- ing between the governor and the head of Fox News.” Not surprisingly, the Sep- tember 11, 2001, terrorist attacks added a twist to the nature of her work. The ACLU-NJ focused intently on “challenging ineffective and invasive national-secu- rity measures, such as the bloated government watch- list and unconstitutional warrantless-wiretapping program.” Jacobs notes that litigation is just a small piece of what the ACLU does. “Our public education and legislative activities are equally important,” she says. The organization worked with communities throughout the state to pass nearly two dozen anti-Patri- ot Act resolutions, and one of her biggest challenges to date has been “persuading

legislators to replace a ‘tough on crime’ mentality with ‘smart on crime’ policies that both make us more secure as a soci- ety and respect people’s rights.”

She cites the longstanding “war on drugs” as a failed policy that has unfairly targeted African Americans and Latinos and done significant harm that will take generations to undo. “It doesn’t deter drug use, it sends nonviolent people to prison, and it wastes billions of taxpayer dol- lars,” Jacobs argues. “We should regard drug use as

a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. As we have seen in America before, prohibition is a cure that creates more problems than the original disease.”

Jacobs says it’s frustrating when gov- ernment officials who actually agree with the positions of the ACLU never- theless hesitate to do right for fear of po- litical repercussions. “It makes me yearn for leaders who show more character and resolve,” she says. “But ultimately we have to hold ourselves, the citizens, re- sponsible for the actions of our elected officials. They will only ever do as much as we make them do or as little as we let them do.” In the last decade, the ACLU-NJ has doubled its membership and quadrupled its budget and staff—which includes Ja- cobs’s assistant Tracey Kelley ’78 and re- cent hire Eliza Straim ’11, plus a number of Skidmore interns over the years. Under Jacobs the New Jersey branch has become one of the largest ACLU affiliates in the country, with nearly 15,000 members. People join for various reasons, Jacobs says, but generally because they believe in “the founding American values of free- dom, justice, and equality.”

For her part, Jacobs tries to makes sure her organization’s efforts have a far- reach ing impact. “I lead with a strategic, aggressive approach, and I work hard to make sure the ACLU-NJ never compro- mises its founding principles,” she says. And she doesn’t let the critics get to her. “When you work for the ACLU, if no one is mad at you, you’re probably not doing your job.” —MTS


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