ACLU-WA Executive Director Michele Storms wins 2023 Goldmark Award for Distinguished Service

Tuesday, February 28, 2023
The Legal Foundation of Washington honored ACLU of Washington Executive Director Michele Storms with the 2023 Goldmark Award for Distinguished Service. Here is a transcript of her address to attendees of the LFW annual luncheon:

To be honest, I became a lawyer because I was angry.

I was full of righteous anger because in my life and in my work and volunteering I experienced and witnessed inhumanity and inequity. In the 1980s, before I went to law school, this country was in recession, with significant unemployment and financial struggle for many people. I worked with unhoused people. I saw that people of all ages were struggling to find work or keep work, to find housing or keep housing, to find food and feed themselves and their families, and I thought, why are we as a people tolerating this? How is this OK? Because the more I talked to people and understood how their circumstances got so dire, as I explored my own family stories about the struggles we’d overcome, it was clear to me there must be something missing.

So, I marched my 20-something-year-old self to law school with one plan in mind: To become a civil legal aid lawyer and join the ranks of the soldiers fighting for justice, most particularly for those whom society has deemed unworthy of voice or access.

There are many of you who come to this event every year. You come here because you are concerned about the same things I was concerned about decades ago. Our laws and policies and systemic exclusion of too many beloved humans is still a problem, and a worsening one. The U.S. Census Bureau reports 37.9 mil­lion people in poverty in the U.S. as of 2021. About 10% of Washingtonians live in poverty and, according to our most recent state civil legal needs study from 2015, 70% of those households experience at least one serious civil legal need annually yet more than 75% of those people do not get assistance.
These problems are worse for people who are Black, Indigenous, immigrant, for people living with disabilities, or any number of intersecting identities.
We not only historically, but presently, exclude the voices of people from identities made marginalized by decades of oppression and exclusion in the U.S. We have historically and presently chosen not to listen to the voices of people who are in the middle of these problems and have excellent solutions but rarely get a seat at any table designed to make change.

To just make the implicit explicit, these problems are not created by or the fault of those enduring them. There is substantial information and evidence of our historical practices which directly show how many of our country’s systems were in fact designed to exclude or prevent certain populations from succeeding and living prosperously in this country.  Policies over decades make it harder to climb out of poverty conditions. Our country’s very founding and some policies that follow through to today serve to oppress Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. The harms of poverty, incarceration, school dropout rates, and so much more, are not accidental.

Maybe you are also angry and that is part of why you are here. And maybe also, it is the hope you have for something better that brings you here. We must confront the truth of the struggles of our times, and as people with privilege we cannot turn away.

I’m still troubled by the conditions and suffering that so many experience. And that’s why I have chosen to continue to work to do something about it, to work toward a society and legal system that is truly fair, equitable, a society that centers the belonging and humanity of everyone regardless of their identity and lives up to the constitutional promises of justice for all.

I am looking at myself and at you and asking us to pay attention to the rise in hatred and exclusion – anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia, racism, erasure of Indigenous peoples, anti-Asian hate, anti-immigrant hate. The full panoply of meanness. I know it sometimes seems hopeless. It may seem like we are helpless. But we are not. We have choices to make… and we can no longer wait to make them.

I am looking at myself and at you and asking us to pay attention to the fragility of our democracy. There is active voter suppression happening all across the country and especially in Southern states. There is a narrative nationwide that invites distrust in our democratic systems, instead of doing the vital work to build it up and make it stronger so that it well serves all people.

I am looking at myself and at you and asking us to also pay attention to our economic policies. On the national and local scenes there is rarely even any reference to poverty. We cannot alleviate the conditions of poverty when we pretend it does not exist. We live in one of the wealthiest countries, yet 13 million children live in poverty in the U.S. We have choices to make. Another 15 million senior citizens live in poverty or food insecure households.

We are literally and actually rich in this country and we still let this happen.

We have a choice to make. The choice to work for good, to maintain hope even in the face of challenge.

I am looking at myself and you and asking us to pay attention to governmentally sanctioned violence, disproportionally administered on Black and Brown bodies in unnecessary and violent interactions with law enforcement that too often lead to death. And too rarely lead to any accountability. Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Charleena Lyles, John T. Williams, and so many more that it would take all day to say all their names. Faced with this, how could we choose to look away?

In Flint, Michigan, in the pueblos of New Mexico, and for too many farmworkers, Black families and Indigenous and low-income families there is still no clean drinking water. We can’t look away!
My now far from 20-something-year-old self is still asking why do we still tolerate these things? We should not.

So beyond being here, giving your dollars and efforts to the Legal Foundation of Washington (LFW), I really need all of us, from whatever role we play whether as lawyers, judges, educators, court personnel, policy analysts, lawmakers, journalists, students… whoever we are, to pay attention. Be courageous.

Support legal aid. Support the efforts of grassroots movements, as so many of our legal aid organizations and the LFW are actively doing. Listen to and join forces with those most impacted – don’t seek to lead but offer your support. Then, and only then, take action. Speak up, keep righteous anger alive, for so long as people are suffering. Choose not to look away. Choose to face the problems before us. Choose a better future for all of us. We have the privilege and the power to build a better world, if we only choose to use it.

Because we cannot do anything alone, I want to take a moment to share my gratitude for those who chose to support me in my journey.

Thank you so much to the Legal Foundation of Washington for this award. I am humbled and blown away to stand in the ranks of the amazing people like Carl Maxey, Greg Dallaire, Lupe Gamboa, John McKay, Lem Howell, Pat Arthur, and Annie Lee among other stars.  And of course, Charles Goldmark himself – a formidable lawyer and visionary for justice whose life was cut brutally and tragically short by the very kinds of hatred I described earlier.

The luckiest thing that could have ever happened to me was getting my first legal aid job in Washington state at Evergreen Legal Services. So many people shaped my worldview and my practice: Ada Shen Jaffe, Kim Prochnau, my first legal assistant Sally Weir who really taught me all the most! Peter Greenfield, Steve Frederickson, John Midgley, Gail Turner, Michael Mirra, Debi Perluss, Jim Bamberger, Dan Ford, Aurora Martin, Janet Varon, Denise Read, Bev Miller, Laura Contreras, the late Robert Adelman and so many more.

I am so grateful to my family members, and also to my beautiful colleagues at ACLU-WA who are just relentless about achieving equity and justice. I could have no better partners.

To close I say again: Be courageous.

Be in the fight. Take care of yourselves please, so that we are resourced for the fights, but do not give in to conditions that you know are not fair. It is too easy to become apathetic or desensitized. If we are in this room we are very, very lucky.

And as Peter Parker’s gentle Uncle Ben Parker said, "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Thank you so much. Let’s keep turning righteous anger into justice.
Visit our Events page to watch a recording of the event. 

Photo credit: Jack Storms 

Image 1: ACLU-WA Executive Director Michele Storms
Image 2: Michele Storms with Sean Davis, LFW Board President & Principal Corporate Counsel at Microsoft
Image 3: Michele Storms with Keynote Speaker Twyla Carter, CEO and Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society