New ACLU executive director reflects on the struggles facing Wisconsin

Attacks on voting and reproductive rights, mass incarceration and classroom censorship are priorities

By: - May 5, 2022 6:17 am
Dr. Melinda Brennan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin. (Photo | ACLU of Wisconsin)

Dr. Melinda Brennan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin. (Photo | ACLU of Wisconsin)

Dr. Melinda Brennan became executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin (ACLU)  in January. Surveying Wisconsin’s landscape of civil rights and social justice battles, she says it’s crucial to maintain “a very intentional focus on how the issues that we’ve been devoted to for a long time are very tightly intertwined.”

At the core of many of those issues is a common theme of the struggles of marginalized groups, a theme Brennan has been familiar with throughout her life. “I’m a multiple-marginalized person,” says Brennan, who was born and raised in Wisconsin. “Mexican-American, queer, person of multiple disabilities, and those identities and community memberships taught me a lot in my life,” she says. “And it also taught me how much, and how hard we have to advocate for people to have more quality of life, equal chances if that’s possible in a system of significant and interlocking structural oppression.”

Marchers gather for the Poor People's Campaign mobilization tour in Madison. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Marchers gather for the Poor People’s Campaign mobilization tour in Madison, 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Those experiences shaped Brennan to be “always an advocate, even when I was little.” By the time she got to college, Brennan “was very very focused in thinking about structural inequality. And how different kinds of structural barriers were impacting people in different ways.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and a master’s degree in sociology from UW-Milwaukee and obtained a doctorate in gender studies from Indiana University. Some of her best work, Brennan recalls, “was as a community organizer in higher education environments. And as a teacher, and a mentor, to students who felt very acutely that they did not belong within higher ed — that it was not produced for them. And that they had to learn to be resilient in ways that they shouldn’t have to be, in order to operate in that space and claim their education.”

Brennan quickly discovered how much she enjoyed being directly involved in social and political action. Becoming the executive director of Wisconsin’s ACLU was a multidimensional opportunity. She’d continue to be involved in direct action, supporting marginalized communities and pushing for causes close to her heart. Brennan is also the first woman of color to serve as executive director of Wisconsin’s ACLU in the organization’s 90 year history.

Brennan says breaking that barrier is “bittersweet.” “That’s difficult when you’re a multiple marginalized person,” she says. Throughout her life she has encountered leaders who shared some of her experiences, but in some ways she was always the first.

An ACLU legal observer walks and observes the march. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
An ACLU legal observer walks and observes a Black Lives Matter march in 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

That bittersweetness also had a second, deeper edge to it. Her grandmother was a factory worker for her entire life, Brennan explains, and had a fourth-grade education. “She had two daughters, my mom and her sister,” says Brennan, “and she told them that education is everything. And that you have to get educated to end the family curse of poverty. And they did it.” What became a family mantra drove Brennan’s own quest for education. She says she wishes her grandma had been around to see her assume leadership of the ACLU, “because I think that it would have been beyond her wildest dreams.” While serving as the first woman of color to ever lead the ACLU of Wisconsin is momentous, “there’s also a recognition that I really shouldn’t be the first.”

Picking up the pace

There’s a saying in the civil rights community about taking on new roles, that it’s “like trying to gracefully drink from a fire hose,” says Brennan with a chuckle. “They’re not wrong. That metaphor shakes out, it’s true.” She has found ease in adjusting to the flow of information, decision making and planning. The process has also made her ever more aware of how many of Wisconsin’s civil rights and social justice issues affect one another.

“There’s no issue where you can discuss it without racial justice,” Brennan says. “There just isn’t. There’s no issue where you can divorce yourself from the economics of it, or gender, or sexuality or citizenship.” For Brennan, one of the most significant ways that’s materializing in Wisconsin is through attacks on voting rights, such as banning mail-in ballots and restrictive voter I.D. laws. She said that the ACLU’s outreach efforts have turned up many concerns about people being denied access to the ballot.

A poll worker sits outside of Washington High School wearing a protective mask. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
A poll worker sits outside of Washington High School in Milwaukee, wearing a protective mask during the “pandemic primary” election in 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Wisconsin is also among 26 states that are likely to ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, as expected. Brennan says Wisconsinites will need to prepare for a new reality after Roe.

