Belonging is the Key to DE&I Efforts. An interview with Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU-PA

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In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel went on record with Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania. Reggie has been with ACLU-PA since September 2011. Before that, he served as the director of law and policy at the Equal Justice Society (EJS), a national strategy group heightening consciousness on race in the law and popular discourse.

From 1995-2010, Reggie served as senior staff counsel in the national ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. During his tenure there, he helped to pioneer legal challenges to racial profiling practices nationwide.

He was the ACLU’s chief litigator in challenges to racial profiling, leading national litigation efforts and consulting with ACLU state affiliates and others in cases of “driving while black or brown,” airport profiling, and profiling related to the war on terror.

Reggie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina’s School of Law in Chapel Hill, where he was his graduating class president.

Gina Rubel: I have known Reggie many years from the Philadelphia legal community. He has become a friend. He teaches me so much that I need to learn and I am grateful for that. I think in 2020, when the racial discourse has become more open, I am more hopeful that we can be a part of the change and a part of the solution. But to know your story is to love you.

Why did you become a lawyer?

Because I was an inquisitive kid. Whenever anybody would come to our house, I would ask them a million questions. I would get them in a corner somewhere. “What are your hobbies? Do you like to read? What’s your favorite color? Do you have brothers and sisters? Do you get along with your brothers and sisters?”

More than one of them said to me, “Slow down kid, you sound like a lawyer.” It was my first “a-ha” moment, I guess. I was five years old and I determined that I would become a lawyer. Now, unlike you, I did not know any lawyers. There are no lawyers in my family. I just knew that if part of what lawyers did was ask questions, I wanted to do that. As I got older, more experienced, I learned some hard lessons in life. I decided ultimately that I wanted to spend my career and my focus on civil rights and civil liberties.

Gina Rubel: I thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you do and for having the courage to be the first in your family and amongst the people you know, to become a lawyer. It is refreshing, it is brave and it is needed. I was raised in a family where, while my mother came from a family of immigrants, my father was an attorney. My grandfather was a judge. It never felt like something that I couldn’t do.

Reggie Shuford: I was so young, I did not realize what it would entail to make becoming a lawyer a reality. In some ways it chose me rather than I chose it. I have always had this profound sense of right and wrong; what is just, and what is not just and fair. And, I saw the people around me who were growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, mostly Black because it was a racially segregated town that took years and years and a lot of fighting against racial integration, including school integration that was mandated by the Brown v. Brown. The board decision in 1954, like integrated public schools, did not come to Wilmington, North Carolina, until the late sixties, early seventies.

They fought tooth and nail. I observed all of those things around me. Even though I was young and did not have the language, I had a visceral reaction to the injustice that the bigotry, the racism, classism, and sexism has. My mother was a single mother of five children, super smart. But because she had her first child at age 15, back then they forced you to drop out of school, she had to drop out. She never got the education she wanted. When I graduated high school, I was the first high school graduate in my family. I did not know that I was doing anything special or exceptional. I just did it. I was called to a career fighting injustice. As much as folks like you thank me for the work that I do for which I am deeply grateful, it is also a gift to me. To be able to do what I set my five-year-old heart to doing helps me feel some sense of hope. When the world seems to be in such chaos, what can I do in my small part of the world to affect the change that I think is essential toward a more just and equitable society?  Making a difference is a gift to me.

Gina Rubel: I respect that. I went to law school because I did believe that we could change the world. And I do believe we are changing the world one step at a time, one learned moment at a time. I feel just as blessed. I understand and empathize with that feeling.

Reggie Shuford: I agree with you. I think we are changing the world. Is there anything more beautiful, in my opinion, as a civil rights lawyer and activist, than seeing the myriad of diverse faces taking to the street, demanding justice like that? Those people protesting have not ever been as diverse racially, age wise, all of those things. And this is a beautiful moment. Change is happening precisely because of people taking to the street. There is a lot to be hopeful for, I certainly agree with you on that.

Gina Rubel: I want to believe that our children and our children’s children will live in a more just and fair society, in a world of love and not where we don’t see color, but where we see everyone as a human, just like us.

Reggie Shuford: Gina. I don’t think they are going to settle for anything less. You got to demand it as they are doing now.

Gina Rubel: I have a 20 year old and a 17 year old, and I have to tell you, they are more brave than I ever was at their age to speak up and speak out and not tolerate injustices. They will respectfully stand up to elders and say, “That is not language we use anymore.” I thank them for it and I think if every parent can just thank their kids for that one moment, when they stand up for somebody else, they will stand up more and more and more.

