This Brave Nation
Anthony Romero
Anthony Romero

Anthony Romero was appointed the ACLU’s executive director one week before the September 11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Romero's first weeks at the helm, the ACLU became an early and effective critic of the Bush Administration’s immigration sweeps, and has gone on to win victories over the PATRIOT ACT as well as file the first successful legal challenge to the NSA’s spying program.

Romero is the ACLU’s sixth executive director and the first openly gay man and the first Hispanic to lead the venerable civil liberties institution. In his time so far he has nearly doubled the organizations budget and dramatically increased its staff. Romero’s parents immigrated to the US from Puerto Rico seeking a better life as generations of immigrants before them had. Romero’s father took a job at the Warwick Hotel, where he worked for many years until he was promoted to the position of banquet waiter.

The family settled in a low-income housing project in the South Bronx with unreliable heat and hot water. Whatever the season, the elevator was always broken, forcing the family to walk up and down twelve flights of stairs. Crime ran rampant; an entire family was murdered in the apartment next door. Eventually the Romeros moved to a working-class neighborhood in New Jersey where their material conditions improved even as Anthony and his sister found themselves on the receiving end of racist epithets for the first time in their lives.

Romero was the first member of his family to graduate from high school. Yet he never would have made it to college if a friend’s older brother had not pointed out the financial aid offers in that the recruiting letters he was receiving.

He enrolled at Princeton, where he excelled, and went on to Stanford Law School to study public-interest law. From there he accepted a job with the Rockefeller Foundation, where he led a review of future directions in civil rights advocacy. He then moved to the Ford Foundation, where he was first the Program Officer for Civil Rights and Racial Justice, and within four years was named director of one of the foundation’s largest grant-making programs, Human Rights and International Cooperation. By 2000, Romero had transformed the program into the foundation’s largest and most dynamic grant making division, awarding $90 million in grants to address civil and human rights issues and peace.

As Romero has shepherded the ACLU into the 21st century and marshaled the organization’s resources to repel the Bush Administration’s assault on civil liberties, he has doubled the ACLU’s full-time national staff, from 186 to nearly 400, even as he raised staff salaries. Under his tenure, membership has increased from 300,000 to 550,000. Romero has also nearly doubled both the total revenue of the ACLU and the net assets of the ACLU Foundation. He has expanded and amplified the organization's reach with an ACLU TV series, Freedom Files, a series of half-hour documentaries on ordinary people who have taken on the powers that be to preserve their civil liberties. Romero has proved an innovative defender of our country’s most cherished traditions and a model leader for the next generation.

Ava Lowery
Ava Lowery

Ava Lowery produced her first antiwar Flash animation, In Remembrance, in early March of 2005. Against a black background, white titles slowly tallied the war’s dead. In her second video, she introduced still photos of Iraqis she found online, scored to Moby’s "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad." The video was called Liberation Isn’t Working. Soon Ava’s work was attracting the attention of Cindy Sheehan and blogs like Daily Kos, and her site was seeing 30,000 visitors a day. She was 15 years old.

Ava lives with her parents outside of Montgomery, Alabama. Frustrated and unchallenged by her local public school – where teachers and students alike gave her a hard time for the temerity of wearing a Gore/Lieberman T-shirt in 2000 – she convinced her parents to homeschool her in the middle of her 7th grade year.

Both Ava’s parents were raised in a fundamentalist Pentecostal tradition and this background influences her activism. Growing up, Ava found inspiration in ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ a hymn she had sung in church as a child, and one her younger sisters sing there today. Angered by the Bush regime’s invocations of Christianity, she produced one of her most controversial videos, WWJD using a recording of another child’s rendition of the song as images of wounded and bloody Iraqi children flash past. "The object of the animation," Ava said in an interview, is "to get the following point across: Jesus loves Iraqis, too."

Ava’s work has inspired heartfelt appreciation and hate mail in equal measure. Despite the usual death threats, she has stood her ground. Ava has now produced more than 100 videos (all of which can be viewed on her website, PeaceTakesCourage.com), and the internet has allowed her to reach an audience far larger than her home in small town Alabama. She conceived and organized the "16 Candles for Soldiers" event in support of the troops which was held on the steps of the Alabama state capital in Montgomery on October 21, 2006. In July of 2006 Lowery was awarded the BuzzFlash "Wings of Justice" award. This young peace activist has done as much as anyone to demonstrate the political potential of the internet and in doing so has pointed the way forward for an entire generation.