ACLU in Austin

This past weekend, the American Civil Liberties Union held its annual nationwide staff conference in Austin -- "a symbolic move," says ACLU of Texas Executive Director Will Harrell, "to give respect to the reinvigorated Texas affiliate but also to commune in one of the country's most troubled spots, where things are deeply off-kilter from our perspective." Over the four-day conference, which was closed to the media, about 280 Unionists from all 50 states discussed longstanding topics -- for example, race and criminal justice -- as well as newer issues, such as civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 world, and federal attempts to create a national identification system. Staffers also used the conference to exchange information about the nation's courts, in order to gauge the courtroom climate and prepare strategies. Among those in attendance was new national executive director Anthony Romero, who came on board last year and supports a bottom-up organizational model.

Meanwhile, Harrell says enthusiastically, "It's the dawning of a new day for the ACLU in Texas. It's about killed me, but now we've got momentum." And money, too: In the past two years, the Texas affiliate's major donations have tripled, its annual budget has doubled, and membership has grown by 45%. With only four staff statewide (three in Austin, one in its new East Texas regional office), the ACLU still must rely on volunteers to help pull projects together. Their ranks are also growing: 25 volunteers have already signed on to help with the upcoming legislative session. Harrell expects three more state staffers to come on board within the next year.

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