The Alliance for Justice is a national association of 130 organizations that represent a wide variety of progressive interests and values, and its goal is to create an equitable, just, and free society. AFJ was established in 1979 and created by a woman named Nan Aron, who designed the alliance to advocate for a federal judiciary that “advances core constitutional values, preserves human rights and access to the courts, and adheres to the even-handed administration of justice for all Americans” (AFJ.org). Two of AFJ’s earliest and highest profile engagements, both of which were led by Aron, were the battles over Robert Bork’s nomination in 1987 and Clarence Thomas’s in 1991. While Bork was successfully defeated, and Aron made sure that Anita Hill’s testimony was presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas was nonetheless appointed. Aron has said that her hope for the future of AFJ is to build on its existing recruitment efforts to build a more progressive (or at least less “ultraconservative”) judiciary that counters the special interests of private corporations.
At the start of the summer, I said that I wanted to learn more about the politics of the judiciary, such as how people across the ideological spectrum advocated for or against nominees of their choosing. Throughout this summer I learned that advocacy can take many different forms and mean many different things. At AFJ alone, where everyone considers themselves to be advocates for a free and fair judiciary, the range of responsibilities varied immensely. We had lawyers, non-profit educators, tax accountants, interns, a receptionist, and more, all under one roof. Throughout the coalition, which we jointly led with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, advocacy took still more forms and meant more things depending on the specific issue area that was being worked with.
I also expressed a desire to learn about lobbying that wasn’t being done on behalf of financial interests. I soon learned that while my values and beliefs much more strongly align with those on the left, nobody is perfect, and everyone tries to use the rules of the game to their advantage. The best example of this that I encountered was the Alliance for Justice’s tax status, which allowed it the legal right to not disclose information about its donors. I typically think of groups like this (which can be but are not limited to PACs) as enemies of the freedom of information, but the people I worked for claimed that it allowed them to accept donations from contributors who might not want to be publicly affiliated with partisan political work. While this may be true, it was never something I felt fully comfortable with as someone who readily criticizes groups that behave this was without sharing my world view. Funnily enough, a handful of Fox News articles and chyrons throughout the summer actually referred to AFJ as a “liberal dark money group,” and though the context was a bit misleading, they weren’t entirely wrong.
As I explained in my learning contract, because the job I was signing up for was a dynamic one, I wasn’t totally sure what tasks I would be responsible for on a daily basis, but I planned to have one summer project that I worked on throughout the internship. This assessment ended up being somewhat prescient, as my responsibilities varied on any given day, and I wrote a bit about this in one of my blog posts. There were days where I felt like I had achieved almost nothing other than cleaning data sets in Excel, and there were also days when I felt really proud of the work I had done and the value that it would produce for other people down the road. I also expressed a desire to write as much and as often as I could, because I saw this as an opportunity to play to my strengths and add value to the organization I was working for. I was fortunate enough to be able to practice this skill in a number of different capacities, drafting letters, memos, emails, and a blog post for AFJ. The blog post I wrote actually served as sort of a capstone for one of the other goals I had set for myself, which was to leave my internship with a better sense of the type of work I wanted to do after graduation. Through working in a coalition of progressive organizations championing various causes in relation to the federal judiciary, I came to realize that my passion lay in environmental advocacy more than it did in any other issue area. When our Deputy Communications Director asked me to write a blog post for AFJ’s affiliated Action Campaign about a subject of my choosing, I kept this in mind and wrote at length about the reckless haste with which the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being deregulated for material extraction.
I gained event planning experience when I coordinated the catering, open bar, and sound system for a company event in Denver, and I mapped top donors, fundraisers, and bundlers for all of the 2020 Democratic presidential front-runners. I did an in-depth profile of the upcoming Senate race in Maine, where incumbent Susan Collins is being challenged by Sara Gideon, and wrote up a four page report on the dynamics at play in the race. This led me to research each candidates’ legislative backgrounds, their political victories and failures, and the extent to which the race could impact the US Senate at large. I was able to complement this deep dive with broader power mapping profiles of upcoming Senate races in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, and Iowa. At the AFJ president’s request I also drafted a one-pager about former Senator Slade Gorton and the complicated relationship he had with federal judicial nominees during his time in office.
My leadership studies courses, and Theories and Models in particular, significantly impacted the way that I understood and perceived the organization I worked for. It also influenced the way that I approached my responsibilities and my relationships with my coworkers. I wrote a couple of blog posts over the summer about the extent to which Social Identity Theory (SIT) could be applied to my office, and in further reflecting on this I realized that it was the perfect theory to describe the dynamics I saw play out throughout my internship. My office was an extremely passionate one, and this made it a very fun one for me to work in, but it also meant that some of my colleagues counted themselves informal members of an ideological cult. It happened to be an ideology that I largely agreed with and saw value in, but the strength of these peoples’ convictions was such that it sometimes became difficult for them to consider the value of those who didn’t share that ideology. I fear that in making this assessment I may sound inhumanly academic, but the tone I am taking is my best effort to take a bird’s eye view of a culture that I willingly subscribed to and was inoculated with.
In terms of how this mindset tied into SIT, it provided me with the perfect venue to confirm that SIT is strongest when there are alternate identities that oppose the views of the in-group. Because AFJ’s judicial advocacy arm exists in contrast to the current administration, there was a constant contrast between the Senate Judiciary Committee’s actions and the values held by my organization. This contrast then exacerbated a degree of group identity that had already been established by design, and it affected our perceptions of the people we identified as the “bad guys.” My colleagues said that they would never be friends with, much less date, someone who didn’t share their views, and while I was initially alarmed by these comments, I have taken some time to further reflect on them. I’m proud to say that my office was extremely LBTQI friendly, and many of my coworkers were a part of that community. In the context of the Trump presidency, some of them felt directly threatened by the administration in a way that I didn’t have to, and this influenced the strength of our respective convictions, even if the beliefs we held looked the same on paper. I think this is important to consider, especially as far as SIT is concerned, because the in-group that I was a part of at work felt threatened in a very hurtful and significant way.
Spending 10 weeks working in coalition with other progressive nonprofits showed me what it looks like to be surrounded by people who do work that they are passionate about, and I found it very reassuring to see that that does exist, and that people can actually provide for themselves and their families without having to do jobs they don’t enjoy in fields they don’t care about. I’ve talked a lot about social identity theory in my previous blog posts, and it has been interesting to see that theory made manifest throughout the coalition, and at my office in particular. While they come from places of positive intent, I think it is important for my peers and me to be wary of things like “call-out culture” and a mindset that fetishizes adversity, because developing attachments to these things distracts from our larger and more pressing shared goals of equality, justice, and responsible governance. I am very excited to get back to UR, and Jepson in particular, to raise some of these questions with my classmates in settings that are a bit lower-risk/more encouraging of debate than a workplace, because I am curious to hear what other people think about these issues.
As my summer comes to a close I am feeling very fortunate to have had the chance to work where I did. This has been the most informative and fulfilling summer of my time in college, and this is largely owed to the quality of the team I worked on and the manager who led it. I have a clearer sense of the types of work I would like to do when I graduate and the options that are available to me moving forward, and I feel confident in the willingness of colleagues to continue to serve as mentors and professional resources. My summer in advocacy may be at an end, but I will leave this city with the knowledge that I’ll be back, and that there’s quite a bit of fun to be had yet.