Willis To Leave ACLU of Virginia After Nearly 25 Years

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
March 19, 2012 12:00 am

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Search for New Executive Director for Civil Liberties/rRghts Group Is Drawing to a Close

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Richmond, VA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia announced today that Kent Willis will be leaving his position as executive director when a replacement is found. Willis, who was hired as associate director in October 1987 and promoted to executive director in March 1989, informed the Board of Directors of his intent to leave last fall, at which time the organization began a nationwide search for a new director.

“I could not have had a more rewarding job,” said Willis, “and I am proud to have been part of the ACLU’s many accomplishments and enormous organizational growth over the last 25 years. But something told me it was time to move on.”

Born in Hampton, Willis is a graduate of Hampton High School and received his A.B. in philosophy from William and Mary in 1971. Before to coming to the ACLU of Virginia, Willis was employed by the Housing Opportunities Made Equal for ten years, the last five as its executive director. Previous jobs included a stint at Richmond Goodwill Industries as director of rehabilitation and as the manager of the Virginia Bay Committee, an environmental lobbying group.

“As a Virginian with deep roots in the state, I have always felt a strong connection between the fundamental constitutional rights the ACLU defends and the origins of those rights dating back to Madison, Mason, Jefferson,” added Willis.

“Kent has grown the ACLU from a small organization to a wonderful team of professionals who know how to litigate, advocate, and communicate with a wide range of audiences,” said ACLU of Virginia Board President Jayne Barnard. ” Somehow, Kent has been able to keep all these functions working smoothly, meet crises with measured grace and a great wit, and work with our members and volunteer leaders to shape one of the most effective ACLU affiliates in the country. For many Virginians, Kent Willis IS the ACLU. We will miss his exceptional leadership.”

“Kent has at least two rare qualities,” said John Vail, immediate past president of the board. “First, because he always entertains the possibility that he is not right he listens closely and respectfully to the viewpoints of others. Second, he thinks hard issues through so thoroughly that he speaks about them in plain terms that mere humans can comprehend. His ten words on First Amendment doctrine say as much as ten pages of an average lawyer’s brief.”

During Willis’s tenure the organization grew from two full-time staff members to the current nine, as the annual budget increased tenfold. The organization has also created a large volunteer lobbying contingent that grew from fewer than 100 to nearly 2,000 individuals.

The ACLU uses the courts, lobbying, and public education programs to promote constitutional freedoms and civil rights. It is the state’s premier litigating organization on matters pertaining to freedom of speech and assembly, the rights of gay men and lesbians, due process and privacy rights, and religious liberty. In recent years, the organization has turned much of its attention to the fight for immigrants’ rights and reforming Virginia’s racially tainted felon disenfranchisement law. It also established the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project to focus on gender equality and reproductive rights in Virginia.

The Board of Directors has conducted a nationwide search for a new executive director and expects to announce Willis’s replacement soon.

Over the last 25 years, the ACLU of Virginia filed an estimated 300 federal and state lawsuits and prevented constitutional violations in hundreds of other situations by threatening lawsuits. In a typical year, the ACLU of Virginia lobbies for or against 70-80 bills in the Virginia General Assembly and makes more than 500 media appearances on radio or television or in newspapers to explain actions or offer expertise on constitutional rights. Media appearances are mostly in Virginia, but also include appearances on NPR, MS-NBC, CBS News, NBC Nightly News, CNN and other national news outlets.

During Willis’s tenure as Executive Director, the ACLU of Virginia:
• Created a project that provided voting rights assistance to minority groups across the state during the 1991 redistricting process, enabling them to successfully lobby for racially fair election plans for the first time in their history,
• Filed lawsuits challenging racially discriminatory electoral plans at the local level and was instrumental in drawing and defending in court Virginia’s first African-American congressional district since Reconstruction,
• Represented Sharon Bottoms, a lesbian mother who lost custody of her child because of her sexual orientation,
• Sued the Senate Finance Committee for holding secret meetings at a rural retreat to discuss the state budget (lost the case, but the committee never again met in secret),
• Brought the first successful case in the nation challenging the right of public libraries to restrict patrons’ access to the internet,
• Defended the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to avoid government loyalty oaths, the right of ministers to use public parks for baptisms, the right of Wiccans to perform marriage ceremonies, and the right of churches to feed the homeless,
• Annually published the only comprehensive review of the Virginia General Assembly devoted exclusively to legislation affecting civil rights and civil liberties,
• Brought the lawsuit that finally shut down the antiquated 200 year- old state penitentiary on Spring Street in Richmond,
• Successfully represented lesbian Janet Jenkins when the Virginia courts attempted to toss out a child custody arrangement resulting from a civil union in Vermont,
• Launched a successful challenge to the widespread practice of local governments opening their meetings with sectarian prayers (Currently litigating such a case in Pittsylvania County.),
• Published Unequal, Unfair and Irreversible, the first comprehensive report on the failings of the death penalty in Virginia,
• Defended on numerous occasions the right of homeless persons to solicit donations and, more recently, the right Latino day laborers to gather in public places to seek work,
• Instituted the Virginia Voter Empowerment Project that, in conjunction with the NAACP, distributed thousands of “know your rights” cards to voters and provided an election day help hotline for more than 15 years,
• Regularly defended the right of prisoners to practice their religion while incarcerated,
• Mounted a successful legal challenge to Governor George Allen’s veto of the Virginia Motor Voter Law, bringing an end to Virginia’s closed voter registration practices and opening the way for voters to register at DMVs, libraries and other public facilities,
• Successfully sued the Department of Corrections to force appropriate treatment for transgendered prisoners.
For more information on the work of the ACLU of Virginia go to www.acluva.org.

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