MLK Day 2020: How ACLU Idaho changed course after 2016

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Membership in the American Civil Liberties Union exploded across the nation after the 2016 presidential election. The group’s arm in Idaho felt the surge and responded with new tactics.

“To be quite frank, I think people were really trying to figure out a way to get more engaged or, to be completely honest, more informed,” said Jeremy Woodson, the community engagement manager for ACLU of Idaho, headquartered in Boise.

The ACLU is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing civil liberties and civil rights across the U.S. It’s best known for its work in courtroom battles like the 1925 Scopes trial, in which the ACLU challenged the state of Tennessee’s law banning the teaching of evolution. The ACLU spoke up against the government when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. It joined forces with the NAACP to challenge racial segregation in public schools and took part in Roe vs. Wade.

Today, the group continues to focus on segments of the population that have traditionally been denied their rights: people of color, women, gay and transgender people, prisoners, immigrants and people with disabilities.

While it’s mainly known for its litigious work, after 2016 ACLU of Idaho grew its staff and shifted more support to boots-on-the-ground movements in communities around the state, said Woodson, who will speak in Moscow this week as part of events commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (See details below.) 

This work has included informing people about their protest rights when they are organizing rallies and helping with education and advocacy. The ACLU doesn’t anticipate demand or need for its services changing after the 2020 election. The organization recently announced this year’s Idaho legislative priorities. Other work revolves around trans and other LGBTQ issues, voting access and women’s reproductive rights. 

There are many groups working on these issues around the state, and the ACLU is there to support them with the goal of building inclusive, transformative communities, Woodson said. 

“Too often what we see happening is groups wanting to organize around something and missteps occur, not because of people being disingenuous but because they are not reaching out to those communities that are actually affected,” he said.

Organizers should begin with the questions “Who am I speaking for?” and “Am I telling my story or am I telling someone else’s story?” he said. If they are telling someone else’s story, the question becomes how to make space for the people who actually are affected to come forward to share their perspectives.

Another huge stumbling block to discussions he and others see is a reluctance to believe stories shared by people from minority communities.

For example, a person of color tells of their experiences with racism, and white people downplay, deny or question it.

“If somebody is actually sharing their story around harm they’ve experienced … it always blows my mind when people who may not have had an experience like that all of a sudden want to be experts on that,” said Woodson, who is a person of color.

A public example of this kind of “nitpicking” occurred in 2018, when about a dozen Middleton, Idaho, elementary teachers dressed up for Halloween activities at the school as “Mexicans” — with black mustaches, ponchos and sombreros — and as President Trump’s border wall. Many children at the school are children of Mexican immigrants. While many decried the costumes as racist, others rushed to the teachers’ defense.

“Overwhelmingly, people said they were just trying to honor the culture,” Woodson said. “OK, that’s fine, if that’s what they were trying to do — although I don’t see how a border wall figures into that — but let’s look at the actual impact it had on the community.”

Dismissing discussions about racism as part of the “political hoopla” of the moment also misses the point, Woodson said.

“We know this work can be done. There’s not just one group that can take on these things,” Woodson said. “We are really concerned about hearing from communities about what they’re seeing, good or bad, to be honest, and what they need to do to move forward.”


Jeremy Woodson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho will speak at two events in Moscow starting tonight.

Woodson will talk about the importance of collective solidarity, collective activism and civic engagement through the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. at 5:30 Thursday at the Vandal Ballroom, Pitman Center, University of Idaho. Admission is free.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, Woodson will speak about “The Right to Vote: Access and Challenges”  at the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Community Breakfast at Moscow Middle School, 1410 East D St.Cost is $10 general admission, $5 students and youth. Advance tickets are available at Bookpeople of Moscow, Paradise Ridge CDs, and through the UI Office of Multicultural Affairs. All profits from the breakfast are used to provide human rights and diversity programs for Latah County schools. Woodson’s visit is organized by the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and the UI Office of Multicultural Affairs.

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