Outgoing Policy Director Sarah Preston Looks Back at 10 Years of Lobbying for Liberty at the ACLU-NC
By Mike Meno, ACLU-NC Communications Director
After leading the ACLU of North Carolina’s policy work for the last decade, Sarah Preston is moving on to become executive director of Lillian’s List of NC, a statewide community of individuals who work to recruit, train, promote and support pro-choice women running for public office in North Carolina.
As the ACLU-NC’s policy director, Sarah has lobbied elected officials on a wide range of civil liberties issues on the state and local level, served as one of our organization’s chief spokespeople in the media, and built our policy department from a one-woman shop to a four-person department committed to energizing and organizing ACLU-NC members around civil liberties issues across the state.
Sarah has been an invaluable member of our team, the foundation for so many of our victories for civil liberties across the state. We are incredibly proud of her legacy, and wish her the very best in her career. Her last day at the ACLU-NC will be September 16.
We spoke to Sarah about representing the ACLU-NC for a decade in the trenches of the North Carolina General Assembly, how much has changed during her tenure, and what she hopes to see in the future.
Q: What was the legislature like when you first started this work, and how have you seen it change over 10 years?
SP: A lot has changed at the legislature since I started working over there in 2006. For one thing, they stopped smoking in the building. Control over both chambers switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. There are also fewer lawyer legislators and that has affected how legal implications are thought through and how legislation is vetted and debated. In general, I think things have become more partisan and even issues that should not be polarizing become lightning rods. It’s too bad because there is a lot of good that the legislature could be doing for the people of North Carolina, but instead, legislators cannot come to a consensus on things as basic as allowing some public access to police recorded footage.
Q: What do you think were some of the ACLU's greatest accomplishments at the legislature in your time there, and what were some setbacks?
SP: We had some huge wins in 2009: Passage of the Healthy Youth Act, which required schools to offer comprehensive sex education, and the School Violence Prevention Act to prevent bullying of all students, but particularly LGBTQ students, are both good examples. We also worked with partners to see passage of the Racial Justice Act, allowing capital defendants to challenge their sentence of death if they could prove that race played a substantial role in their sentencing. Unfortunately, the Racial Justice Act was later repealed, but the litigation around the filed cases is ongoing and the ACLU’s efforts, along with our many partners, have resulted in no executions in North Carolina in 10 years. More recently, I am extremely proud of the way the ACLU-NC fought against the passage of HB2. The fact that we were prepared and able to file a lawsuit on behalf of gay and transgender North Carolinians just five days after HB2 became law is a testament to the staff here and how hard they will fight for fair and equal treatment. While the passage of HB2 was a setback, the conversation the ACLU helped open up around gender identity and the support we can offer to transgender people and others harmed by this law is, I think, a huge accomplishment.
Q: Do you have any favorite moments from your time at the ACLU?
SP: I have so many favorite moments! I have regularly been moved by our clients and their stories and being able to lift those stories up for legislators has always given me a sense of mission. One of the great privileges of this work has been the ability to speak truth to power for a decade, to explain that yes, racial profiling does still exist or that abstinence only education doesn’t work, to tell legislators about our amazing clients…All of these memories will stick with me. But one that really stands out is receiving a pen from Governor Bev Perdue after she signed the Healthy Youth Act into law. That vindicated three years of work to pass that law and I hope the information being taught across the state is helping keep kids healthy and safe. Listening to our friend Darryl Hunt tell his story of exoneration after almost two decades of incarceration as the legislature considered repealing the Racial Justice Act will also always stick with me. He was such a powerful advocate for justice and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him.
Q: How have the 10 years you've spent lobbying for the ACLU prepared you for this next step in your career?
SP: It has been my great privilege to advocate for reproductive rights and access to abortion for the past decade for the ACLU-NC. Some of the hardest and most dispiriting fights I have been in over the past 10 years have centered on reproductive rights because every time the legislature considers a bill that questions when or how a woman accesses an abortion or forces her to listen to biased counseling or wait days to access care in the hopes that she will “reconsider,” it undermines the very capacity of all women to make decisions. It undermines our autonomy. I have seen this play out at the legislature time and again and I bring that wealth of knowledge to help support and prepare pro-choice women running for office. Without the ability to make authentic decisions about when to access abortions, women cannot achieve true equality. I am excited to have the opportunity to focus on turning this debate around so that North Carolina women can control their own destinies and achieve true equality.
Q: What do you see as the biggest civil liberties issues on the horizon in North Carolina? Is there unfinished work you think the ACLU can achieve in the next 5-10 years?
SP: There is a lot that I think the ACLU can – and will — do in the next 5 to 10 years. One issue I have been working on for nearly a decade that I think we are really seeing movement on is raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction so that our 16 and 17–year-olds will no longer be tried in adult court for minor non-violent crimes. This is a proposal that has bipartisan support and actually passed the House in 2014. I would not be surprised to see it adopted in the very near future. I also think it is possible that we might see an about face from the legislature on footage captured by police body cameras. A lot of legislators were surprised at the public’s outrage after the legislation passed, which gave law enforcement complete discretion over whether or not to release the video even to the person in the recording, I think they might be open to reviewing and reforming that law. In spite of the setbacks we have endured, I am really hopeful about the moment we are in here. And I do hope, in a few years, I will be joining ACLU staff and so many of our partners to witness a governor sign a law that expands access to full reproductive health care for women, no matter geographic location, race, ethnicity, or income. I look forward to that day!