Donna Lieberman usually rides her bike to work. But it’s a rainy day, so she has taken the subway the eight miles from her apartment on the Upper West Side all the way down to her office at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) at the foot of Manhattan, by the Staten Island ferry along the East River. She spends the travel time texting and tweeting, her eyes glued to her smartphone. Arriving, she’s surprised to notice that it’s 10 minutes to 10: her schedule is always so crammed that she’s not used to being early. Her office offers panoramic views of Lower Manhattan. When she sits, she can’t see the dozens of family snapshots tacked up behind her paper-piled desk. She makes hot tea, letting the bag steep in a supersize-me white plastic cup that won’t even begin to take her through her long day.
Lieberman NLAW’73 has been with the NYCLU for most of her career. After working as a criminal defense lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in the South Bronx for three years and a decade on the faculty of the Urban Legal Studies Program at City College, she joined the NYCLU nearly a quarter century ago. Shortly after 9/11, she assumed the post of executive director. “I like to think of myself as a civil rights leader, not just a civil liberties lawyer,” says Lieberman, a petite powerhouse whose hair cascades in corkscrew curls.
It was on her watch that the NYCLU worked to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which imposed stiff prison terms for minor drug-possession convictions; guarantee reproductive rights for women; protect protesters at the Republican National Convention; get the marriage equality law passed and the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional; and expose the city’s criminalization of school discipline.
“Our most significant work in recent years has been to bring the issues of race and justice to the public eye,” she says. “The conversation about the racial bias of the Bloomberg administration’s policing and education policies might not be going on without the work we’ve done to expose and challenge stop-and-frisk abuse and the excesses of police in schools. We have played a key role in beginning the process of reform to bring equity and fairness to New York City and bridge the racial divide that has been so profound.” Taking credit for these accomplishments makes Lieberman uncomfortable. “These are collective triumphs,” she insists. “The credit goes to my excellent staff, too.”
Lieberman honed her interest in civil rights during her childhood in Cranford, New Jersey. It was the 1950s, the height of the McCarthy witch hunts, and her father, a target, was forced from his government job. Her activism took off when she was in high school. It was “the people’s lawyer,” Arthur Kinoy, one of the attorneys to represent the anti-Vietnam War defendants during the Chicago Seven trial, who persuaded her to go to the Rutgers School of Law–Newark, where he was a professor. “He was as feisty as he was short,” she says. “I wanted to be like Arthur. What I learned from him was invaluable. He taught me that as a lawyer, you have to think outside the box, at least when you serve the interests of justice.”
The law school has had an enormous impact on her career. “Lawyers in my class and my era were taught to use the law for good,” she says. “We learned that the law is something that ought to be used in the service of the public good, not money, and that the U.S. Constitution is what we make it.”
Despite the NYCLU’s strides, Lieberman says that the same fear-fueled problems that plagued the world in 1951 when the organization was founded still exist. “We’re in a kind of comparable moment,” she says. “History does repeat itself, but it is different. We have to educate people why it’s not OK to profile Muslims. Having a scapegoat group du jour is harmful, dangerous, and counterproductive.”
But there’s a key difference, she says: the civil rights and peace movements that unified the nation when she felt the call to duty no longer exist. “I feel sad that the world we’re leaving to the next generation is more precarious and a lot less hopeful than what was left to me,” she says. The urgency of the issues keeps Lieberman on the job 24/7, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I do have other interests; I just don’t remember what they are.”
Her son and daughter, the ones smiling in the decades-old photos, are adults now, but they grew up along with the NYCLU. Lieberman remembers when they used to hang out in the office after school. Lieberman scoffs at the idea of retirement. On recent weekends, she stood front and center in the Gay Pride Parade and the Silent March to End Stop and Frisk.
Lieberman doesn’t have a march to attend this weekend, and she’s not sure what she’ll do with the free time. But she’ll figure something out.
— Nancy A. Ruhling