Deborah Archer: It was so important to be a part of community to find strength in each other. To know that on the days that I can't move forward, someone else is going to take up the baton and move forward for me.
Helga Davis: Our earliest memories shape us in profound ways. Do we conform? Do we rebel? Do we hide or fight? I'm Helga Davis. Professor, lawyer, and ACLU President, Deborah Archer sat down to speak with me about some of her earliest moments, and how they shaped her desire to fight for equality. This is my conversation with Deborah Archer. Good morning.
Deborah Archer: Good morning.
Helga Davis: Oh, how nice. First things first, how's your little person?
Deborah Archer: Oh, he's good, and he's not that little, he's 15. In my mind, he's little, and when they are sick, they are all little again. I have two boys, 15 and 17.
Helga Davis: Wow.
Deborah Archer: Yes, but they're my babies.
Helga Davis: I have a friend, she just went to California to visit one of her sons, who just turned 30, and she said, "I'm going to see my babies." I remember them when they were babies, like really babies. It's interesting to hear how they return to them no matter how old or young or tall, or anything they are, they are still your babies.
Deborah Archer: I feel that way with my own parents. I am turning 50 years old this year, and my mother still refers to me as her baby. I like that and I embrace that. I think I was in law school when I stopped getting an Easter basket. [laughs]
Helga Davis: Wow. What do you think-- What's in there for them and for you, in being someone's baby and receiving that?
Deborah Archer: Well, in my relationship with my boys, them being my baby, to me, means that I'm always taking care of them. Making sure that they have everything that they need to feel loved, to feel empowered, to feel like they can live the lives of choice and happiness. I think that my parents, both still feel that kind of responsibility to me. My parents still feel a sense of obligation, a sense of love that makes them want to care for me. I think that, to me, that's what I feel when I talk about my two teenage boys as babies.
Helga Davis: How do you think that translates, in this moment, in our country?
Deborah Archer: I have found that being a parent, in this moment, has been more challenging than it ever has been. Particularly, I think, as a parent who is raising two young Black men in America, in New York City, while all of this is going on, while the world is in chaos, while we're witnessing, rage and the discrimination and the humiliation that people have experienced bubble to the top. We're seeing the violence of racism in all its forms. I have struggled to strike a balance between how much do I want them to see?
I want them to understand the world that they are going out into, to understand the dangers of the world. I don't want to shield them from what was going on over the past year and a half, but also then trying to balance that against the trauma. I want to model strength and resilience for my children. It's something that I've tried to do always. That was harder in this moment, as I was struggling with my own emotions, and trying to strike a balance on how much do I show that to them and how much do I try to remain strong and resilient to support them.
Helga Davis: It's both things that they need and that we need too; it's to acknowledge what's happening and also to know that we are strong and resilient, that both things are true at the same time.
Deborah Archer: Absolutely. Its something we have to remind ourselves that it's okay to be sad, to be vulnerable, to be hurt, to be afraid, to be uncertain about the future but, then to know that we will carry on, that we have to carry on, we don't have any options. That we are where we are because of the people who came before us, refused to stop and they continued to push forward, so we must do the same for the generations that will come after us.
Helga Davis: Then what is it like to carry that knowledge and knowing into an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union, and have to find a way to strike a balance there as well?
Deborah Archer: Oh, the balances there are tremendous. The organization has a story that people tell about who the ACLU is, and what the ACLU does. In so many ways, who I am as a person doesn't line up with the story that people have told about that organization.
Helga Davis: Can you say in which ways?
Deborah Archer: We recently started to say that we are fighting for an America, where we the people means everyone, and as an organization that I think sees the humanity and everyone and the value in everyone and is willing to fight for that inclusion. When I was growing up, I experienced a lot of discrimination. The challenges that come from being Black and poor in the United States. My parents are Jamaican immigrants, and I'm the first person in my family to go to college. We grew up in Connecticut, one of the richest states in the country. That combination was a daily challenge, there were daily struggles.
When I was graduating from law school and had proclaimed that I was going to be a civil rights attorney who focused on racial justice to fight the kind of discrimination that my family had fought against on a daily basis, and that I was going to start my career at the ACLU, the response was total and complete confusion because it's not an organization that people recognize is there to fight for everyone, to recognize everyone's humanity.
