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In the Balance: Kary Moss

December 4, 2018

Kary Moss, a class of ’88 graduate, is laser-focused on democracy. She led the ACLU of Michigan when the Flint water crisis seeped into public consciousness, supporting grassroots organizing in its most fundamental form. She worked alongside RBG as a staff attorney for the Justice’s Women’s Rights Project. And now she has returned to NYC as the ACLU’s new Director of Affiliate Support and Nationwide Initiatives. She is also married to Doug Baker, class of ’87 and an appellate criminal defense attorney, and mother of Jessa Baker-Moss, now 28. Here, she tells us how she gets it done.

On her typical morning

I love my early morning exercise time and guard it and good coffee first thing. For the last 30 years, I’ve driven every day at least an hour to Detroit and used that time to think, listen to podcasts, or get phone calls out of the way. With this new position, I will have a short commute or a long walk from downtown Brooklyn to the Financial District and will have to find other quiet time to think.


On leading ACLU of Michigan in the investigation of Flint’s water supply in 2014

Helping to uncover the water crisis in Flint was a transformative experience both professionally and personally. The ACLU of Michigan became involved as part of a larger effort to investigate the consequences of the state imposition of emergency managers over financially troubled communities and, in so doing, eliminating democracy at the most local level. In Michigan, this had stark racial justice consequences. At one point, over half of the African American population was living in a city controlled by an emergency manager who had complete authority over all decisions.  

We understood that we could not successfully mount a legal challenge to the law itself and had no chance of persuading the legislature to repeal the law. So we set out to discover what happened in cities governed by emergency managers by hiring an investigative reporter, Curt Guyette. He began investigating the complaints of residents and the state’s water tests which, we discovered, had been doctored. That work merged with an organic an alliance of Flint residents, scientists, media, and attorneys who came together without knowing exactly where it would lead.  Everyone played an indispensable role in uncovering the crisis and then forcing a complete replacement of the lead pipes through a $100 million settlement agreement with the State.

The experience reinforces the importance of working close to the ground and listening carefully to affected communities. It also is a perfect example of how business expertise transplanted onto government can have horrific unintended consequences when the financial bottom line is the driver of decisions that affect public health. And, it is a perfect example of the dangers of insularity – that is, when government officials (or anyone!) only listen to a limited number of voices they will, inevitably, make poor decisions.


On how she stays motivated to fight for what she believes in

Winning helps (!) I’ve been especially inspired by the grassroots activism that has emerged following the 2016 Presidential election. I haven’t seen anything like it during my career and it has created real opportunities. The number of women and people of color running for office has been energizing.  

In Michigan, we knew we had a chance to protect democracy and guard against voter suppression by launching a voting rights ballot initiative that included same-day registration and no excuse absentee voting.  These, and the other policies in the proposal have the potential to increase turnout by 2-9% or 400,000 votes in a state where the President won by only 10,000+ votes. Our national office made a significant financial investment out of the gate which empowered us to build a strong coalition, get it on the ballot, and win by a whopping 67% statewide and in 80 of 83 counties.  It’s success moved Michigan from the back of the pack to the front on November 6.

The ACLU’s greatest strength is its network of 54 state affiliates, the 1,100+ staff who work out of the state offices, and the partnerships the state offices cultivate with community activists.  Our on the ground presence makes the organization capable of responding quickly and forcefully. As a multi-issue organization, we have incredible expertise across the organization that can be leveraged everywhere. While resources vary from state to state, the states can really set the agenda. And the talent and resources in the organization mean that we are always capable of meeting new challenges.


On clerking at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit after law school

I understood early in my career that I would have a chance to see, firsthand, the best and worst of lawyering. I don’t believe clerkships are essential though; I do think it’s important to find supervisors and colleagues who will set a standard of excellence as lawyers, writers, critical thinkers, and leaders.


On her work as an ACLU staff attorney for its Women’s Rights Project founded by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I had interned at the WRP before and during law school and believed in the work.  When I began I was assigned to work primarily on cases that involved the arrest of pregnant women for alcohol or drug dependency. I quickly learned the importance of building and working in coalitions that included the public health community. And that experience shaped my approach to always build bridges across disciplines in any social justice work.

I love that RBG has become a cultural icon. For me, her legacy is very much about the value of innovative thinking when trying to shape and change culture. She understood that dismantling gender bias required convincing men that it harmed them. And she understood that lawsuits alone can’t solve complex social problems. What they can do is give voice to the voiceless and challenge cultural stereotypes publicly. She was patient and hunkered down for the fight.


On how she spends her downtime

Love being with my daughter, yoga, knitting and some binge-worthy tv shows which I shall keep to myself because people get judgy.


On the decision to serve on the Detroit News Editorial Page Advisory Board

The Detroit News has the reputation of being the more conservative paper in Michigan. I was honored to be invited to join because I think it is important to challenge and be challenged. I learned a lot and developed relationships that I very much value.

In addition to subscribing to every paper that we can, I try to take heart that the attacks on a free press have created a teachable moment for the next generation about democracy, the First Amendment, and the sanctity of science and data.


On what she will do at her new position at the ACLU

I will lead a department whose staff members develop and implement initiatives and programs that strengthen and maintain the connections between the ACLU and its 54 affiliates as a cohesive nationwide organization. We work to advance the ACLU’s state and federal litigation and advocacy, build their capacity, and help ensure the organization’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion is furthered across the country. I will also lead efforts to share knowledge, talent, and skill across the organization, hoping to build the next generation of civil rights leaders and position the organization for future challenges.



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