Reggie Shuford: Just to embarrass you a little, I don’t think it happens in a vacuum. I think that you create it, the environment and culture within your family, where your kids feel like they are able to use their voice. They care about the things that you care about. It is about having instilled values in them that are for fairness, equality and justice. You have cultivated the environment, you and your husband that nurtured your children into using their voice.

Gina Rubel: We have to thank our own parents for that too. I did tell you earlier and it is something I am very proud of, my father, Richard Furia, was a Philadelphia lawyer. He helped to get the license for the first gay bar in Philadelphia. He represented a Black man who was shot in the back by police. He was a huge advocate for the LatinX community. I did not know at one point that it was bad to say, “I don’t see color” because I did not, I just saw people as people. It has been painful for me to hear the stories of things that my friends have endured that I did not witness. Now I want to bear witness so that I can learn and continue to grow, but it started with our parents. We were fortunate to have parents who were so open to change, and it starts there. My dad was a civil rights guy.

What made you decide to focus on civil rights?

Let me say this in terms of parents, I never had a father in my life, but my mother was so instrumental in me being who I am and me doing what I do. And I’ll answer your question about why civil rights. But before that, I want to pay tribute to my mother, who had many, many hard knocks as a single Black mother of five children in Wilmington, North Carolina. She endured many trials and tribulations and was never able to achieve her full potential. Despite all of it, she never had a negative word to say about anybody else, even the people who trespassed against her. She forgave them. And she did not ever hold in her heart the blame that I think was justified, frankly, but she never became embittered. Even though the environment that we grew up in was racially segregated, and there was housing segregation, etc., she saw to your point about whether or not someone sees color. She saw people’s humanity. That is what has inspired my siblings and me to see people’s humanity. I see color, which is great, but I see people’s character. The thing about seeing color is we should be able to see it without it having negative connotations or implications. So, I decided to become a civil rights lawyer because of my mother’s experiences, of my personal experiences of seeing poor people mistreated, of seeing Black people mistreated, of seeing single women mistreated.

I thought, this isn’t right.  That same visceral reaction that I had then, I have still to this day, it is an innate part of who I am. It motivates me to use my voice, to use my platform, my law degree, my access, whatever I have to use to battle that injustice for people. I don’t say “the voice” because I think everybody has a voice, whether or not everybody’s voice is listened to is another matter. My advocacy is on behalf of those people whose voices have been ignored. Yes, I am blessed to be able to do this work.

Gina Rubel: I am just in awe. I, too, am learning to use my voice more in public relations. You are often behind the scenes sharing others’ voices. I am learning to use my voice more, and it is empowering, and it is inspiring.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a speech you gave. I am curious what it means to you to be the recipient of the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Diversity Award from the Philadelphia Bar Association.

It is deeply humbling to be given an award by your peers named after Justice Sotomayor, who was the first recipient of it. But for work that you do because of who you are and what your values are, it is a little embarrassing. Maybe you’ll be receiving an award for work that is so important to who you are as a person and a human being. Like this work on equity and inclusion, I have always done it. I have always thought about it. I have always felt that it was important. For people to think I am worthy of an award for that work is deeply humbling.

Read Reggie’s words of acceptance: Justice Sonia Sotomayor Diversity Award Acceptance Speech

There’s something you said in the speech that I want to preface with: after the George Floyd murder, I reached out to you as a friend and said, we’re revamping our position on diversity and inclusion statement, and I asked you to review it for me. You were so kind as to make sure that it had certain language. What you told me, and what you shared in your speech as well, is that you use something called ABIDE. Could you tell us what that means to you?

First of all, when you reached out to me, I have to say many people were reaching out to me. I did not have the emotional bandwidth to respond to everybody, but because of our friendship, my deep respect for you, and what came across to me as sincerity and authenticity of the work that you were doing, I, of course, responded. I wanted to help as much as possible. I coined the term, the acronym ABIDE because I was thinking, we start with diversity, and then we add inclusion, and then we add equity. It is hard to remember all of these concepts, so my mind needs an acronym to help me remember. I came up with the acronym ABIDE which means authentic, belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity.

The concepts within ABIDE are singularly important, but certainly combined, they are of great importance. Inclusion is essential as is diversity and equity. That is part of the reason that I am pushing this term is because we can’t stop there. Diversity isn’t enough. Inclusion isn’t enough. All of those things are good, but to me, they are not where we want to go. Our aspirations have to be more. Equity is amazing and simple just fairness, seeing people for who they are and meeting them where they are. But even to me, that is not enough.