Helga Davis: Let's go back to that. What do you think the view is of the ACLU?
Deborah Archer: I think people view it as a white organization that focuses on First Amendment, when in fact, we are an incredibly diverse organization in every way that you measure diversity, that is fighting for civil rights and civil liberties, all of them. We are working to protect the Bill of Rights, but we're also working to protect the Reconstruction Amendments. We care about the First Amendment, but we care about the Thirteenth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment, as well. That comes with challenges that we struggle with and think about and talk about every day.
I started my legal career in 1997 at the ACLU as a legal fellow doing the full range of work that we've talked about. Doing women's rights work, doing racial justice work, doing First Amendment work, privacy work. This has been who we are from the beginning. That has been a challenge and I think it's going to continue to be a challenge to help people see themselves in our work, to help people understand who we have always been, but also how we've evolved and what that means.
Helga Davis: Where's the part in which you feel yourself at odds with or in conflict with in terms of just who you are as a person?
Deborah Archer: I think that I would not be being honest with myself if I said that it was easy to be someone who has been a victim of racial discrimination, and someone whose family has been targeted by racists. When I was really young, in elementary school, my parents moved from Hartford, Connecticut, to a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, because they wanted us to move out of the poverty that we were living in. They wanted us to move to a more integrated community, to have safer streets, to be able to play in the playground, to attend better schools, all of the things that parents want for their children, and they moved us to this suburb.
When we moved to this suburb, we were one of three Black families in the community. The other members of the community weren't happy about that, and in many ways reminded us of the fact that we were not welcome. When I was in elementary school, I woke up to find that our house and our car had been vandalized and KKK had been painted. My parents had to explain to me what that meant, why was KKK painted on our house and our car? Why were our neighbors unwelcoming? Why weren't we wanted here? It really just shifted the way that I engage with the world.
That person sometimes does find it a challenge to be in an organization where some of the clients don't believe in my humanity, where some of the clients would certainly push back against my ability to live in the community, to attend the same schools as their children. That can be a challenge. It doesn't undermine my commitment to our rights, to our core civil liberties, to our core civil rights, and silencing those folks is not, in my mind, the way to true equality, justice, to freedom. There are other tools, and the ACLU is using those other tools, and I'm glad to be a part of that work.
Helga Davis: It's such a prickly and precarious place to be. Then what do you do? How do you take care of yourself when you're not negotiating and navigating the Center for the country?
Deborah Archer: It is a prickly place to be that requires that we have difficult and challenging conversations every day, day after day, and that can be exhausting. Some days, it's invigorating to have conversations, on an intellectual level, on how laws can mesh and work together, and how can we challenge new and emerging tools to oppress people and oppressed communities. How can we get at entrenched discrimination, but it's not just an intellectual exercise.
Helga Davis: No, what about your heart?
Deborah Archer: Right. This is my heart. These are people's lives. These are our children, our neighbors, our friends, our family, and it's me, me personally. I'm so caught up in those conversations. I think it's important for us to find spaces of rest, find ways to engage in self-care to step away from conversations for a minute, for an hour, for a week, for however long it takes for us to protect ourselves and our health, and our well being.
Sometimes I remind myself of the words of James Baldwin, in essence, to not believe what they say about us, that we are not who they say we are, and to remind myself every day, as I navigate spaces where I'm not expected to be, or I'm not wanted. It's not just a challenge navigating the legal social justice issues at the ACLU, it's a challenge that I think people of color, women of color experience as we navigate white spaces. What I do, as I said, is I remind myself that I belong. I remind myself that I'm not who they say I am. I tried to surround myself by people who are focused on building me up, on supporting me.
I was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, we were in a building with other social justice organizations, including organizations like Asian American Legal Defense Fund, and at that point, then the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. It was so important to be a part of community to find strength in each other, to know that on the days that I can't move forward, someone else is going to take up the baton and move forward for me. I find inspiration and strength in my students.
