“¡Sí Se Puede!”
This short phrase was the rallying cry of the United Farm Workers’ Union in the fight for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers during the 1970s. Translated to English, that motto is roughly “Yes, we can!” Decades after those words were uttered by people fighting for justice against fierce odds, they continue to inspire me. For me, “¡Sí Se Puede!,” is a reminder that together we really can change the world. And that is why I’m here now at the ACLU of Virginia — to change the world for the better.
I have been lucky enough to work as a lawyer fighting for social justice for more than 30 years, including two years as Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia from 1996-1998. Returning to the ACLU after a very long absence feels like coming home. And the ACLU of Virginia is an extraordinary place to call home. What other organization works so deeply on such a broad range of civil rights and civil liberties issues — from racial justice to free speech to LGBTQ rights and beyond? I have only been back at the ACLU for about a month, and I’m already blown away by what a fantastic, talented staff we have, doing extraordinary work to change the world.
Let me share just a little bit about the journey that brought me to this moment. I’d like to say that I attended law school with a well-considered plan for a career, but that’s not entirely true. I knew when I began law school that I wanted to work for social justice, but I found law school disheartening and disconnected from the real world. It caused me to wonder whether being a lawyer would be a good fit for me. And then one day, I saw a 3”x5” index card on my law school’s bulletin board (yes, we had bulletin boards then, and that’s how people learned about jobs) posting a job at a legal aid program serving farmworkers. I was intrigued; it sounded like an opportunity to do good work and to use the Spanish I had learned living in Latin America as a child. I applied for a summer job with that organization.
It is not an exaggeration to say that that little index card changed the trajectory of my life. It led me to a summer internship working with farmworkers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I discovered that, while law school itself was not all I’d hoped for, practicing law on behalf of workers fighting for better wages and working conditions was profoundly meaningful work. I gained enormous respect for the workers who put food on our table under abusive circumstances. I loved the legal work, and I found that I was good at it. When I graduated from law school, I was the recipient of a two-year Skadden fellowship to work with migrant farmworkers across Virginia.
That work has enriched my life beyond measure. Again and again, I have been inspired while standing with people who put so much on the line to fight for justice. I heard workers tell me that they were fighting not for themselves, but instead to achieve justice for other workers, so no one else would suffer as they did. It is a profound honor to work with people who so genuinely believe in the notion of justice for all.
The idea that justice is for everyone has been the guiding principle of my work, as it is the guiding principle of the ACLU. And now, all day, every day, I get to fight for the civil rights and civil liberties of every single Virginian. Together with the staff, board, and our members and supporters, I believe that we can, in fact, change the world.
I’m so grateful to the board of the ACLU of Virginia for trusting me to lead this organization. I’m grateful to the staff for their patience with me as I learn about the amazing work of the affiliate. Most of all, I’m deeply grateful for our members and supporters who make our work possible. I can’t wait to meet you and to work with you in the days, months, and years ahead as we work together to make Virginia the best version of itself. Let’s say it together: ¡Sí Se Puede!