When I am thinking about workplaces and the communities that we want to create and the world that we want to live in, the goal is belonging. Everybody, particularly given the amount of time people spend at work, want to feel like they belong. Like they truly belong — like they are an integral part of the enterprise. Their work is valued. They are valued. They feel safe. They feel secure. They feel they matter, their opinions matter. Their opinions are solicited. Their opinions help inform the way the work gets done. To me, that’s what belonging is. Authentic belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity, ABIDE, is my way of putting it all together.

Gina Rubel: You were so kind as to respond to me, and I am grateful you shared the need for a sense of belonging. I hadn’t heard that before. Yet, I have found so many experiences in my own life where I did not feel like I belonged somewhere and where perhaps others did not either. Recently I interviewed a woman named Gia Altreche. She is a Black Puerto Rican, and she lives in California. She shared this need for belonging. One of the things I liked that she said is when somebody comes to a meeting, the chair should be waiting for them, and the table should be set, and their names should be there. It is not about saying, “Hey, pull up a chair.” It is about having a real seat, having the seating plan arranged like it is there for you.

I thought that was a brilliant way to look at the sense of belonging. I am sure every human being can think of a time where they walked into a room where they did not feel like they belonged, whether it is the first day of school, or in a new community when they’ve moved, or in the new church or religious institution that they’ve joined, or in a restaurant, and particularly at work. I love ABIDE and it is something we’re trying to live by here as well.

Reggie Shuford: I am honored that you like it and are using it. That is the beauty of a concept like belonging. It is to your point: every human being has, at some point in their lives, felt like they did not belong. It reminds me of attending high school reunions. You think, “Oh, those people were the in-crowd.” They sometimes say, “No, I didn’t feel like I was in the in-crowd. I was an outsider, too.” At some point in everybody’s life, we don’t belong, and everybody can understand what that feels like. Number one, most of us don’t want to feel that way again, but number two, we can do what’s in our power to make sure that other people don’t feel the same way.

What advice would you give someone considering becoming a lawyer?

Wow. I would say, “If that is what your heart tells you to do, then, by all means, go for it.” But I would want to be transparent and direct. I would say, “Listen, it is not easy. It is very challenging. It can be very expensive. Figure out what you want to do and determine whether a law degree is the best thing that will allow you to be able to do that. A lot of the advocacy that my organization handles doesn’t require a law degree. I’d ask if they want to go to the expense of a law degree. Do they know that it will shut down their social life for three or four years? It is an amazing tool to have in your belt. It an amazing credential to have. I encourage anyone who sincerely wants to do it, to pursue it with the knowledge of what it takes to do what your heart is telling you to do, go for it.

How did you come to Philadelphia from North Carolina?

Twenty-five years ago, I moved from Raleigh, North Carolina, where I had been practicing in a small law firm, to New York City. I had landed my dream job, which is working at the national ACLU. It was time to go to New York and do some good stuff. So, I did that. I got to do some amazing work at the national ACLU with the most amazing people. I adore my colleagues here in Pennsylvania, certainly the colleagues that I had in New York and just all over the country. I was there for 15 years due to racial justice litigation, national security litigation, affirmative action and educational equity, etc. After 15 years, it was time for me to do something else.

When I’d made up my mind to become a lawyer, I did not know all that it entailed. When I applied to become a lawyer at the ACLU, I realized how prestigious the organization is but I don’t think I knew enough to understand how hard it is to get a lawyer’s job at the national ACLU scale. There are so few public interest jobs that do work nationwide. There I was, a kid from Wilmington, North Carolina, having gone to a good law school, UNC-Chapel Hill. After I got the job and met some of my legal colleagues at the ACLU, I discovered that many had gone to Ivy League schools.

They had gone to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and NYU. There was no one else there from UNC-Chapel Hill. The reason why I thought you would like this story, given your expertise in communications, is because the person who hired me, Steve Shapiro, who was the legal director at the time, said, “I am delighted to have you here. I am going to tell you one of the reasons that we hired you is because of the strength of your cover letter. The story you told about your life and your passion for justice is not a story I’d ever seen in anyone else’s cover letter.” When Steve was retiring four or five years ago after having spent 30 plus years at the ACLU, he reminded me that my cover letter was something that he still remembered all those years later. It just meant a lot to me. I was there for 15 years at the national ACLU.

In 2010, I left and took a job as director of law and policy at an organization in San Francisco called the Equal Justice Society. I was there for just about a year and a half and felt the East Coast pulling me back. A dear friend, who was a professor at Temple Law, had been a colleague at the national ACLU while I was there. She then moved to Philadelphia and began a career in academia. She told me about the position. She was on the board of the ACLU of Pennsylvania at the time. She said, “I think you’d be great,” and I said, I’ll think about it, I love the ACLU, and I was ready to come back.” It was a big cross-country move. If you’re anything like me, Gina, your friends are very special to you. Sometimes they know you better than you know yourself. I’d never been an executive director before, but I trusted her judgment. Then, as I contemplated the position, I reached out to other close friends and advisors to ask their opinions. One friend said, “Dude, as bossy as you are, yeah.” Beyond that, they told me they thought it was a good idea. So, I applied for the position, I got it, and that was nine years ago.