Each and every year, I have a new group of students who I can help teach them the skills, knowledge, abilities that they're going to need to join this fight on the days that I can't and long after I am gone. Each year, I have a new crop of mentors who are teaching me to care for myself in different ways, to care for my community in different ways, teaching me different ways to show up in this fight for justice. To be creative, to not be daunted by the failures of the past. There are so many ways in which Deborah as a person gets strength and hope and inspiration.
Helga Davis: When you talk about being creative, say more about that, because I think that one of the things that I'm always digging at and trying to uncover is this idea of being creative in our problem-solving, in confronting our challenges. I think part of it begins with being open to letting go of an outcome.
Deborah Archer: I think that's right. I see it as letting go of an outcome and letting go of a process. That there are ways that, particularly lawyers, are taught about how to approach problems. Law is about problem-solving. I want to be and I want my students to be creative problem-solvers that are using all of the tools available to us to tackle injustice, to redefine justice, to bring us closer to that point of justice. In being creative, we're thinking differently about how we get to the point where we want to be. It's not just about litigation, how can we use community organizing? How can we use narrative to achieve justice?
How are we changing the story or expanding ideas, thinking about different ways to approach problems? How are we redefining what justice means? Look at where we are today, I thinK 20 years ago, the idea that justice can be reparations or justice could be a shift in funding so that we are funding public safety in a different way. We could have never imagined that those would be the goals we were fighting for. Creativity of activists and communities have brought us to the point where we're thinking more expansively about what we want to accomplish, what do we need to accomplish to make sure that everyone is living happy, joyful lives.
Helga Davis: Deborah, it's also in our personal relationships too, right? It can begin there in our own families, in our own circle of people. I think that's such an important part too that, yes, we think globally, but they're still made up of people.
Deborah Archer: You're bringing us right back to the beginning, where you asked me why I'm still my mother's baby. It is about caring for the people in our lives and the problems and the challenges that we face in our lives. I'm curious to hear about how you're viewing that and seeing that in your families and in your community.
Helga Davis: Well, it's much harder in with my own family. I can't say that I am successful there. The issues I see and I'm moved by and moved to get involved with globally are ones that I'm able to solve with the people that I come from. This is why I was asking because what I find I do is exactly what's happening in the country, I protect myself. If you continue to make disparaging remarks about this or that group, I'm not going to sit at a table with you. I'm not going to dinner with you. I'm not coming to your birthday party. I know, just know, and know that I'm not coming because you hold this view. It's a form of protection.
The second part of it is for me to find the people, as you said, who are lifting me up, who are engaged in a different kind of conversation. What I recognize is that I have a limited amount of time and energy, and that's not where I want to spend it. I don't know if that is a right thing. If I'm not spending it there, how is it then that I justify going somewhere else and saying I'm going to help these people or this cause or this situation?
Deborah Archer: I think it is absolutely the right thing because it is one about protecting you, and knowing yourself, knowing what you can and cannot endure, and still protect who you are. I don't think that everyone has to be involved in advocacy and social movements and justice in the same way. There are many people, you are not alone, who cannot have those conversations with people who will never see eye to eye with you on points that are very fundamental to who you are and what you believe. No one should be forced to have those conversations.
I think I have a little bit more tolerance for those conversations than many people. I think because I'm a teacher. My classroom is filled with students who show up to this work and show up in my class in many different ways and many different points in their journeys, in their understanding. They have many reasons for taking my class. Oftentimes I have students who have disagreed with everything that I have to say, but appreciate that I'm open to the conversation to help them as they continue to try to understand.
As long as someone is open to a conversation, open to learning, then I'm open to having that conversation with them. I, like many others, am wary of having conversations with people who aren't listening, but it's no point in spinning our wheels. Engaging in where we think that we can be effective while protecting ourselves is the sweet spot. That is, I think, the spot we all have to work to find where we feel like we are honoring ourselves and who we are, and at the same time working to make this world a better place for those who will come after us.
Helga Davis: Are there things that you do every day, like daily practices, that every person could or can do that you feel set you up to have the kind of fortitude and enthusiasm and curiosity for your day?
