After two decades serving as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Kary L. Moss has headed many notable campaigns for the organization. Like her work against warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Administration and when she spearheaded a lawsuit that held the state accountable for poor literacy scores among Detroit-area youth. She’s also been a staunch advocate for LGBTQ rights, fighting for the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Now, her work will take her to the ACLU headquarters in New York, where she’ll be appointed the director of affiliates support and nationwide initiatives.
“It’ll be about helping states build the capacity to do the important work at every level,” Moss said. “Their legal programs, legislative, communications, other programs and then also developing high-impact campaigns like Promote the Vote and other efforts that really can move the needle around the country. So, it’s about looking at the whole map and figuring out where we can be doing our work and really investing resources to make sure it happens.”
Moss plans to leave her local position at the ACLU in late September, but she won’t fully be settled into her role in New York until November. In the midst of her work transition, BTL met with Moss to get her thoughts on the progress the ACLU of Michigan has made since she became executive director, where it still needs to go and the issues that she’ll focus on in her new position.
It’s all Teamwork
When asked to reflect on some of her career highlights, Moss pointed to her team’s work on the Flint water crisis.
“That was work that when we got into it, we had no idea where it would lead and never imagined that with the residents of Flint, and Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, that we would end up exposing a crisis of the magnitude that we discovered,” Moss said. “And then kind of being able to pivot and file lawsuits that ensure that lead pipes are replaced within a particular time period was a big deal. And now we have a case where we’re trying to improve the quality of Flint public education for Flint children and we’re trying to ensure that every child in Flint can get neuropsychological testing to make sure that they weren’t poisoned by lead.”
And, as successful as the ACLU has been on calling attention to the state of the water in Flint, she gives her team most of the credit. In fact, she said that perhaps her proudest achievement in her 20 years as executive director is in helping to maintain a consistent high quality group of people to continue the ACLU’s work.
“I think I’m most proud of the team here and just really being able to attract and keep incredibly talented people here. The quality of work, the curiosity, the risk-taking has just always made me really proud and has made me look good and there’s a lot of reflected glory that I’m benefitting from,” Moss said. “So, the people here who’ve given me a lot of freedom to be creative, I’m just really grateful for all that and proud of it.”
Moss also noted the ACLU’s work on behalf of the LGBTQ people in Michigan as a point of pride, but she said that she wishes she could have seen the state adopt the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights act during her tenure.
“I feel like we’ve absolutely protected and defended the rights of the LGBT community. I wish we could have accomplished more in the legislature. I wish we could have gotten Elliott-Larsen to expand to include sexual orientation and gender identity, but it’s a tall mountain to climb with the state legislature,” Moss said. “And the consequence of gerrymandering, I think, has been that the values expressed in the legislature are not the values of the people who live here in Michigan. I think the vast majority of people here in Michigan want to see greater legal protections for the LGBT community.”
To her, she said that it feels like “unfinished business,” that her successor will have to contend with. She emphasized the importance of focusing on positively impacting gerrymandering and voter turnout to further combat the issue in the future, too.
“We need legislators who support that and who aren’t worried about the far right, and because we’re gerrymandered that has made it much more difficult. And I also think voter turnout,” Moss said. “People need to be voting their conscience and their values and that’s one of the reasons that we’re doing the Promote the Vote ballot initiative, to make it more accessible to more people. I think we’ll start to see more people holding elected office who do support LGBTQ rights, I think we’ll start to see legislators who’ll start doing the right thing.”
The Promote the Vote initiative is an ACLU-sponsored amendment to the Michigan Constitution that intends to broaden the pool of eligible individuals who can cast their ballots every year. If accepted, it would protect the right to vote a secret ballot, ensure military service members overseas get their ballots in on time, provide voters the option to vote straight party, automatically register citizens doing business at the Secretary of State unless they ask not to, allow a citizen to vote anytime with proof of residency, open absentee ballot voting to all regardless of age and regularly audit election results.
“I think of Promote the Vote and then Voters Not Politicians as two important democracy proposals,” Moss said. “Both of them do different things. Promote the Vote would have a real impact on the next presidential election and the (Voters Not Politicians) anti-gerrymandering (ballot initiative) would have a huge impact after the next census, which happens in 2020. So both, I think, are very necessary if you really believe in democracy.”
Looking to the Future
Now that she’s leaving, Moss foresees that the Michigan ACLU’s primary goals will center around immigration reform, voting rights and anti-racism. Moss said that since the 2017 Muslim ban took effect, every state office has been working on immigration issues in some way, and Michigan has continued that work.
“Here in Michigan we hired an immigration advocacy attorney. We challenged the Muslim ban. We have defended the Iraqi Christians who were arrested last June in a huge case that ended up applying to the whole country, and we ended up representing over 1,000 Iraqis and getting them all lawyers, getting them all bond hearings,” she said. “It’s been a huge investment, the immigration work.”
She’s also seen the mobility of pro-hate groups in recent years, and said that it has only bolstered her organization’s work on the topic.
“We’ve seen this huge, kind of shocking display, I guess, of latent racism that has been simmering beneath the surface,” Moss said. “And I think every office is doing very important racial justice work.”
Moss herself started a local racial justice project that has lasted nearly as long as her time as executive director. When asked if she felt anxious or worried about a replacement taking up her work as executive director, she said she hopes “it’s smooth,” and that she knows her successor will be supported.
“We have a great board and a great search committee and I know we’ll be hiring a great search firm, I just hope it’s smooth and I know it’s easy if people know me, to feel personally kind of invested in my being here or not being here, but the fact is that everything I’ve done has been in service to this organization and the relationships really belong to this organization,” she said. “I’m confident that people will just help support whoever the new leader is in the transition.”
Moss will stay on temporarily to continue her work with Promote the Vote and pledges to return frequently to Michigan. More information about Promote the Vote can be found online at promotethevotemi.com.