Ally for justice

Advocate works to protect civil rights gains, spur progress.

By Ret Boney

Armed with a degree in sociology and Chinese in the late 1960s, Nan Aron dreamed of a career in diplomacy.

“I was told by people across the country that being a woman and being Jewish would always be a deterrent to my working at the State Department,” she says.

So she went to law school, and today is the founding president of the Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based association of social justice groups that works for a fair and independent judicial branch and helps nonprofits and foundations more effectively influence public policy.

Major accomplishments of the Alliance, with a staff of 35 and an annual budget of $5.5 million, include its leadership in defeating the nomination Robert Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987, and publishing the first guide showing nonprofits how to be advocates without running afoul of the IRS.

A native of New York City, Aron has always been involved in “progressive causes,” she says, in high school as a counselor for the Urban League and at a camp for underprivileged girls, and in college as a Vietnam War protest organizer.

In the 60s and 70s, she worked on behalf of several social justice organizations, including the Cleveland Legal Aid Society and the national prison project of the American Civil Liberties Union, representing prisoners throughout the U.S. when their rights were jeopardized.

Nan Aron

Job: President, Alliance for Justice, Washington, D.C.

Born: 1948, New York City

Family: Husband, Dr. Bernard Arons; three children, ages 28, 26 and 23

Education: B.A., sociology and Chinese, Oberlin College; J.D., Case Western Reserve University

Inspiration: College and law students, “because of the energy and commitment I see among people of the next generation.”

Hobbies:  Tennis, hiking, reading

Favorite book this year: “Middlesex,” by Jeffrey Eugenides

“It was a time when corporations and right-wing foundations were trying to undo much of the progress made during the 60s and 70s in civil rights, environmental protections and workers’ rights,” Aron says.

So she called about 30 leaders of public interest and civil rights groups throughout the U.S., including the Consumers Union and the Natural Resources Defense Council, encouraging them to come together to “preserve access to justice and strengthen the ability of progressive organizations to influence public policy.”

Twenty called back, signed up and helped launch the Alliance in 1979, with Aron at the helm.

“There was a very important need for progressive advocacy groups to form an association to preserve the gains they made and push for additional reforms that would help strengthen their case,” says Aron.

Today, the Alliance has 69 member groups, all working to make sure voices from the nonprofit sector are added to the debate on social-justice policy through programs that focus on federal judges and advocacy by nonprofits, foundations and college students.

The Alliance’s judicial selection project, which monitors federal judicial appointments to make sure nominees are independent and qualified, will be busy over the next few years, Aron says.

“The Supreme Court looms as one of the most important issues facing our country,” she says.  “Given how sharply divided the federal bench is now, one vote can make a huge difference in our lives in so many ways.  We will be working to keep extremists off the court.”

In the nonprofit arena, the Alliance helps groups understand how they can advocate for their causes and participate in the political process without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, and Aron says the group will be working to promote new laws and rule changes that help nonprofits do that better.

She is also publishing a guide for trustees, staff and directors of foundations, called “Investing in Change: A Funder’s Guide to Supporting Advocacy,” to help them serve their constituents better by understanding tax and accounting rules that affect advocacy.

“Now is a time for courage,” says Aron. “It’s very important over the next few years that both nonprofits and foundations exercise their first amendment rights, voice their concerns and speak out to influence government policies.”

As federal spending is squeezed, the nonprofit community must make sure that government continues to provide critical services to underrepresented people, Aron says. “It’s a time when foundations need to show some courage and backbone and fund those organizations that are engaged in influencing public policy.”

But Aron is optimistic about the future, in large part because of the passion and dedication she sees in younger people as they take on social and economic justice work.

“We never fully appreciate what the next generation is able to do in terms of questioning our thinking and pressing on to making good change,” she says.

On the Alliance’s 25th anniversary, Aron is as passionate as ever.

“Social change is a lifelong pursuit,” she says.  “You’re always battling to even up the odds.”

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