Rana Elmir is the acting Executive Director of American Civil Liberties Union. She is a proud and ferocious advocate for marginalized communities. All her initiatives create spaces with equal and equitable opportunities, and is why Rana Elmir is one of our 2021 Muslim Women to Watch.
Muslim Girl: You started off as a news reporter before becoming Executive Director of ACLU; what inspired you to transition into a legislative role?
Rana Elmir: My family came to the U.S. in 1986, leaving Lebanon during the civil war and landing in Dearborn, Michigan. I was the youngest of four, and we each took turns through the years translating for my parents, and serving as their advocates. I learned quickly in my teenage years that disdain and disrespect were universal languages. Even if we didn’t translate the slurs, disrespect or mean-spirited quips, my parents understood. These difficult moments were my training ground as an advocate. I had hoped that I could bridge the gap by becoming a journalist and telling the important stories of people like my parents. Then 9/11 happened, and everything changed for me. Immediately, we learned the depth and power of fear as the U.S. government began to subjugate Muslims — Muslim and immigrant men were being disappeared and deported by the U.S. government, hate crimes were on the rise, and our communities were under constant surveillance. It was this new reality that catapulted me from a journalist to an activist. I didn’t just want to tell the stories, I wanted to change our reality.
MG: How does your job allow you to advocate and represent marginalized communities?
RE: At the ACLU of Michigan, we are concerned with whether our nation’s doors are open both metaphorically, and in reality to all. We work in the courts, our legislatures, and in the community to ensure that justice does not come to mean ‘just us’ – as in just the wealthy, just men, just the privileged, and just the powerful. But it instead we work to ensure that it means ‘all of us’ – as in our collective communities and community in the broadest sense. We work tirelessly to ensure that all those who are marginalized have the irrevocable right to freedom and self-determination. Whether it’s reducing the prison and jail population, achieving full equality for the LGBTQ community, challenging inhumane immigration policies, or ending unjust laws that strip people of their fundamental right to vote, we take up the toughest civil rights and liberties issues to defend all individuals from government abuse and overreach.
MG: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as Executive Director of the ACLU?
RE: The Trump administration’s relentless cruelty was the biggest challenge both personally and professionally. The assaults on the humanity of BIPOC communities, immigrants, trans people, Muslims and every other marginalized or minoritized communities were unpredictable, constant, and on all fronts at once. He was a walking constitutional crisis, ruthless and lawless in his actions and motives. However, the movement built across organizations, across differences, and across communities is the real story of this time. Activists understood that while uncertainty and fear remain inescapable for far too many, it is our job to ensure that fear does not impede our progress, but instead illuminates the obstacles that are in our way so that we may overcome them. We now face the challenge of complacency after Trump. We can’t simply turn back the clock four years and think that’s progress. We must be laser focused on repairing the damage of the Trump years, but boldly moving forward, demanding progress and justice for all.
MG: What is the best advice you received and why?
RE: When I decided to leave journalism and move into social justice, I first looked to the Arab American and Muslim communities for purpose. Those first few events and meetings were tough. Men dominated the space and I was younger than most in the room by about 30 years. I had a lot of heart, but was also woefully inexperienced. Slowly, three community leaders made me see that I had a place. At each event or meeting, they would say hello, ask for my thoughts, and make space for me and other young people under the crush of the louder more experienced voices. I credit these experiences to sticking it out in the movement, but also to my deep and abiding love and commitment to our Arab, Muslim, and immigrant communities. In those simple moments where they said hello or asked for my opinion, they taught me the important lesson of radical inclusion — ensuring that everyone who comes into our space with the purpose to do good is seen, heard, and made to feel that they belong. I have carried this lesson with me for nearly 20 years, and try to apply it in every space.
MG: What do you like to do in your free time?
RE: I try to be outside or in nature every chance I get. I like to bird watch, garden, and spend time with my family, especially my niece and nephew who recently proclaimed that I am ‘a big kid with adult responsibilities.’
Meet more of our 2021 Muslim Women to Watch here.