Last month, we welcomed Reggie Shuford as Executive Director. This month, we’re sharing our recent Q&A with Reggie so you can get to know him better as he begins his tenure at the NC Justice Center.
Welcome back to North Carolina! You’ve had a full month at the NC Justice Center so far. What excites you most about the work ahead?
Seeing progress made on long-standing NC Justice Center priorities, like the recent progress on Medicaid expansion. It’s a long time coming, and we are still working hard to get it over the finish line, but the potential impact on the health and well-being of North Carolinians is very exciting to me. I’m also excited and moved by the creative advocacy on all of our issues. Recognizing some obstacles —we do our work in a nonpartisan way, but changes in the political landscape definitely affect the issues we work on — we do what we have to do to achieve our goals, and sometimes circumstances on the ground require extra creativity. So, I’m excited to see our colleagues thinking about how to achieve success on our priorities, given current conditions.
I’m further excited about the amazing staff and board and the partnerships emerging between me and both of those groups. We all share a deep commitment to the organization’s mission, and I look forward to seeing the great places we will go.
What is the best part about being back here in your home state?
There are a couple of things. One is the proximity to my family, most of whom still live in Wilmington, NC, so being able to see them more frequently is great. Another thing is reconnecting with old friends. I went to undergrad and law school in North Carolina. Lots of those folks are still here, so it’s nice to be able to reconnect with them. The temperate climate is a big deal to me, as is the beach. I grew up on the coast, so I’m a beach bum at heart. I love the mountains as well.
And, last but not least— working at the North Carolina Justice Center!
What are you anticipating will be the biggest challenges in the year ahead for the NC Justice Center?
The current political landscape is a challenge.
Given the breadth of our work, another challenge is securing adequate resources to achieve our mission. I am grateful for the amazing support we have and am committed to expanding it. Our work is too important not to have the resources we need to do it.
You’ve dedicated your career to justice issues at the ACLU in Pennsylvania and across the country. Which accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
The first is pioneering the racial profiling and “driving while black” litigation I did at the national ACLU in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s. And, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, I am most proud of growing the organization—the size and impact of our work—all with a racial justice lens.
What keeps you going when this work gets difficult?
Keeping a long view. Knowing that history has its ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re on the winning side, and sometimes you’re not. But keeping the long view helps you to stay in the game. My favorite quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., is, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that, but I also believe that advocates have to nudge that arc in the right direction.
As challenging as things seem—and they certainly have been over these past several years—there were times in our history that were even more challenging, and people had fewer resources to confront them. And they fought hard and made progress. I’m reluctant to complain too much about our challenges, even though I’m realistic about and recognize the extent of them. I do think that we—at the NC Justice Center and the collective “we”— are well suited to take them on, given the resources we have at our disposal now that generations before us did not have.
What is the best piece of professional advice you have ever been given?
It’s not just about the work that you do. That’s important, but it’s how you go about doing that work—with integrity and professionalism. You never know who’s watching you, so it’s important to comport yourself accordingly. I received that advice from my first job out of law school, which was clerking for Justice Henry Frye on the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Coincidentally, I spoke to Justice and Mrs. Frye last week. It was the highlight of my week.
The other bit of advice I got was from a colleague, Chris Hansen, when I was at the national ACLU in New York. I was new on the job, a “green” litigator, and his advice related to an educational adequacy case out of Louisiana, in which we received a bad decision. I was really upset. Chris empathized with me, given all the work we had put into the case and given the harm that students were suffering because of the lack of an adequate education.
He said, “Well, if you win all the cases you bring, you’re choosing the wrong ones.” We do the work that we do not because there will be easy wins, but because we’re trying to change the status quo and, by extension, someone’s life. And that’s not easy. Ever.
We’re not cherry picking our cases. We’re not cherry picking the issues that we work on. We are working on those cases and those issues that directly impact people’s lives. And when you speak truth to power, if you’re trying to claim a piece of the pie, if you’re trying to claim an existence free of discrimination or inequality or free of poverty—then you’re going to have to wage some serious battles in order to get those things. And you’re not always going to win when you do that. And that’s ok. That’s ok as long as you are in the fight.
You can’t win the fight unless you’re in the fight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.