An Interview with Amber Hikes, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, ACLU

Amber Hikes, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, ACLU

Unapologetic. Black. Woman.

Tell me about your current role?

I have been with the ACLU for a bit under six months and am the first Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer in the history of the organization. In fact, there are not that many positions like this across country that focus centrally on equity and inclusion; they are typically diversity officers. However, given that I’m working on a nationwide strategy for DEI for the American Civil Liberties Union, I felt it was important to center inclusion and equity in the title to demonstrate our intentional commitment to using that framework.
Right now, I’m working internally with our human resources team on developing more equitable practices for recruitment, interviewing, retention, and attrition. Identifying robust professional development opportunities with an equity lens is also a key component of my early work. We know that since social justice and civil liberties work are inherently exhausting and emotionally impacting, our staff can experience a high rate of burnout and secondary trauma. Our focus is to acknowledge that reality and do everything in our power to help folks feel valued and cared for while they are with us and embarking on this life-changing work. We’re developing supports at our national offices first and then sharing best practices with affiliates to support a culture of belonging throughout the organization. We have 54 affiliates across the country – each with unique needs and values. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge to create strategy in New York City for offices in Alabama, Puerto Rico, California, or New Mexico. We all have different populations and nuanced challenges but the goal is to become the most inclusive, affirming nonprofit in the country. Our emphasis is to foster a sense of belonging for all folks with particular attention to those in impacted communities who are leading us in this work.

It must be exciting to be the first to hold this role.

It’s positively thrilling. However, being the first isn’t without its pressures and trials. The ACLU will celebrate 100 years in 2020 and has nearly 600 staff just in the national office. As we know, the organization enjoys an enormous reach and it’s been a mammoth job to wrap my arms around those factors – the size, history, and legacy of the organization. There are so many impacted identities to fit in this work as we fight to secure rights for all. While the promises of the Constitution apply to everyone in the United States, we face a huge challenge as we simultaneously reconcile the violent and problematic history of this country. Within the organization, we seek to hold ourselves internally to the same values we amplify externally. We recognize that we have a collective responsibility to do so – this work is not done in a vacuum, especially as we embark on culture change.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values.  Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

For as long as I can remember, my values have been constant and consistent in every job. However, if I’m being honest, there have been times when my approach and methods have been in conflict and that has caused discomfort. The clearest example of this tension was during my tenure at the Mayor’s Office in Philadelphia. Before accepting that position, I had spent years doing advocacy and organizing work where my methods were to create change by agitating on the outside. Our engagement with government, and city government in particular, was in an agitator capacity. We put pressure on the powers that be to fight for justice and resources for impacted communities, especially young people, LGBTQ young people experiencing homelessness or poverty. When I accepted the position to direct the Office of LGBTQ Affairs for the City, a tension developed. I was so accustomed to fighting on the outside and then I was finally being invited to come inside the doors and have a real seat at the table. It took a while to adjust to what that work looked like and it was a difficult transition.
Being inside City Hall, the strategy to push change looked different – different access, different privilege. I had to switch up and change my approach accordingly and I was often uncomfortable with my new access and privilege. For instance, in my new role, I was responsible for working with law enforcement to change policies related to how police or correctional officers interacted with the trans community. It was my job to sit at tables with individuals I previously protested against and work with them for the benefit and advancement of my communities. As a prison abolitionist, it was now my responsibility to work within systems that I believe deeply need to be dismantled. I had to reconcile that I had committed to make these violent systems safer specifically for trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folks. If I’m being candid, it was a constant internal conflict but I believed I owed it to the communities I pledged to fight for.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what songs would make the list?

My soundtrack ties to significant moments. When we raised the more color more pride rainbow flag at City Hall for the first time in June 2017, I played Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar’s “Freedom”. The flag represents the experiences and realities of LGBTQ people of color who face intersecting discrimination and oppression within our communities. “Freedom” was the perfect choice.
I was profoundly lucky to give a speech at Parliament in London in March 2019 about the importance of women’s allyship across identities. As I’m thinking about the actual day and what was playing in my earbuds, it was Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” There was something so powerful about speaking about uplifting and centering voices of people of color in our fight for collective liberation while Brexit votes were being cast in the adjoining rooms.  There was something powerful converging on that day.
And most recently, I interviewed Lena Waithe about the importance of black art as a tool for activism, visibility, and freedom and Lizzo’s “Juice” was the vibe. Naturally.

What’s your approach to self-care?

I’m glad we ask this question and check in on each other. I’m an expert at making excuses for why the task before me is more important than taking time for myself but that’s neither healthy nor sustainable. Doing any social justice or liberation work at this particular moment in our history, runs the risk of burnout mentally, physically, and emotionally. You can’t pour from an empty cup and I have been reminding myself of that especially after leaving the mayor’s office. For me I’m working on acknowledging that I’m more introverted than I used to be. If I want to be my best self, then I need to make time to recharge. Sometimes that means turning the phone off, scheduling quiet time in between meetings, going to the gym, or meal prep every week. It’s little things like that that are different from your bubble baths and yoga. For me, there have to be concrete methods and practices with immediate payoff for me to continue them and make them more of practice.

We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?

The kind who reminds you of your worth and keeps you accountable to it. My mom used to say “remember who you are and whose you are”. Now that I think of it, it was more of a threat than anything else! (Laughter.) But also, it stood as an affirming reminder that you have people. That’s a full sentence right there. You have people and people have you. There’s an accountability to family and our ancestors. Whether relationships, jobs or friendships, there’s a constant reminder of your integrity, commitment, and responsibility that goes beyond just your mere presence here. I want to be that ancestor that reminds folks who they are and whose they are.

What advice would you offer other black women trying to amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

It’s pretty simple. I reject putting the onus on black women. We already carry such heavy burdens in this country. I call on other folks to examine how they can be allies and accomplices to black women. I do have a word for black women though. Find your people. Sometimes those people may not be other black women but they may intersect with other identities. Black men, other folks of color, or gender nonconforming folks. Find your people. Organize and support each other. This relates back to the self-care question; it makes sense for you to be able to care for yourself emotionally and spiritually but we can do that for each other as we hold each other up. There is strength in numbers and together we have a larger voice.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm black women, what would that change be?

The change would absolutely be having more representation of black women in leadership in the social sector. However, the onus is not on us as black women to change systems or sectors. We need other folks — men, white folks, people with more power, privilege, and access, those currently in power – to practice real sponsorship and get out of the way. Use some personal analysis and consider how I can use this access in service to folks more impacted and connected to these issues than I am and here’s how I can practice sponsorship and get out of the way. Bringing more seats to the table is diversity; but we need to be talking about equity which sometimes means getting out of your seat. Black women already have the brilliance, the empathy and the knowledge – we just need the space.

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