San Diego ACLU Announces Departure of Admired Executive Director Kevin Keenan

SAN DIEGO – After eight years as executive director, Kevin Keenan will leave the local ACLU in December to accompany his wife to New York City, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties announced today.

Keenan’s family will relocate to Morningside Heights in Manhattan where his wife, Sarah Azaransky, has been hired as an assistant professor of social ethics at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary.  Azaransky is author of The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith (Oxford University Press 2011) and editor of the book, Religion and Politics in America’s Borderlands (Lexington 2013).

The ACLU will open a search for Keenan’s successor imminently.  Keenan will be assisting the Board with the organization’s transition to a new leader.  He will be exploring opportunities in New York.

Read the job announcement.

Keenan leaves a thriving organization, which he grew from seven staff members in 2005 to 24 today and led many successful efforts to protect and expand civil liberties.  He developed the vision for and helped create the “ACLU of California” collaboration to leverage the full, statewide strength of the organization’s three California affiliates. He also developed the ACLU’s multi-state Border Litigation Project, which launched this year, to fight abuses by border enforcement agencies.  During Keenan’s tenure, the San Diego ACLU led major efforts on immigrants’ rights, border justice, voting rights, educational equality, criminal justice reform, and civic education and engagement.  A list of the San Diego ACLU’s highlights of the past eight years is below.

“Kevin has been a strategist and key player in so much of the organization’s substantive work,” said Board President Greg Rose, “but his greatest contribution has been setting an ambitious vision and delivering on it over and over again.”  Rose, a senior vice president at Qualcomm, became involved with one of the San Diego ACLU’s initiatives created during Keenan’s tenure, the Constitution Day program that mobilizes more than 200 volunteer instructors to teach 15,000 students about the brilliance and dynamism of our founding charter.

“I have been fortunate to work with an amazing group of leaders, especially on our staff team, but also on our boards and committees, among our allies, in the legal profession, and in the community,” said Keenan.  “A big part of my job is knowing when to get out of the way of great leaders on staff and focus on finding and funneling them more and more resources to do incredible work.”

In June, the ACLU of California has birthed the California Voting Rights Project, a statewide project led by its San Diego director Lori Shellenberger, with a $500,000 leadership grant from the Irvine Foundation to fight the de facto disenfranchisement bred by outdated election and registration policies and systems.  The Pew Center on the States recently ranked California 48th in the nation for its poor election systems.  But, the Voting Rights Project helped Senator Alex Padilla pass SB35 to strengthen voter registration practices and required the Obamacare health exchange to register voters.  The project  provided support to California’s Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, to designate the state’s new Health Benefit Exchange as a voter registration agency—the first state in the nation to do so. New York and Vermont have followed California’s innovative lead, giving millions of citizens much easier access to register to vote and participate in our democracy.

Keenan also led the San Diego ACLU in new approaches to civil liberties advocacy, including a Latino voter mobilization campaign in Escondido and a focus on relationship-building with lawmakers and community members.  In a 2012 media interview about the San Diego organization’s 80th anniversary, Keenan said, “We’ve changed from the local civil-rights powerhouse that you know to a more community-connected, relationship-based, comprehensive advocacy organization. I don’t have a good name for what that is . . .  It may just be the new ACLU.”

In addition to helping with the organization’s transition to a new leader, Keenan will use the next five months to help lead the Campaign for the Next Generation, a $15 million campaign to secure the long-term strength of the organization through new estate gifts as well as raise cash support for a comprehensive youth engagement program.  The campaign began on April 1, 2013 and is one-third of its way to its two year goal.

Rose said, “While we are sad to see Kevin leave, we have every confidence that our next executive director will continue to uphold this organization’s long tradition of a strong, disciplined fiscal operation, impeccable legal expertise, and aggressive, innovative advocacy to ensure fundamental freedoms and equal protection of the law for all people.”

