Family Values and Journalism Shaped ACLU of Arizona Director's Life, Leadership
By Eduardo Barraza, Barriozona Magazine Editor,
Alessandra Soler-Meetze, director of the ACLU of Arizona, talks about her beginnings in journalism, her family influences, and her transition from a reporter's job with a major daily to becoming the leader of an strategic affiliate of the national civil liberties organization.Watch VideoPhoenix, Arizona - From family values of hard work and social consciousness, early roots in journalism, and a passion for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Alessandra Soler-Meetze emerges as the leader of a state affiliate of one of the most powerful civil liberties organizations in the United States.
Soler-Meetze (pronounced Metz,) is the Director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, a branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), whose stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Before stepping into this position in what today is perhaps one of the most strategic legal arenas in the country in the struggle for the defense of civil liberties, the life and career of Soler-Meetze’s was shaped by those personal values. Principles that motivate her work and influence her perspective about another set of values: the values of a nation of immigrants, to where some decades ago her parents arrived aiming at a chance for better economic opportunities.
Both of Soler-Meetze’s parents immigrated to the United States at a time when applying for and obtaining a permanent resident card, or “green card,” required meeting a much easier eligibility criteria. Her parents’ desire to improve the economic conditions prevalent back in their home countries, as well as their experience as immigrants, would determine her career path and come to influence and inspire Soler-Meetze’s life.
“My mother had been working from the time she was 9-years old in Brazil and continued to work when (she and her family) came to the United States, so she worked hard,” said Soler-Meetze. “Both (my mom and dad) grew up very poor in Latin American countries; they came to the United States for a better life, seeking economic prosperity. I think these influences helped me appreciate the hard work and the important contribution of, not only immigrants, but the importance of standing up for the working class and the working poor.”
Her father shared not only stories of financial hardships but also about repressive political systems in South America. “My dad always had a tremendous influence on me,” explains Soler-Meetze. “He was born and raised in Argentina. He kind of talked a lot when we were growing up about the wars, the military dictatorships, “Los Desaparecidos” (disappeared persons during the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina,) so I always kind of knew all the dangers that came along with government secrecy, and the regimes that violated the human rights of the people.”
According to Soler-Meetze, she developed an interest in journalism –a profession she always admired early in her life, when she was a teenager. Eventually she would earn a bachelor degree in journalism from the University of Florida.
“I started reporting in my Junior High school paper. I became a journalist after I graduated from college, and I started working full time for The Miami Herald. I think that the media plays a tremendously important role in keeping government officials accountable; I think that was what was attractive me to the journalism profession,” said Soler-Meetze.
Nevertheless, if her parents’ example of hard work and her interest in constitutional rights and journalistic tenets helped to shape her life and career choices, the challenging legal battles to uphold them that lay ahead for her would come to shape her work.
From Reporting the News to Becoming the News
After working for The Miami Herald for two years, Soler-Meetze moved to New Orleans where she began working for the ACLU in February 1999. That was her first position with the ACLU, where she worked “in a tiny little, two-person office,” along then Executive Director Joe Cook.
When asked about the transition from being a journalist to becoming involved with the ACLU of Louisiana, and the differences in the nature of her new job, Soler-Meetze affirms both jobs actually have a very close connection.
“I don’t think that it was very different. For me the ACLU, we’re really known as an organization that defends the First Amendment,” points out Soler-Meetze. “When you think about the ACLU, you think of free speech, freedom of the press, the First Amendment; that is one of our core issues. So freedom of the press, freedom of expression, these are fundamentally very important issues to the organization, so I think that that was not a big leap. I think that what was a big leap is that I went from covering the stories to then try to pitch the stories and being the story.”
For the former Miami Herald’s reporter, working for the ACLU in New Orleans, far from being a detour from her career in journalism, it became a broader avenue to further express her career ideals.
“The ACLU addresses very controversial issues; a lot of our cases (are) high-impact cases, high-profile cases that end up in the newspapers,” said Soler-Meetze. “That was for me a little bit of an adjustment, because I went from actually covering the stories to being part of the stories. I have always respected the role that the media plays, so I think that has helped me adjust and sort of deal with that changing role. That is one of the most important aspects of our work: relaying our issues through the media, trying to dispel myths, trying to give people information about their rights. I think the media has helped us tremendously in getting our message across.”
Later, Soler-Meetze would return to Florida to continue working for the ACLU and dealing with the media. “I went from New Orleans to Miami which is a huge media town, I think almost as busy as it is here (in Arizona,) and in Miami there’s all kinds of issues, high profile issues, there’s culturally-diverse issues; you have different immigrant communities.”
Work in Florida and Moving to Arizona
After her initial tenure with the ACLU in Louisiana, Alessandra Soler-Meetze began working in Florida as the Communications Director for the state’s affiliate. Her role consisted in developing public education campaigns as well as conducting outreach within the various immigrant communities. This job had an educational framework and entailed training volunteers and teaching individuals about their constitutional rights and freedoms. She remained in that position through the end of 2005 before deciding to move to Arizona to head the local ACLU’s affiliate.
“I came here in January of 2006,” said Soler-Meetze. “I started working for the ACLU of Arizona. The irony is that when I was in Florida, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2002 had signed one of the first, if not the first, MOU’s, Memorandum of Understanding, with the Federal government to enforce federal immigration laws. That was when they were really starting to aggressively push these 287 (g) agreements. We have huge, very large migrant communities and farming communities in the West Coast of Florida, and I think that was when we really started mobilizing against these types of agreements.”
Soler-Meetze recalls that about that same time, the nation was dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. She witnessed a big backslash and intolerance against the Muslim community in the United States.
“After 9/11 we had the FBI interviewing people. We had a very aggressive outreach program where we were coordinating attorneys to sit in on interviews with members of the Muslim community. We were addressing immigration issues in Florida as well; we had the (case of the) indefinite detention of Haitian refugees. I think when I moved here (Arizona) all of these issues really grew exponentially, and the concerns and the abuses were much more dramatic and so much here than what we have seen in Florida. To me it was really shocking.”
Among the reasons she moved from Florida to Arizona, Soler-Meetze cites the strong presence of a Latino community, the weather, and the culture. However, she would also come across an unfriendly social climate in Arizona, as well as a looming socio-political storm.
“When I came here and I realized just how hostile and anti-immigrant it was, I think that it was to me, I think (it) is still, difficult,” reveals Soler-Meetze. “(On a Halloween night) I went trick-or-treating with my son and someone in my neighborhood said, since I was trick-or-treating with my son, “Hurry up! The Mexicans are coming…” This is in front of my son; I think my son was like 4-years old and he said, “Mom, why did they say that?” That was just terrific to hear that from my neighbor. At the time my husband is like, “You don’t want to start problems with your neighbors…” but for me it was just… I couldn’t believe that this person was saying that in front of my son! So, that type of xenophobia when –my goodness! – thirty percent of the population here is Latino.”
Soler-Meetze, who thanks to her Argentinean father and her Brazilian mother is fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, is married to Richard, a computer programmer. The Meetzes have three young children.
“It was shocking to me (coming to Arizona)”, she admits. “I raise my kids to speak Portuguese and Spanish. Dual language programs here are not funded in the state; they are not readily accessible. This is important to me; it is important for me to raise my kids to speak three languages; that’s how I was raised.”
The director of the ACLU of Arizona acknowledges that certainly racism exists in Florida, but she also thinks Latinos have more political power there.
“I think here we’ll definitely get there,” she projects. “We have a lot of work to do to sort of change the powers that be, the power structure, and certainly in the Arizona legislature.”