By Jana Seal
A long, uncertain, and pivotal summer predated my time at the ACLU of Colorado. Or rather, four years of collective upheaval did. In 2016, studying as a student journalist and covering the presidential election, I was shocked by the shift of entertainment media to news and politics. For the first time in modern history, American culture revolved around public servants as moguls and policy as gossip column fodder. On top of this, an abundance of uninformed opinions in conjunction with ubiquitous personal platforms to host them caused internet trolls and chaos enthusiasts to prevail like never before. It was loud, and the news installed a new surround sound system.
Months and years of incendiary headlines — by the week, later by the day, and then seemingly by the hour — came to a head during the 2020 presidential election. I began my internship just a month earlier, and through my work, I learned just how much the drama and theatrics overshadow the real people, lives, and systems that they’re supposed to speak for. The time and preparation leading up to the election delivered some of the best real-time crisis scenario experience I could have possibly asked for. There was always something to do, always something to worry about, and always something to fix. Even more chaotic was the world around our team, increasing in volume and panic by the day.
But when it got quiet, that was when we got to work.
Disrupting fundamental rifts and inequities goes beyond current events and opinions. It means telling stories and using them as a vehicle for cohesive and concrete change that alters the way we all live — and that’s exactly what I got to do.
While writing the press release for a November lawsuit against the Aurora police for brutalizing Alberto Torres, a Latino man, I felt the power that one story can hold. Power to change the narrative for everyone with a similar story. For people of color, these stories abound, and they continue to be the impetus for action on all scales.
As I wrote the questions for panelists participating in a screening of The Facility, a documentary film chronicling the lived experiences of immigrants detained at the GEO detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, I stepped into each of their experiences. The most valuable information presents itself to genuine curiosity, and that’s what good journalism does. Asking questions is invaluable in the pursuit of understanding, connection and progress, and I will continue to consider their answers in all that I do going forward.
While working on messaging for the Redemption Campaign featuring NFL athletes, I worked to craft a familiar narrative with intention. It would be impossible to tell the story of every Black person in America who has endured the racist system of policing and incarceration, and it was even more important to tell a strong story and tell it well. I admire Justin Simmons, De’Vante Bausby, and Alexander Johnson for sharing their experiences and inspiring others to do so as well.
When ACLU of Colorado took on a lawsuit against a school district, sheriff and several School Resource Officers (SROs) for arresting and detaining an 11-year-old boy with autism, I helped tell many stories like his. Seven neurodivergent students and their parents came forward to tell their stories involving SROs using excessive force in schools, and they made sure that their voices were heard. When I began writing messaging and a social toolkit for the case, I examined these stories and reached out to individuals with knowledge and experience in my community in order to establish topline messaging that was inclusive and pointed. Using strategy and compassion to tell stories proved imperative in making an impact and starting a conversation.
Throughout the legislative session this spring, it was all hands on deck in the effort to get transformational pieces of legislation passed in Colorado. I worked on telling stories about individuals who could have been saved by SB21-062, a piece of legislation that would have prevented monetary bond for low-level offenses, until finding out that it wouldn’t pass. Though this seems discouraging, it taught me about the process. Sweeping reform doesn’t come about overnight, and the introduction of this bill this year has made it that much more viable for next year’s legislative session.
As I watched a chaotic and tumultuous nation become a little bit calmer, I turned to the areas where true progress works. It became evident that passionate diatribes and perfect political alignment are no match for grassroots organizing, hard legislative action and real change — the kind that happens over years of dedicated and talented individuals doing painstaking, nuanced and sometimes seemingly inconsequential work behind the scenes. Real change and real progress does not happen on a big screen, but they happen at the ACLU — and I am remarkably grateful for this year of diving head first into these projects and getting to tell the stories I’ve always wanted to tell.