Deborah Archer: I'm going to acknowledge that I am awful when it comes to routines of self-care. I'm still working on finding ways to care for myself, like I care for others, and so trying to develop those practices more. I've started to first talk to someone who loves me, who has loved me forever, my mother, my father. I have an aunt too who loves me as if I were her own child. I have friends who have been there for a very long time, and I find it incredibly helpful to get through my day by starting my day with a conversation with one of them.
Of course, my husband and my children are incredibly supportive, but it's just different when you speak to your mother or someone who loves you in that way. I also have taken to middle of the day walks with the no agenda with a cup of tea. I have found that I come back to my work with new energy and new insight, and I'm a daily reader. I read something, a magazine, I read books. I'm one of those people who has a stack of many, many books. I'm great at starting books, not great at finishing them, but I do read a lot.
Helga Davis: Those are great suggestions because I think that we all need basic tools so that we can engage with our days and with our lives and with ourselves.
Deborah Archer: Is there a tool you have found particularly helpful as a daily tool?
Helga Davis: Yes, I sit every morning. I light a candle, and if I go somewhere and there isn't, and I've forgotten my candle, I pour water into a glass and I just sit down and look at it. Usually, every morning, I walk, and like you, when I'm done with that, I come back and I am able to tackle most things. I write in my journal, that's another thing I do. There's craziness in there, really, really craziness. I don't judge it. I just let it come out. Then every once in a while, I go back and I look at a week and say, "Well, what we is I doing? What was I thinking about? Where was I?
Even when it feels like nonsense, there may be one sentence in there that helps me understand something that I need to understand on the day that I'm reading after a week or after a month. I look forward to finding those little nuggets.
Deborah Archer: Your walk, my sitting with tea and walking with tea reminds me what my students often tell me that rest is resistance. What I don't do is journal. Although many people have talked about how important it is to them, I think I have opportunities to write my thoughts as they relate to civil rights and social justice, but I don't have outlets for the other things in my brain. They are still in there. There's nowhere that I am just dropping those out. I don't know why I resist the journaling.
Helga Davis: Well, there are days when I don't do it, and I can tell you why. I think it's because those days, there's something that hurts so much that I'm not quite ready to acknowledge it. I don't want to see it. If I keep it in my head, it can spin. It can be on the TV with all the other images that are floating around, and I don't actually have to stop the channel there and acknowledge something.
Deborah Archer: I'm sure there are so many things that I am not ready to process or want to be forced to process. The trauma of daily lives that I still remember, things that happened five years ago that pop up in my head. It's tough to process those things.
Helga Davis: I think about them too, Deborah, not as letting go, but as integrating.
Deborah Archer: Just listening to you speak made me think about how important that awareness, that ability is in Black and Brown communities with the level of trauma in our communities. The things that our children are witnessing every day, the things that people are witnessing every day but don't have the tools or the space to process it, to figure out what it all means what we're going to do with that and how to put it aside, if we're going to put it aside, how to find power empowerment from it if that's going to do.
I think that we are lucky, you more so, because you are much farther along in this process of being able to do that, but even the awareness that we can do that. So many people that I have encountered who are dealing with trauma and violence and the violence of racism just don't know how to move forward from that, how to process that. When I first became president of ACLU, I received incredibly wonderful messages from people I have known and loved for years and people who I have never met and will never meet who were proud of me and wanted to know that they were proud of me.
Who had faith in me and my abilities to move forward and to help lead this incredible organization. I also received and continue to receive hateful emails that do not wish me well, that pull in all of the worst elements. I have to remind myself not to be afraid, not to allow my fear of getting these emails, not to allow my fear of those folks who I don't know and can't put faces to, to stop me from doing the work I know is important, to stop me from doing the work that makes me happy to stop me from living my life.
Helga Davis: To move you out of your house again.
Deborah Archer: That's right. Exactly. Talking about that racism, talking about those experiences help me to process and to be reminded that I belong, that this is the right thing, that I have a community of folks who are going to stand with me and protect me and make sure that I feel safe wherever I am.
Helga Davis: What do you want now?
Deborah Archer: I want to feel like every day I am doing something to make sure that children won't grow up with the challenges that I grew up with. I've been blessed to be in a position where my children will not graduate from college with the kind of debt that I had, but I still know that my children are called the n-word the way that I was called the n-word. My children experience racism every day. My sons talk about being followed in the store when they go to the store, and I hope that the work that I do on my own and with others will mean that they won't have to worry about their children the way that I have to worry about them.