She is also concerned about efforts to ban books and discussions about controversial topics in U.S. history including slavery, the effects of colonization and the genocide of indigenous peoples, as well as gender identity and sexuality. “The refusing to have informed conversations as if those are the divisive things rather than bigotry” bothers her, she says.  Along with voting rights, reproductive rights and the whitewashing of education, the ACLU of Wisconsin has also focused on mass incarceration this year. “There’s no day that those four things are not constantly involved in our conversations,” says Brennan.

White supremacist activity is also something the ACLU has been monitoring. Since 2020, communities including Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, West Allis and Waukesha have seen waves of racist or white supremacist activity. The most recent incidents have occurred in Waukesha and West Allis. Groups have organized around so-called “Black terror” and stopping “anti-white hate” in Waukesha since the Christmas Parade tragedy in November. Black families in West Allis have reported property destruction and racist notes being left behind since last year. Fliers advocating white supremacist ideology have been distributed throughout these communities at different points over the last two years. Last week, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism warned of “alarmingly high” levels of antisemitism across the country, and in particular in Wisconsin.

One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
One of the protests linked to Patriot Front and the National Justice Party held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

Brennan’s dissertation at Indiana University was actually on the nexus between hate acts, nationalism, white supremacy and American Islamophobia. “It matters a great deal to me,” she says.  “It’s been clear to me for some time that Donald Trump was a catalyst, but then there’s been cycles, which is what’s more important, of rising and falling white supremacy in the United States. And Wisconsin is no different.” She adds that “what meets those cycles too is the activism and the attempts at meaningful conversation beyond hate speech.”

Surveillance is also a lingering concern across the state. During the protests of 2020, reports of surveillance and harassment by local law enforcement haunted organizations spearheading marches. In 2021 many rumors about surveillance and spying were confirmed. Those included  the existence of a protester list which also included lawyers and a journalist, and had been shared to numerous local and federal agencies. Another was the use of geofence warrants during the Kenosha unrest to gather data about everyone in a given area. There’s also a growing awareness of the activities of Milwaukee’s intelligence fusion center, and the use of technology to track and access cell phones. “There is actually a national task force for surveillance and privacy concerns all across the nation,” said Brennan. “And as there are pivotal concerns in states, we work with them to figure out what the best strategies are to protect people’s rights.”

Photographs taken by a Wauwatosa officer at a protest in August. (Photo | Wauwatosa Police Department)
Photographs of a ACLU legal observer taken by a Wauwatosa officer at a protest in August, 2020. (Photo | Wauwatosa Police Department)

Connecting to the community

The ACLU has also strengthened  its community outreach and legal observer operations as the summer fast approaches. Warm weather could bring with it more activism and organizing. “The ACLU is going to be most effective when we’re deeply connected to community,” Brennan says, “and we know what they need and what’s happening in Wisconsin long before it ends up in the public conversation.”

Most of all, Brennan wants Wisconsinites to register to vote and to always have a plan for how to vote. “It is always pivotal for folks to be engaged as actively as they possibly can be in their local government,” she says. “But in this particular political moment, it is incredibly vital that everyone has a plan and a back-up plan for voting, that  they execute it, and that they convince everyone in their circles to do the same.”

From the changes to voting rules to the recent decision to keep Wisconsin’s voting district maps gerrymandered to maintain a Republican majority, Brennan understands how that can affect morale. “There’s a certain obvious unfairness to that,” she says, “but beyond that there’s a destabilization of the system itself. And it can add to the hopelessness that some people feel that things can ever change. It’s just utterly unethical.”

Brennan  sees the state and country in a perilous moment. It’s a moment, she says,  “where talking about difference is being labeled as divisive, when what’s divisive is the bigotry and oppression based on difference.” She sees the Supreme Court’s ruling disallowing a map that created an additional majority Black district in Wisconsin, reflecting growth in the number of Black residents, as an outgrowth of that wrongheaded discussion. “We’re making monsters not out of the right thing,” she says. “The monstrous component of it is the refusal to discuss race in ways that are factual and that make sense. And that’s what showed up in the gerrymandering decision.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.