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Claire Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU, to retire



If anyone know what it means to do good, it’s Claire Gastañaga.

The executive director of The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia announced she will retire from her position effective March 31, 2021, or as soon as a successor is found.

Her announcement was specifically timed to avoid the impression that her departure was influenced by the outcome of the upcoming election, according to her resignation letter.

“I’m profoundly grateful for the eight-plus years that I’ve been honored to serve as the executive director,” Gastañaga said in a statement. “But now is the time to make room for new leadership while continuing to be an agent for change in Virginia in a way that is authentically me.”

Gastañaga, 71, was hired in 2012 to replace Kent Willis, who served as executive director for 25 years.

While she was the executive director, the ACLU of Virginia said its accomplishments include: successful litigation for LGBTQ rights; passage of a law requiring police to get a warrant before using a drone for surveillance and obtaining real-time cell phone tracking data; and the publication of reports on women in the criminal legal system, solitary confinement, the use of body cameras by police and the power of prosecutors.

“Over her eight-year tenure leading the ACLU of Virginia, her expertise as a civil rights attorney and her passion as an advocate for equality and civil liberties have inspired both the staff and the board and has generated positive change throughout the commonwealth,” said Steve Levinson, president of the ACLU of Virginia board of directors, in a statement.

During her tenure the staff grew from six to more than 20; its membership grew from 8,500 to more than 28,000; and it now has more than 200,000 supporters, according to the ACLU.

Her decision was influenced by some of the most significant events of 2020 – notably the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

In her resignation letter to Levinson, Gastañaga said she has been contemplating “retiring” as executive director since Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian announced his resignation from the board of the company as an answer to the question his daughter might ask following Floyd’s murder: “What did you do?”

Ohanian therefore resigned from the board to make room for a Black director.

“I am ready to make room for new leadership to step in and step up now because the ACLU of Virginia is very well positioned to meet any challenges ahead, whatever they are.”

— Claire Gastañaga

“I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now. To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop,” Ohanian wrote in a tweet on June 5.

“That made me think about whether I should step aside from this leadership position in order to make room for the next generation of leadership at the ACLU,” Gastañaga wrote. “I am ready to make room for new leadership to step in and step up now because the ACLU of Virginia is very well positioned to meet any challenges ahead, whatever they are.”

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 further pushed Gastañaga to consider stepping down.

“Justice Ginsburg’s death at age 86 accelerated my thinking in significant part because I  am  only  15  years  younger  than  she  was  at  her  death. Fifteen years is not a lot of time in absolute terms and, in relative terms, it is almost no time at all,” Gastañaga wrote.

Gastañaga has a diverse professional background immersed in areas of education, public policy and civil rights. Notably, she served as the chief of staff and special counsel to the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and was the first woman Chief Deputy Attorney General of Virginia. She has also been a lobbyist for organizations including Equality Virginia, the Virginia Coalition for Latino Organizations and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.

“She’s done a terrific job as executive director,” said Richmond attorney Gerald Zerkin, who met Gastañaga during her time in the attorney general’s office between 1986 and 1994. “The reasons for her retirement, are very impressive,,, And I think that’s a terrific rationale for deciding it’s time to go.”

Gastañaga says will spend her “retirement” playing an active role in electing the next generation of Virginia’s statewide leaders and to make the commonwealth a place where friends and family will feel valued and loved for who they are.

Her goals for retirement are much the same as they were during her time at the ACLU:

  • To continue to move the state away from its racially unjust history,
  • To continue the work to assure racial justice at the ballot box and in Virginia’s criminal legal system,
  • To protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, and
  • To erase remaining barriers to people’s access to abortion and basic reproductive health care.

“I will not be leaving the work, just this workplace,” Gastañaga wrote.