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2005 to 2013:  Accomplishments Led or Co-Led by the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties during Keenan’s Tenure

  • Successfully challenged the City of Escondido’s rental ban ordinance, which required landlords to screen the immigration status of prospective tenants, with the leadership of legal director David Loy in 2006, as well as led adoption of a state law in 2007 to prohibit any other California cities from passing such an ordinance;
  • Rapid response to mistreatment of immigrants and people of color during the 2007 wildfire recovery, including a report issued ten days after the fires, a state law to limit public employees’ screening for immigration status during a natural disaster, and a guidebook and training on the rights of immigrants during and after a natural disaster;
  • Successful challenge to inhumane overcrowding conditions and denial of medical care to immigration detainees at the San Diego Correctional Facility, run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America;
  • Challenged in court the government’s warrantless NSA spying and lobbied San Diego federal representatives against extension of the PATRIOT Act and FISA Amendments; conducted extensive public education about these and other abuses of power; unearthed domestic spying emanating from an intelligence “fusion center” at Camp Pendleton, including the use of informants to spy on the annual banquet of the Council on American Islamic Relations;
  • Published a 75-page report with Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights on the humanitarian crisis of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, finding that more than 5,000 people have died because of the deadly practices and policies of both governments;
  • Challenged rampant Border Patrol abuse of power and urged for reform of lethal force policies, especially the fatal shooting of rock throwers;
  • Under the direction of now associate director Norma Chavez Peterson, led a “get out the vote” campaign to mobilize Escondido’s Latino vote in the 2012 Election and then establishing a long-term ACLU satellite office in Escondido staffed by a full-time community organizer to continue to respond to residents’ enduring civil liberties violations;
  • Helped mobilize a powerful, broad community response against Arizona’s racial profiling law, SB 1070; seconded a San Diego staff member to Arizona to assist its ACLU affiliate develop litigation challenging the law; and helped organize a strong community response to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning three parts of the law but upholding the “show me your papers” provision;
  • In conjunction with fellow border affiliates, and the generous support of the Price Family Charitable Fund  and Central America and Mexico Migration Alliance, launched the Border Litigation Project staffed by two new attorneys  in San Diego and Tucson, charged with pursuing legal strategies to combat persistent human right abuses at the U.S.- Mexico border;
  • Won a historic ruling  in a class-action lawsuit in which the federal government is now required to provide legal counsel to mentally ill immigrant detainees;
  • Led the effort to secure passage of SB 35, dramatically increasing opportunities for voter registration in the first voluntary expansion of voter registration agencies in California in 18 years;
  • Created a vibrant online presence that included a new website and active Facebook, Twitter (@sdaclu), and YouTube (sandiegoACLU) accounts and aggressive Spanish language communications and outreach; increased the San Diego ACLU’s e-news list from 135 subscribers to approximately 12,000;
  • Fought to ensure education equality, including support for English Learners, implementing the landmark Williams settlement, challenging teacher layoffs at struggling schools, protecting parents and students from unconstitutional school fees, and guaranteeing that all students have access to rigorous curriculum to be prepared for their choice of post-secondary education;
  • Continued the ACLU’s defense of the right to religious freedom in the public sphere as a core principle of our Constitution in both our challenge to the Soledad cross on government property and our challenge to a sweetheart city lease of land to the Boy Scouts who discriminate against gays, atheists and agnostics. The ACLU believes that it is civilians—not governments, legislators, or political majorities—who should have the choice to express their religious beliefs;
  • Fighting for LGBT rights, including fighting for marriage equality and against Proposition 8, promoting the right of LGBT students to be free from continual harassment ; increased ACLU’s contingent in the annual Pride Parade from 25 to well over 100;
  • Keenan served on the executive committee of the Proposition 34 committee, which raised nearly $7 million to replace California’s death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, securing support from 48% of California’s voters;
  • Documented the San Diego ACLU’s rich history, including its founding by city daughter Helen Marston in 1933, its representation of Chula Vista farmer Kajiro Oyama and his son Fred Oyama in the landmark Supreme Court victory Oyama v. California; and its representation in 1960 of Pete Seeger in his refusal to sign an anti-community loyalty oath just to be able to sing in a Hoover High School auditorium; secured an apology from the San Diego school board for its insistence Seeger sign the oath;
  • Conceived and led by communications director Rebecca Rauber, launched a unique and inspiring Constitution Day program, now in its seventh year, to bring the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights to life for thousands of San Diego and Imperial counties middle and high school students in nonpartisan, interactive presentations by hundreds of volunteer attorneys of all practice areas;
  • For more about our work, please visit our website: www.aclusandiego.org