Heading the organization charged with defending the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights is no easy feat.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which includes a staff of two attorneys, a paralegal, an office manager, and an executive director to oversee the big picture, receives about 800 requests a month for help in litigation. And then there's the misconception the organization supports only liberal causes, even though it has defended free speech rights for all Americans, regardless of their political position, and also publicly supported Second Amendment rights for gun owners.
After serving almost a year as the organization's interim executive director and following the search process set by the national organization, Gilbert Holmes took the post of executive director Dec. 10.
In some ways, he said, he's been preparing for the role for a long time. He has been on the board of the ACLU of Indiana for a number of years. He received his law degree from the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis in 1999 after commuting from Fort Wayne three times a week to finish his last year.
He also served for 20 years in the U.S. Army and retired at the level of lieutenant colonel. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.
He's been the decision maker as well as the face of other high profile agencies, including IndyGo, the Indianapolis public transportation system; the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles; Lincoln National Life Insurance Co.; the Indianapolis Museum of Art; and Clarian Health.
After he left IndyGo, he started a consulting firm and worked with various organizations, including the ACLU of Indiana. So when his predecessor Claudia Porretti left in late 2008 after having served the organization since summer 2006, Holmes started as the interim executive director on a contract basis.
The organization was then required by the national organization and its bylaws to have an open application process. Holmes was ultimately approved to stay on full time in December.
Among the challenges Holmes said he has faced in his first year had to do with what most non-profit organizations are going through: keeping up with the economy.
While he said the Indiana affiliate is "doing better than we had been doing," the national organization took a hit because of the collapse of Wall Street, a major donor fell onto hard economic times, and Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme also affected the organization at the national level.
"We have our challenges cut out for us," he said. "But I think people who believe in civil liberties will still support us as much as they can."
To stay relevant and to encourage more people to support the organization, two successful events took place in 2009: a dinner and a movie.
The annual dinner featured Juan Williams, a news analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News. Williams is also the author of a number of books about the civil rights movement. That event made money in 2009, which wasn't always the case in previous years.
The organization also hosted a free screening of "American Violet" in September 2009 at the Madame Walker Theatre in Indianapolis. The film is based on a true story about racial profiling in Texas where a 24-year-old single mother of four children was wrongfully accused of dealing drugs. The ACLU defended her and she won her case. The event was also supported by Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Urban League.
Another way to increase awareness and support the organization is the revitalization of the Lawyers Council. Holmes called it a "wonderful way for various Indianapolis law firms who want to be active to get involved."
Members of the Lawyers Council can support the ACLU by taking pro bono cases or by volunteering in other ways.
Another challenge Holmes said he faced was how to recruit and retain young supporters. Holmes mentioned the 2008 presidential election as an example of how people in their 20s and 30s were engaged in something that was important to them and to the country as a whole, and he thought the ACLU could tap into that energy.
The 2008 presidential election also proved that a big check isn't the only way to help, he said. He added even small amounts of money – or time – can make a big difference.
But the organization also needs to get the message out to members and potential supporters.
"You've got to engage people and ask them to be involved," he said. "Our affiliate does some things really well, especially litigation, but there are some things we're missing." Increased efforts for education, outreach, and advocacy are among his goals as executive director. Fran Quigley, a former executive director of the ACLU of Indiana and a current board member, agreed. "I think he's completely right that we have been an affiliate which has no peer throughout the country in how effective and comprehensive we have been as far as the issues we've represented in terms of litigation," Quigley said. "We have an amazing litigation team led by Ken Falk. But we can and should do better on public education and on non-litigation advocacy. Gil has made it clear to the board and staff that is what he plans to do."
To do this, Holmes said there are a few new young members who've recently joined the ACLU of Indiana's board of directors, including a high school student. The organization also does outreach via social networking sites such as Facebook, and he plans to do more events to raise awareness of the organization and educate the public about what the ACLU does.
For instance, he said, the group could better position itself to let schools know they are available to help teach about the Bill of Rights.
"An educated and informed public is less likely to be exploited," he said.
Another challenge is to explain what the ACLU is about, that it's non-partisan, that it's not conservative or liberal, he said.
"We even have some conservative donors who support us and give anonymously," he said regarding the stigma that it is a liberal organization.
"This is a dream get for the ACLU of Indiana," Quigley said regarding Holmes' new position.
"He is a lifelong devoted civil libertarian, and he is respected and admired throughout the state," Quigley said. "He has superior management and communication skills and is just the ideal representative for this organization at a really important time in its history."