There will be different worries, but I don't want them to have the same worries that I have each and every time they leave the house. I feel like I'm holding my breath until they come back and I want them to be able to have children in a different world.
Helga Davis: What about for the organization?
Deborah Archer: For the ACLU, I hope that I will help people see the ACLU as an organization that is fighting for them. I will help them see themselves in the ACLU, in the work of the ACLU. I hope I will be able to contribute to that conversation. That ongoing conversation that the ACLU has been in having for over a hundred years of how we are an organization that fights for civil rights and civil liberties. How we are an organization that cares deeply and passionately about the First Amendment but also is going to fight to fully recognize the Thirteenth Amendment. How we can fight for and protect free speech and also fight for racial justice. As an individual who has lived in this world and walked different steps than many other people in that organization, I hope that I can contribute to the conversation in a way that can make this organization even better, to live up to its potential and its goal of reconciling the America that's promised with the America that we actually have. To making us better advocates for everyone in the community, and for us to elevate the voices and the leadership of people who have been more directly impacted by the full range of issues we engage with.
Helga Davis: What do you want for yourself?
Deborah Archer: We said I struggle with this, and even now in, in the face of this question, I want to be happy. I want to be happy, yes, but what does that mean to me at the end of the day? Is there a goal that is just simply Deborah? I don't know. I do think it's important for people who see themselves in the person I was when I was younger, a person who may be the first person in the family to go to college, or the first-generation American citizen or someone who just does not see the path from A to B. I hope that I can help people understand that there is a way forward.
I think people will often think that its luck gets you from A to B, or they got me from A to B. Certainly, there was a lot of luck involved. What I think has been more important is that there have been so many people who have invested in me and poured into me, and the different pieces of me. People who have helped me develop as a person. People who have invested and helped me develop as a lawyer. People who have helped and invested in me to develop as a leader. Then there are people who have helped me put it all together to bring me to the point where I am today.
Certainly, one of those people has been my husband, who sees all the sides of me; good, bad, and ugly, and has just wisdom that has helped me to develop in each of those areas. I've also had the luck of coming across other people who have helped me pull these threads together and weave them together in a way that makes me feel ready to take on this tremendous responsibility that I have. I am proud to take on this role to be in this space to have the opportunities and the responsibilities that I have now. I also feel ready because there have been so many people who, not knowing we were doing this, but have gotten me ready for this moment.
I'm appreciative for everyone who has invested in me.
Helga Davis: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to meet you.
Deborah Archer: It's a pleasure to meet you too.
Helga Davis: That was my conversation with Deborah Archer. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Give us a rating, and share with a friend. Don't forget to follow me @hel.gadavis on Instagram. Helga, the Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes-Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Special thanks to Allison Burns. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer.
City and Bloomberg Philanthropies are the Armory's 2021 season sponsors. Now, the coda. When I was 15 years old, in ninth grade at the Walden school, I was the receptionist at the American Civil Liberties Union. After school that was my job from 3:30 to 5:30. People were allowed to come up to the eighth floor because we also had literature. It was not infrequent to have someone come up, who was fully clad in the aluminum foil on their heads, demanding to see an attorney because they, them, someone beings were trying to control their brains, and they needed help.
I was 15 and asked to field these conversations until someone else could come and explain to them that at this part of the organization, we deal with national issues and that people who needed individual attorneys had to go, so we would explain all the things. To someone who thinks that their brain is being taken over, it's not an easy case to make. What it did was it helped me understand the many worlds in which all people exist.
I had my church community, I had my music community, I had my family, nuclear family community.
And then I had this other view of the world that was very, very important in terms of informing and being included in this whole view. Yes, it was a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old, but it's also the place where I learned about women's rights, where I learned about capital punishment, where I learned that there were lesbian and gay people who could be my friends, and that I could be with these anarchists of liberty and learn from them and learn. Then get to go out in the world and measure their view of the world against the world that I was not only born into but the one that I was trying to create.