By: Lavonda Graham-Williams
Board Member, ACLU of Virginia

The diversity in the room is always the first thing I notice at an ACLU of Virginia event. The affiliate’s 50th Anniversary Celebration & Annual Meeting was no different.

As I walked around the beautiful setting of the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, greeting familiar faces and meeting brand new ones, I was struck by the magnificent richness of it all. The hodgepodge patchwork of people and their stories is always my favorite part. For a people person like me, it’s truly a little slice of heaven.

On this day, we celebrated 50 years of bringing the varied stories of these lives together. With the variety of stories comes a rich history of wins and losses, success and failure — and often a bit of controversy. But the journey along the way is where we find the jewels of this organization. The fearless and bold meeting of the ever-difficult civil liberties challenges in Virginia is at its core. As one of its board members, it is the characteristic I am most proud. I look forward to standing side by side with the people in and around that room boldly embracing each controversy and challenge with an open dialogue and the opportunity to be heard – two things this world needs more of.

In 50 years, this relatively young organization has brought about change in amazing ways for hundreds of people. It began for me in my local high school when a group of kids were denied their right to wear a slogan on clothing they wore to school. The ACLU-VA showed up and educated us on the rights we had and helped us protect those rights for ourselves and fellow students. In response, so many of us took to the task of learning what these liberties were and how they had the power to change the way we moved in the world. For me, it was a pivotal moment of clarity that I was going to be different and forever empowered in a deeper way. As a criminal defense attorney, it continues to move me in each case I defend to this day.

As a board member, I’ve always been impressed with the opportunity I have to sit next to the gentle giants of the organization who help foster in decade after decade of change and protection to Virginians everywhere. From the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, which so profoundly represents to me the organization’s support for black women and their demand to be heard about who they have the right to love and how they raise their families, all the way to Gavin Grimm, who pulled himself from the depths of hopelessness and despair with sheer determination and unwavering tenacity, and who now guides millions of other trans people to boldly do the same. Using the experience of our heroes’ work to shape the path moving forward is an exciting proposition for the organization. And even in the days of social media fires and internet trolls, opportunities still exist to connect networks and communities in ways unimagined, creating even more diversity in the stories and reach the organization makes.

In the end, our 50th anniversary celebration was a time for me to remember that this organization’s reach is bigger than we can imagine and the victories and losses matter so deeply. Every day the unsung heroes of the organization, from the front desk to the appellate courtroom, push forward, and on that day of celebration we laughed, we cried, and we left knowing we’re better together. Here’s to the next 50 years.