Gina Rubel: I met you right when you moved here. I was still on the board of the Philadelphia Bar Association at the time. I remember our first meeting. I say that because people often ask, what do you get out of membership I am so grateful for the friendships and the access to people who don’t look like me, who don’t think like me, who’ve had different experiences. I think that’s been one of the greatest benefits of being a girl from South Philly who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Getting to know someone from North Carolina who has a completely different experience is a gift. I grew up in a metropolitan area where we did not have racial segregation in our face. I went to high school and I sat next to people of all races, but segregation was around. I just did not know it was there. It wasn’t something I had personally experienced. So, learning your story and all of these things that we can share with our listeners is part of this wonderful journey.

Reggie Shuford: It is part of the journey that we have to be open to. I am glad we’re on this journey together. I want to underscore your point about the Philadelphia Bar Association. It is a special place. I know that you have many amazing, good friends through the bar association, too, just as I do. I moved to Philadelphia almost nine years ago without knowing very many people; I quickly became active in the Philadelphia Bar Association. It just made a place at the table. My nameplate was there at that table. I felt like I belonged early on. As a result of feeling like I belonged, I have been able to do some great stuff with amazing people in the nine years since I have been there. It is just a special place. I mean, you mentioned your father early on, like when someone says “Philadelphia lawyer,” that has meaning well beyond Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s public interest community is well known for its uniquely collaborative spirit. There’s a lot to recommend about the Philadelphia Bar Association, chief among them, as you point out, is the ability to form and make lifelong friendships with great people.

Gina Rubel: Reggie, it is a shame that you did not get to know my dad, he passed away in 2010. It was right before you joined. Many of our colleagues knew him. He was very actively involved in the Philadelphia Bar Association. It is a special place. It is a warming place. Every organization has its politics with a capital P, but it is a place where I have been privy to people of all cultures, races, colors and ethnic backgrounds.

What’s one of the achievements you’re most proud of, Reggie?

I think I’ll go back to where we started my story, which was deciding to become a lawyer at such a young age, even though I did not know what it meant. Because of my visceral reaction to the injustice that I saw and experienced around me and making that dream a reality is what I think I am most proud of. My mother passed away way too young, but she did get to see me become a civil rights lawyer. That made her immensely proud. My commitment, just as it is to justice and equality for everybody, is to preserve her legacy, given her inability to achieve her own life’s dreams. I make sure that whenever I accomplish anything that she would be proud of, I thank her for it. I acknowledge her in getting me to that place. My passion for justice and equality has not dimmed in the nearly 30 years that I have been a lawyer. I value doing good work for people who often don’t have their voices heard, meeting great people, and remaining open to life lessons. The idea is that all of us have something to contribute, but all of us have something to learn, too.

Gina Rubel: Your story, in many ways, is a beacon of hope. It reminds me of our dear friend, Nikki Johnson-Houston, who is a beacon of hope to people who look like her and who look like you. I hope this message gets out to youngsters. Share this with people who are young, who may feel a little bit more hopeless because of what’s been happening in 2020, because you are a true beacon of hope. You are a light. I am honored to know you.

What are some of the things you do for fun?

I love to read and have always read, even as a young kid. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I am struggling to keep up with all the amazing books out there. Some of them are harder than others, even though I love to read. It is not always fun stuff that I am reading. I am reading this book now called Wilmington’s Lie about the Wilmington massacre of 1898 in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, that very few people know about. I did not know about it until I moved to New York City to work at the ACLU when I was in my late thirties. I did not know about this massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I grew up. Everybody should read the book. Wilmington’s Lie is about the massacre of 1898. It is real. As much as many things have changed, much of it remains the same.

I am reading another book called How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones. It does have a little more humor to it. I am about to read Caste, a book by Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote my other favorite book, The Warmth of Other Suns. I have a lot of books to read, but I also like to binge Netflix.

Gina Rubel: We were still in the time of pandemic and lockdowns. You mentioned earlier that your partner is an ER physician. You’ve been going at this on your own, giving you a lot of time to read and watch Netflix. I am going to ask you to thank your partner for doing what he does as well, because it is pretty amazing. I can only imagine had I not seen my husband for the last five months, how hard that must be. Thank God we we’ve come to the Jetson’s age of being able to look at each other and connect remotely.

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