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ACLU Northern California Appoints First Middle Eastern Head

April 23, 2009 by  


Q&A with Abdi Soltani

By Annette Fuentes, New America Media

Editor’s Note: Abdi Soltani, 35, is the newly appointed executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the largest affiliate of the national organization. Before coming to the ACLU, Soltani headed Californians for Justice, a grassroots immigrant and civil rights group; the Campaign for College Opportunity; and PARSA Community Foundation, a Persian philanthropic organization. He spoke with NAM editor Annette Fuentes about his vision for the organization.

abdi-soltani What are your priorities as executive director of the ACLU in this region?

One big priority is to bring in the next generation of ACLU members and leaders. One of my big goals will be to reach young people and diverse people, in rural and central valley communities. People who will sustain the work of civil liberties and rights.

Another major goal is to look at some of the big challenges of next few years, whether it is securing marriage equality or reducing the dramatic number of people who are incarcerated, and issues affecting youth and students.

The ACLU is often perceived as a mostly white, liberal group. How do you gain a wider member base?

The great thing about the ACLU is it works on issues that touch the lives of every person. We’re working on immigration and police, education and students’ rights, reproductive health. All these things create great entry points into the organization. I want to get young people deeply engaged in organization.
You are Iranian and came to this country as a child.

I was actually born in the United States. My parents were on fellowships, but they moved back to Iran and we came to the U.S. when I was 8.

How does the immigrant experience shape your perspective on civil liberties?

It does so in a few ways. When you come to the United States from another country, you do appreciate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. They are not taken for granted. So, whenever I see those freedoms under attack I want to make sure they are preserved. For people who grow up in America, that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are taken for granted.

At same time, I feel there are a lot of issues–whether you’re a Middle Easterner profiled after 9/11 or an immigrant facing raids–there are a lot of issues facing newcomers and we need to protect their rights.

Are you the first immigrant to head this office?

That’s a good question. It’s safe to say that I’m the first Middle Easterner to head this agency, and possibly the first in any office. I grew up with a Muslim background. I’m not an actively religious person, but that shapes my identity.

The ACLU was on the defensive for most of the last eight years during the Bush Administration. Is there a visible change now with the Obama Administration?

What’s import about the ACLU is that at any given moment we’re both protecting and advancing freedoms in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. In the last eight years, we’ve been able to fight Bush on the Patriot Act and Guantanamo. We made strides in free speech rights for students and in protecting gay and lesbian students in schools.

What we’re protecting and what we’re advancing change. So, right now we’re doing the most to press Congress and the Obama administration to advance civil liberties. At the federal level, there is big work to undo the damages done under the Bush Administration, whether changing the Patriot Act or ending the use of torture. But that just takes us to where we were before.

Here in California, we want to really insure the civil rights of all in our communities. When it comes to immigrants, there is a lot of work to be done, with homes raided, children separated from families without due process. When it comes to children in schools, there is a lot to be done in protecting freedoms.

You worked at an organization that focused on increasing opportunities for youth to attend college. What do you bring from that to your new post?

There is a lot I’ve learned about the importance of education and opportunity. I’ve also learned that there is a limit to how much of social problems can be solved by education alone. We are not going to solve the criminal justice problem by simply educating the population. We have too many laws that criminalize behaviors that should not be criminal. We incarcerate far too many people. We want to expand educational opportunities, but there is only so much that education can do.
In terms of education, school push-outs is something that the ACLU has identified as a big problem. The combination of discrimination and push-out is helping drive students out of high schools and that diminishes opportunities for their lifetimes.

What do you consider the biggest civil liberties challenges facing the state? The country?

The number of issues is substantial. I can’t say one is more important than another. Flashpoints will be gay marriage, immigration, education and incarceration. Another that doesn’t get attention is technology. We have range of protections that prevent the government from surveilling us. Currently what is not protected as private is file-sharing.

At the core, the fundamental goal I’m trying to work towards is to grow the constituency of people dedicated to civil liberties.

You should have a receptive audience here in northern California.

I think it’s a very receptive audience. I know the board is committed to the task. The challenge we face is there are a lot of needs. We need to make choices and priorities. The thing is everyone can disagree with a part of our agenda, but we all agree that it’s there to protect everyone.

For example, we’re working on the death penalty. Some of the people on death row have committed heinous crimes, but the core idea of protecting freedoms and protections is something we can all support.

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